Oprah Winfrey’s new seven-part series Belief explores religion in a way never seen before on screen.
The show, which starts this Sunday and broadcasts each night for a week on OWN, explores the meaning of faith and human beings’ differing paths to spiritual fulfilment.
From Christianity to Islam, it delves deep into the big questions that dominate all our lives — wherever we come from.
The result is one of the most captivating shows ever to make it on to our screens.
In an exclusive interview with Monsters & Critics, executive producer Jonathan Sinclair told how Oprah decided to create the series because religion “needs to be talked about”.
Sinclair, who has worked with Oprah at Harpo Productions for 20 years, added: “We peel back the layers to see what people believe and find we have far more things in common that unite us rather than divide us. This kind of work is closest to Oprah’s heart, no bones about it.
“After one of our screenings a Muslim woman stood up and said she was glad to have something to show to her children on television which explains what they believe and why they raise them this way. She said we captured the heart of it.
“An evangelical woman said it was the first time her beliefs had been captured and not made fun of.”
In Belief we meet everyone from a 13-year-old boy celebrating his Bar Mitzvah in Hungary and Californian pro skateboarder Jordan Richter who converts to Islam and attends the Hajj at Mecca, to evangelical Christians contemplating marriage, a New York Hindu woman strengthening in faith in the Ganges and an Australian aboriginal elder teaching his chosen successor, a young boy.
Monsters & Critics: Belief never lapses into sentimentality. How did you avoid it?
Jonathan Sinclair: It wasn’t a conscious thing, but we picked the right people who told their story in an honest and truthful way, peeled back the layers. We had no preconceived story; we just let the stories come. The people tell you why they’re leaning towards certain beliefs in this time in their lives.
We stuck to their stories. It was straight up ‘this is who I am and where I’m going’ and we respected that process. We took our time.
The production values are stellar, beyond what we normally see on television. It moves at its own pace. It’s so well made.
JS: All the cinematographers and directors from different parts of the globe adhered to the same style. These guys are very talented. They know stories have to breathe. Everyone bought in but Oprah set this imperative mandate that the emphasis had to be on the honesty in the stories.
How did you find your subjects?
JS: It was a huge process. It took an army of people over three years. We had boots on the ground in various countries, we knew the stories we wanted.
A Bar Mitzvah happened in Budapest that we stumbled upon but we knew we wanted it on the strength of the geography, the history of the synagogue, and the subject’s parents.
There was always a right way to tell the stories in the series. There are ways to find people around the world, it just takes time. We had the time.
Mainstream media seems unwilling to cover faith when these issues are meaningful to most of the world’s population. How did you decide to take the chance?
JS: Working for Oprah for twenty years has been a joy. We are unique in that we’re willing to take the swing.
This needs to be talked about and we’ll worry about things like ratings and marketing and that stuff later. Oprah sets a very high bar on quality and wants the storytellers to resonate with people.
At first people might not think it would work. It’s tough to compete with unscripted things out there but with this content and the buzz, people are inclined to seek out this information and entertainment.
The timing is also right because people are starting to care and talk about faith especially with today’s news.
It is a brilliant and brave series. It obviously took an independent thinker like Oprah who has always been open about her spirituality, and who has the means and the platform, to make it.
JS: More than the money, there is so much trust in Oprah. Her platform is unique. There’s no board or directors, it’s just one person with cred and a strong relationship with the audience who can say “hey look, this moves me, come on this journey with me”.
She takes it very seriously. Oprah doesn’t go out there very often but Belief meant a lot to her.
What was the spark?
JS: Peacefulness. When we screened the series, people willingly spoke out about their beliefs. If we put these things out into the world, those conversations will take place in the workplace and at the corner coffee shop.
We couldn’t cover all faiths in Belief, but there are nuances so that even if your belief system isn’t highlighted there is still something for you. Feedback at screenings shows us that people are receiving it in the intention with which we created it.
Did you find that covering the subject of love and seekers and religion had an effect on you personally?
JS: A thousand percent. I’ve been married 20-plus years and have two teenage sons and we have had those dinner time conversations about what we believe and why and where we are from and how other faith practices are different from what we know and what they believe.
The beautiful thing is coming after us – the next generations won’t have the corner church idea of religion. They will view the world differently with all the information they have. Belief falls in line with this. The focus will not be adversarial but accepting.
Watch the trailer for Belief below
Belief premieres this Sunday, October 18, at 8pm ET/PT on OWN. Visit the official site for more information on the show.
Will you be watching? Let us know in the comments.