Thursday, April 2, 2009

God and the Cinema Part IV: The “New” Documentaries

Unlike many people, I absolutely love documentaries. I know that when many people think of documentaries they think of those drying, boring films that they make you watch in school, or are constantly playing on the history channel. I would bet that most people out there cannot name very many documentaries that weren’t directed by Michael Moore, or don’t feature penguins or Al Gore. Those are really the only documentaries that have truly broken through in the last decade or so. But there have been a lot of great documentaries this decade – far greater than any of the films I have alluded to. And many of those films have dealt with religion in one way or another. This piece will look at some of the best, and one of the worst, documentaries this decade that have dealt with God.

One of the best known of these films was 2006’s Jesus Camp directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. The film looked at a summer camp, where the children of Evangelicals go every summer to learn about God. Many are “born again”; although at that age I’m not sure what that means. The movie is scary because of the ferocity in which some of these kids, and many of the adults, practice their faith. What is the point of scaring children to death with talk of sin, and how they’re going to hell? Why must they “break” the kids to the point where they are crying? Why are they dragging 10 year olds into a debate on abortion? Jesus Camp examines an issue I’ve always found fascinating and frightening about religion and that is the need of some to scare their children into believing. Shouldn’t religion and God be something that provides comfort and peace in people’s lives, not something you do because you’re scared of going to hell? And I am the only one who had chills run up my spine when one woman said that she wants America’s children to be willing to fight and die for Jesus the way many Muslim children appear to be willing to fight and die for Allah? True, the filmmakers certainly have an agenda, that they make all too clear by cutting over to Air America broadcasts where the radio host talks about how the fundamentalists are taking over the country (these segments were not needed in the film, and weaken it overall, by underlining the films points too strongly). And it’s also true that many of the kids in the movie appear to be very healthy and happy – but a few of them, while they’re just scary.

Personally, I think George Ratliff’s Hell House (2001), a much lesser known film, delves into Jesus Camp territory even better than that film did. Hell House is about a church group who every Halloween puts on a Haunted House – but it’s a religious haunted house, so instead rooms full of ghosts and vampires, we get rooms devoted to suicide, homosexuality and abortion, where of course all the offenders end up in hell at the end of the “skit”. What makes Hell House a more effective documentary than Jesus Camp (which is still very good), is that the filmmakers don’t judge the participants in their documentary – they simply show them. It is quite possible that the participants in this documentary are actually fans of the film, whereas I don’t think you can say that about Jesus Camp.

A film that looks at a similar situation, but of a different religion, is Lucy Walker’s Devil’s Playground (2003), about Amish teenagers. When Amish teenagers reach a certain age, they are encouraged to spend a year or two outside of their communities, embracing the modern world, before they make a decision as to whether or not to rejoin their communities. The teenagers in this movie certainly do embrace the modern world – they do drugs, drink heavily, have sex, drive around in fast cars, and essentially act like normal teenagers. Like Hell House, the movie doesn’t judge its subjects; it simply sits back and observes them. This is a fascinating documentary about a group, the Amish that we rarely get any insight into. I respect the Amish for not simply pretending the modern world isn’t out there, and letting their children make the decision for themselves. Most of them come back to the group, but one wonders if some more would be tempted not to, if doing so didn’t mean giving up all contact with their families.

One of the worst things that ever happened to the Catholic Church in America was the clergy molestation scandal that came to light in the 1990s. It wasn’t so much that some priests had molested children – there are people from all walks of life who are pedophiles, we just hear about more priests because it’s more sensationalistic – but because the church itself worked hard to cover up the incidents. Time and again, they convinced families not to press charges, not to go public, and gave them assurances that the priests were getting the help they needed and would not be placed around children anymore. In reality, these priests were just shunted off to another parish, and set free to abuse another group of children. The scandal went so high up, that Pope Benedict had to ask for immunity from prosecution in the case before he could visit America. He received it.

The two best documentaries I have seen on the clergy molestation scandal are Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil and Kirby Dick’s Twist of Faith. The two films essentially look at the flip side of the same coin. Dick’s documentary concentrates on the victims of the scandal. All grown up now, Tony Comes still struggles with what his Priest did him as a child. He finds support from other victims, and his loving wife, but it only helps so much. He will always be plagued with his memories. Deliver Us From Evil, an even more powerful film, somehow convinces a Priest convicted of being a pedophile to talk to the camera. Father Oliver O’Grady is a screen villain who makes your skin absolutely crawl. When he smirks into the camera that he has already confessed his sins, and therefore been forgiven and will go to heaven, it made me want to puke. The film does interview some of the victims, and many have had their faith stolen from them by O’Grady, and their stories remind you of Comes’ in Twist of Faith, but its O’Grady that makes this film one of the best of the decade.

Another film about the evils of the Catholic Church was Constantine’s Sword, based on the book by James Carroll, where he explores his own faith, and what led him to first become a Catholic Priest, and then leave the Priesthood. The film basically concentrates on the historic role that the Catholic Church play in the persecution of the Jewish people, from its beginning right up through the Holocaust, and to Pope Benedict’s reinstitution of an Easter Pray retired after Vatican II, which called for the conversion of the Jews people. Constantine’s Sword is certainly not as immersive an experience as many of the other documentaries – Caroll narrates it himself and he is a bit boring – but it is full of fascinating information.

If Caroll’s documentary focuses on the failings of the Catholic Church in a somewhat dry, but meticulous way, than Bill Maher’s Religilous looks at the failings of ALL religions in an irreverent and humorous way (true, he pretty much leaves out the Buddhists and Hindus, but one suspects, he’s not a fan of them either). I think as a documentary, the film leaves much to be desired – it doesn’t even try to be fair to its subjects, and Maher makes it easy for himself by going after sitting ducks as his targets. Yet the film still fascinated me, and is truly funny. Maher does make his point loud and clear – religion is standing in the way of humanity’s advancement. Whether you agree with him or not, the film is certainly worth a look.

I know that pretty much all the films I have covered so far end up taking a fairly grim view on religion, and so in sense, they are preaching to the choir when it comes to me. But each film is intelligent and challenging, even if none of them are flawless. But before I go into what I think is the best documentary about religion this decade – Lake of Fire – I thought I ought to show at least one film from the other side.

Now, I’m not sure if I’m simply not paying attention, or if the fact of the matter is that there are few “pro” religion documentaries being made right now. I’m sure there are many being made, but they don’t really hit theaters that much and they aren’t entering my radar. Whether this is some vast, left wing, atheist conspiracy by the godless sodomites who run Hollywood, or because the films aren’t very good, I’m not sure. The only documentary I can think of this decade that took a truly positive view of religion is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, and, of course, it’s one of the worst films I have ever seen. The film follows TV personality Ben Stein as he crisscrosses the country looking into the intelligent design debate, and how “Big Science” has effectively shut down any voice that tries to expound on the theory intelligent design in a science classroom.

When I watched the movie, I tried to set aside the fact that I think intelligent design is useless as a scientific theory, as it rests on the notion that there is a God and if there is a God, then he/she exists outside of the realm of science. If you could scientifically prove there was a God, then they would cease to be God. What I was hoping for was a documentary that explained the theory, and WHY it should be taught in a classroom – that way, even if I disagreed with the film, I would at least understand the debate a little more. What I got instead was an anti-intellectual screed that blamed Darwin’s Theory of Evolution for everything – including the Holocaust. All films, including the ones listed above, have an agenda, but this is a film that in my mind simply doesn’t play fair.

Which brings me, finally, to the best documentary about religion I have seen this decade – Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire. Lake of Fire is a documentary about the abortion debate in America that, amazingly, refuses to take sides. It shows everyone – from extremist nuts on both sides, to more reasonable people on both sides, and simply lets the audience decide what they believe. The film is scary, and almost impossible to watch at some points. We see an abortion in all its gruesome detail, and also see what women went through when they didn’t have access to legal abortion, and the pain and tragedy that often resulted because of it. Some of the people you see in the movie will scare you, some will make you think, some you’ll agree with, some you’ll disagree with, but it is impossible to watch the film and not have your beliefs tested – at least a little bit. It is possible to be pro-choice, like I am, and have those beliefs shaken in this movie, and just as possible to be pro-life and have those beliefs shaken. The movie doesn’t take sides – it lays the information out there, and leaves it for the individual audience member to decide. It is the most powerful documentary of the decade.

Documentaries are an ideal medium to tackle tough subjects like religion. Of course, almost every documentary has an agenda – something it wants to set out and prove to the audience. This has only become more prevalent in the years since Michael Moore hit the scene. Moore’s films are more like video essays than anything else – he knows what he believes going in, and finds the evidence to support that, and ignores the rest. Great documentaries can take that form, but I find myself drawn more and more to documentaries that would rather sit back and observe their subjects, and let the audience make up their mind about the subject. Some of the documentaries above do that – many don’t – but they are all interesting and thought provoking.

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