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8/1/2014 8:21:00 AM
Director, a Georgetown grad, puts 'a lot of myself into my movies'
Catholic News Service photo
Director Mike Cahill, center, works with actor Michael Pitt, white shirt, on location in India on the set of
Catholic News Service photo
Director Mike Cahill, center, works with actor Michael Pitt, white shirt, on location in India on the set of "I Origins." Cahill is a Catholic and graduate of Georgetown University in Washington.
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Mike Cahill, a Georgetown University graduate and director of the new drama "I Origins," asked an interviewer he knew was Catholic: "What did you think of the film? I'm Catholic. What did the story make you feel?"

Cahill almost can't help it. "I put a lot of myself into my movies, spiritually, philosophically speaking," he said during a July 23 interview in Washington. He was in town to promote the movie.

"I Origins" is tough to describe in a nutshell, but the sci-fi-tinged drama examines what might happen if everyone on the planet had their irises scanned.

The story is told through the eyes of Ian Gray (Michael Pitt of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"). He is an atheist scientist whose research into eye evolution is done in part to disprove the existence of God -- only to have his assumptions upended. He learns the irises of his long-dead fiancee in a worldwide iris database are reported to have been scanned three months ago in India.

Cahill said he uses sci-fi as the hook to understand more about the human person and the human condition.

"I do think sci-fi is a great way to look at something human, to look at our fears, to look at our desires, our fear of death, our fear of loss," he told Catholic News Service. "The construction of this narrative says, 'Maybe there's a version (of life) where you don't have to be so afraid of death if you are, or you don't have to be so hurt by loss' -- although you should be hurt by loss -- but those are certainly primal, human things that we feel."

The "I" in the title is for the letter and not the Roman numeral for one. And "Origins" is meant to imply that the movie is "a prequel to a sequel that hasn't been made yet," Cahill said, and not a reference to Origen, a prolific third-century priest and scholar best known for his Scripture exegesis -- and who some scholars in the 1970s asserted believed in reincarnation.

"In this movie we'd never use the word 'reincarnation.' Never. It's got too much baggage, It's too complicated, it's got too much history." Cahill said. However, the movie does use a term with which Origen was familiar from Greece: transmigration of the soul.

"We use science to look at a phenomenon," he continued. "It calls into question that big question that I was interested in in 'Another Earth' (his first full-length movie in 2011) again, which I like to look at in my movies, which is: Who am I? What is our identity comprised of? Is it our memories? Our experiences? Is it our phobias, is it our desires? How  do you pin down a self If you are changing every single day? It's amazing that we have senses of self, and yet it's a real abstract concept."

Iris scanning was developed in the 1980s and is used at some high-security facilities, some airports, and for newborns at some hospitals. India, Cahill reported, is undertaking a campaign to scan the irises of each one of its billion-plus citizens.

"Indirectly, it's kind of useful to combat poverty , because it allows people to open bank accounts, start small businesses, it allows people to vote. It facilitates those kinds of things because you never forget your eyeball and you never leave it in your pocket," he said. "But then it lends for that wonderful plausibility, if you were looking for identical people, India -- with a billion people, a seventh of the world's population -- there's a one-seventh chance."

There is a coda following the closing credits that could turn "I Origins" from sci-fi to "sci-frigh" -- for frightening. A researcher with access to the existing iris database gives the OK to go full steam ahead in scanning photographs of the dead with the possibility of finding another John Kennedy, another Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- or even another Adolf Hitler.

"What would you do," Cahill asked "if you were that other Hitler?"

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