Sunday, October 29, 2006
Four "films" today -- two documentaries and two fiction films. Perhaps I shouldn't call them "films," though, since all but one of them will be screened on digital video. I understand the appeal of digital projection: Actual film stock is expensive to transport, and tends to do nasty things in the projector, like skip and break. Plus, most truly low-budget, independent filmmaking is shot on digital video, in part because DV makes camera setups easier and faster. Transferring a digital project to film stock adds to the overall expense, and since most urban arthouses now have digital video projectors, it's simply unnecessary. Still, even though digital video is a godsend for filmmakers and distributors, it's still a pain in the ass to watch. Video projection is usually much dimmer than film proper, and with a reduced resolution it's more difficult to make out details. It's fine if you're not planning to pay close attention to what you're watching, but for my part, this digital-video business is finally starting to make my eyeballs bleed. Yeesh.
Maybe I'm getting spoiled, but after yesterday's wacko panel discussion with tenured radical Pat Aufderheide I'm starting to find the post-screening discussions rather boring. We still have Fake Movie Critic Guy at a few of the events, so you can still hear far-left Bush-bashing if you want it, but without Crazy Buddhist Lady or Insane Black Preacher, it's too bland to merit further description.
I'm going to cover today's movies capsule-style.
A Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus: Randy Olson is a marine biologist-turned-filmmaker, and as a filmmaker Olson probably makes a good marine biologist. People have called him "a polite Michael Moore," but he's more like an untalented Ross McElwee. Still, "intelligent design" is a hot topic, which may explain why this particular documentary has received far more attention than it deserves. Of course, the animated sequences with cartoon dodos (who really are funny) probably didn't hurt, either.
The epigraph for the film is "res ipsa loquitur" -- literally, "the thing speaks for itself." If it is meant to apply to this film, I can only say I wish it had spoken better. At first, I was convinced that this video documentary on the anti-Darwin movement was a fairly slick production with a patina of naivete. As it progressed, however, I began to realize that this was a genuinely naive project with an occasional veneer of professionalism. If Olson put everything he learned in film school into Flock of Dodos, I wonder how he passed his coursework. It's not that the movie is bad as such -- it's just very poorly made.
There are of highlights, though, such as when Olson asks notorious anti-evolutionist Michael Behe (author of Darwin's Black Box) to explain Darwin's theory of evolution -- and finds, to his chagrin, that Behe can't do it. Olson talks with the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement in Kansas, to find that they have either no scientific background whatsoever, or a wholly inappropriate one. Olson finds that Intelligent-Design proponents have fabricated alleged "controversies" among scientists, and still treat outdated nineteenth-century research as if it represented current biological thought.
Unfortunately, Olson also spends much of the film with a group of biologists playing poker -- and uses their angry responses to Intelligent Design as evidence that the scientific establishment has lost touch with The People. He also spends too much time with his dotty mother, "Muffy Moose," whom he credits affectionately as "Head Dodo." These sections of the film feel like filler, and it hardly seems fair to contrast the public face of anti-evolutionism with the private lives of academic biologists.
At the end, Olson asks an open-ended question: "Who will dictate the nature of science for our society? Will it be scientists, or will it be public-relations firms?" As anyone even remotely familiar with scientific inquiry probably realizes, the question is essentially gibberish: Science is determined not by public opinion polls, but by a specific, empirically grounded, problem-solving method. And pace Olson, that's not something any school board or state board of education has the power to change.
The Virgin Diaries: Here's the festival's Islam documentary, and to my surprise, no one has turned up to complain.
The program begins with a six-minute film from 2003, Dan Bree's "Act of Faith," about Gay Muslims in San Francisco. One interviewee named Kyriell states, "I find it's futile to fight with straight Muslims over my essential right to exist." Alas, that's about as profound as the film ever gets: As soon as it has presented the basic issue, it's over.
In The Virgin Diaries, originally broadcast on PBS in 2002, documentarian Jessica Woodworth finds some remarkably promising material. When Fatiha's fiance decides to call off their wedding because he has kissed her hand in private (and therefore, he claims, violated her virginity), she attempts to talk with Islamic mullahs and imams about female virginity. This is a major issue in Islamic Morocco; one gynecologist (who received a number of death threats for participating in the project, despite Woodworth's efforts to conceal his identity) claims that the country's most common minor surgical procedure involves a discreet, back-room operation to sew up a ruptured hymen. Yet most Islamic religious leaders refuse to answer Fatiha's questions, and one teacher even informs her, by proxy, that "your only solution is to send a man."
An imam in yet another madrassa tells Fatiha, "We do not speak of forgiveness. We speak of how to avoid sinning." But it becomes clear that for women in many traditional Islamic societies -- and even for Fatiha, who lives in comparatively liberal Morocco -- there is no way for a young Islamic woman not to sin (and no way for her to be forgiven). Nor is there any way for young Islamic men to sin when it comes to sex. Of course, Woodworth also explains that gender oppression in Islamic societies is hardly simple; apparently rural Moroccan women who survive into middle age can be quite outspoken without (much) fear of male reprisals, and Muslim men aren't all misogynistic, abusive clods. Woodworth's footage of Fatiha dates from the weeks prior to 9/11, which adds to the documentary's long-ago-and-far-away quality.
Eventually, the quest is derailed when she visits Germany and falls in love with an Iranian immigrant. The romance doesn't end happily for either party -- and according to Woodworth (who did not attend the screening personally, but sent a written statement to be read afterward), Fatiha's life would grow much worse after that.
Son of Man:
Travellers and Magicians:
Paul Wagner’s documentary God of a Second Chance is far and away the hottest ticket of this year’s festival. It’s showing in one of the smaller auditoriums -- not because the organizers didn’t expect high demand for the tickets, but because the other two events this evening (a screening of Everything Is Illuminated with director Liev Schreiber and an “all-star jam session” for the local-music documentary Live From The Hook) are even bigger, and have taken the two largest theaters.
Plenty of screenings have “sold out” in advance this year, but this is the first time I’ve had trouble getting into a show with my press pass. The festival’s press handler says that this showing is “way oversold,“ but he offers a helpful suggestion: Just get in the special line for pass holders forty-five minutes early, and see if something opens up.
Since I’m second in line, something opens up pretty quickly, and I have less trouble getting into the theater than I expected. Still, every seat is filled, and I figure Paul Wagner must be very happy.
The documentary itself is an account of faith-based social programs in Southeast, the poorest and most-overlooked neighborhood in Washington, D.C. There is quite a lot of competition for the title, by the way. People like to think of our nation's capital as practically a country of its own, divorced from the reality of “real” American life. But most of Washington is a fairly typical Southern city, with soaring crime rates, corrupt and ineffective local government, poor-to-nonexistent city services, and a startlingly large population of economically disadvantaged minorities. Once you get away from the Capitol and the White House, D.C. starts to look like Memphis without Graceland, New Orleans without levees, Atlanta without CNN and Coca-Cola, or Birmingham without ... well, whatever Birmingham still has. You wouldn’t want to go there as a tourist, though your chances of survival wouldn’t improve much if you were a resident: Despite the fact that this is a neighborhood where people are shot to death inside their own homes, the city prohibits D.C. residents from owning a gun for self-defense.
God of a Second Chance is another eye-stabbing video-documentary project, the sort you’d expect to see on PBS’s Frontline. (Fans of African-American gospel music will recognize the film’s title from a popular hymn, sung fairly early in the film.) The only editorializing comes at the beginning, when subtitles inform the viewer that Southeast has “65,000 people, one sit-down restaurant, and hundreds of churches.” The film itself focuses mainly on the lives of four Southeast residents -- “Sleepy” Curry, a high-school student; Jennfer, his gospel-singing girlfriend; Richie, a forty-year-old recovering addict; and his wife Cassey, who is having a much tougher time kicking her drug habit. For spiritual sustenance, these people depend on one of two faith-based social programs: the Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Community Action Group (an ecumenical drug-recovery program), and “The House,” a Christian after-school program founded by former NFL star Steve Fitzhugh.
Fitzhugh tends to spout pearls of wisdom like “God has a plan for your penis” and “Puppy love is real to a puppy.” But if this film is any indication, “The House” isn’t particularly effective when it comes to keeping its charges away from serious, life-altering problems. “Sleepy” already has a child from one former girlfriend, and before long he has managed to impregnate his current girlfriend as well.
The Community Action Group also seems to have a mixed record, though co-founders Hal and Janice Gordon (a married couple with a long history of civil-rights activism) approach their tasks with hard work, humility and a healthy dose of common sense. Richie, we learn, is one of their greatest rags-to-respectability success stories, and we get the sense that the Gordons are like a second family to him. (As it turns out, the Gordons are the most engaging personalities in the film, and it’s difficult to observe them without feeling the profoundest respect for what they do. They deserve their own documentary, and perhaps someday they will get it.)
God of a Second Chance lacks a dramatic structure, which means that it is far more interesting to discuss than watch. Alas, it doesn’t offer much insight into the relationship of faith and culture in America, despite the participation of UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Josh Yates, from the Institute, noted that this film examines “the role of religion in public life in ways we usually don’t think about,” but I doubt that’s really true: Youth programs and rehab centers are the most visible manifestations of religion in the public sphere, to the point that the current Bush administration has even tried to make these faith-based programs eligible for federal funding. Wagner’s film also seems to buy uncritically into the mythology surrounding these faith-based recovery programs, which in reality are no more effective than non-faith-based programs.
There’s also the broader question -- unaddressed and therefore unanswered -- of whether religion has been good for the people in this documentary. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, the “God of a Second Chance” is a deeply troubling construct, and the main problem with such a God is that one has to err significantly in order to approach His presence. If the chief expression of divine love is forgiveness of sin and/or sinners, there is little incentive for individual repentance; indeed, the God of a Second Chance would seem to encourage both self-destructive behavior along with the sense that such behavior ought to incur no personal consequence or cost. The result of this faith looks rather disturbingly like what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled “cheap grace” -- or what George W. Bush in a vastly different context called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Indeed, the expectations of this particular god are set so low, it seems impossible for anyone to live down to them.
I’m going to write something for the Metro Herald about this film, but of course I will leave my own reservations aside while I do it. There's a real story in the film's premiere screening, if only because Hal and Janice Gordon attended and participated in the panel discussion afterwards. They’re doing excellent work on a limited budget, and since I believe any money they receive will be well and wisely spent, I’d like to steer some donations their way. In fact, I’d say that the last word about this film -- here and elsewhere -- ought to go to Hal Gordon himself: “When Southeast sees this film, they will rejoice. They will no longer be invisible.”
Now, on to the 10 p.m. screening: My friend and boss Rick Sincere has asked me to get a few pictures of Mark Lane, a Charlottesville-area attorney and author, and one of only five people to survive the Jonestown massacre in 1978. Lane may have been the only major figure in this story not to participate in director Stanley Nelson’s new documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, and after hearing him speak at the festival it’s pretty easy to see why. (Apparently Lane served as legal counsel for People's Temple during this time.)
Lane introduces the film with a thirty-minute harangue in which he takes Nelson to task for not telling what he claims is the real story. “There are two important matters to consider,” he says, “and the film deals with one: Who were these people at Jonestown.” He considers the film’s portrait of Jim Jones “relatively accurate” -- a backhanded compliment at best -- and then he spins a wild-eyed theory of his own. The Jonestown massacre, he states, was a plot orchestrated by the CIA to assassinate congressman Leo Ryan, whose arrival (and subsequent ambush) at Jonestown precipitated the mass suicide of Jones and his followers. Ryan, adds Lane with a triumphant flourish, participated in a committee which took the CIA to task for its actions in Vietnam. (One can almost hear the collective "Aha!", spreading across the auditorium.) So it was only natural that instead of hiring a lone hit man to rub out the guy who dared expose their nefarious plans, the CIA would cook up a grand conspiracy with some nine hundred religious cultists in Guyana who not only killed the intended target, but managed to liquidate several journalists on the side, rack up massive collateral damage, and send shock waves not only across the United States but throughout the world.
As I heard Lane expound on the CIA connection behind the Jonestown massacre, my only thought was: No wonder these guys can’t kill Castro. Unfortunately, I can’t get a photograph of Lane: Once he gives his spiel, he doesn’t hang around to answer any potentially sticky questions.
So, how's the movie?
Unlike most of the documentaries I’ve seen at the festival, Jonestown has a strong, clearly delineated three-act dramatic structure, and that alone would make it far superior to most of the films I‘ve seen here. The first act deals with the rise of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, the second with their heyday in San Francisco, and the third with a rapid decline and fall in Guyana. Despite being produced by the BBC and American Experience, Jonestown has received a limited theatrical release in the U.S., perhaps because the producers thought it might be worthy of an Oscar nomination. For my part, I don't think it is; the film looks and feels like a fairly standard high-end television documentary, with the usual mix of talking-head interviews, still photos and archival footage.
Television documentaries are the intellectual’s comfort food: One expects a certain style and a certain level of content, but not much in the way of directorial personality or innovation. With Jonestown, director Nelson has crafted a fine example of the genre without transcending it in any way. He chooses his interviewees well, and tells the human story behind People’s Temple as well as possible (considering that most of the people involved are dead). Nelson doesn’t shirk from issues of race -- the People‘s Temple, one interviewee states, “functioned completely like a Black Church“ -- or from the thornier issue of Jim Jones’s bisexuality. There is a real frisson, too, in observing the People’s Temple in full flower, especially since we know how horribly it will all end. But all in all, Jonestown is a television documentary, made for easy consumption and disposability. It is plug-and-play filmmaking.
Even so, Jonestown does offer a potentially fascinating depiction of the political activities of People's Temple, which bear an obvious resemblance to current activism among the Religious Right -- another creature of the 1970s, but which has survived to the present day. Unlike today’s political evangelicals, Jones’s politics lay on the left-wing side of the ideological spectrum: The documentary shows footage of prominent Democratic leaders (most notably Walter Mondale) visiting Jones and praising his evangelical movement, and allows San Francisco politicians to discuss how Jones leveraged his ability to provide a crowd of demonstrators at a moment's notice into genuine political influence.
Under the second Bush administration, photo ops with religious leaders have become all too familiar, and evangelical churches have taken a more central role in American public life largely through tactics that Jones pioneered. One wonders whether he might be more responsible for the Religious Right's modus operandi than anyone has previously surmised.
Three screenings, a lecture and a panel to cover today: First, another presentation from Terry Lindvall, this one on the role of prayer in popular American cinema. Then Ten Canoes, an Aboriginal film from Australia. After that, a discussion on "Religion, Media and Politics: Reaching Beyond Preaching to the Converted" with Pat Aufderheide (with her as moderator, I know I can count on someone making a fool of him- or herself). For the first evening screening, I hope I can finagle a ticket to Paul Wagner's new documentary God of a Second Chance; it's far and away the hottest ticket of the festival (partly because it's in a small theater). Finally, a screening of Stanley Nelson's documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple, which has earned mixed reviews. Mark Lane, one of only five Jonestown survivors, will present the film, and my boss Rick tells me that I should get a photo of him.
Terry Lindvall opens the day with his clip lecture, "Hollywood, Teach Us to Pray," and it's the first event I've seen at the Festival that lives up to the promise of this year's theme. Lindvall posits the unusual, even counterintuitive thesis that "Hollywood and religion have been very closely intertwined," and to prove his point he has compiled a copious selection of scenes from every era in the history of American popular cinema. He uses four criteria to categorize these prayers: 1) Identity of the person praying. 2) Context of the prayer, ranging from the formality of pure ritual to the intimacy of one-on-one conversation). 3) Function of prayer (whether it's supplication or thanksgiving). 4) Efficacy of the prayer within the filmic narrative.
Focusing on prayer in the cinema is itself a stroke of genius, since in the hierarchical, Christan cosmos prayer is the one activity utterly unique to humankind. Perhaps God can pray to Himself, since God can do anything, but there's not necessarily much point in it: Angels may praise God, being constantly in His presence, but are never depicted as praying to Him. Prayer, in short -- though I suspect this is emphatically not the way Lindvall would describe it -- is the product of existential isolation, of human beings' solitary and quite singular consciousness. Prayer is as much a part of the human condition as death. (A corollary to this statement, as far as cinema is concerned: Never trust an ostensibly religious movie in which the characters are never seen at prayer. Prayer is the point at which religion becomes human -- where the Word, so to speak, becomes Flesh. Without prayer, religious characters become plaster saints or worse, and religion loses its primary point of contact with the humanistic, narrative concerns of most cinema.)
I don't always agree with the way Lindvall characterizes the films or scenes he chooses. For example, his evangelical analysis of the heroine's ritual bedtime prayers in Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street ignores the film's deeper agnosticism (as well as the fact, ultimately more relevant to her survival, that before she prays she booby-traps her bedroom). Early in Nightmare, horror villain Freddy Krueger flashes his infamous razor-fingered glove and proclaims, "This ... is God!" -- and in the world of the film at least, Freddy is right. Lindvall describes Home Alone as a "profoundly religious film," which I'm not sure I entirely buy (though if true, it might explain why audiences find its bone-crushing violence so easy to take). Worst of all, at least from where I stand, Lindvall seems to admire the facile religious allegory of Frank Darabont's The Green Mile (which has been prominently featured in yesterday's lecture and today's): When Michael Clarke Duncan soaks up other people's illnesses, then spews their contagions into the air, I start wishing I could do something similar for bad movies.
But more often than not Lindvall's interpretation is inspired. He describes The End, an obscure Burt Reynolds movie from the late '70s, as if it were a meditation on the relation between man and God. He contrasts the "rational" (i.e., pragmatist) prayers of How Green Was My Valley with the almost Dionysian religious impulse of Duel in the Sun. He even finds two parallel scenes of prayer in Easy Rider which not only reinforce the film's anti-establishment theme but suggest a hidden devotional agenda as well: Lindvall claimed that on examining this film closely, he was surprised to discover "how remarkably religious it was." Prayer can serve as a point of cultural unity, bringing a Catholic girl and a Jewish family together in the 1925 Mary Pickford silent Little Annie Rooney, or it can exacerbate social divisions, as occurs in the Ben Stiller comedy Meet the Parents.
You may have noticed a pattern here, gentle reader: Lindvall tends to notice things that most film scholars either miss or deliberately avoid. He finds great significance in lesser-known or neglected films, but even when he deals with better-known films, films well-established in the American canon, Lindvall discovers unexpected significance in moments previously dismissed as throwaways. This positive approach contrasts sharply with that of many social conservatives: Where a critic like Michael Medved would proclaim a radical opposition between most contemporary cinema and the bedrock moral values of a "real America," Lindvall creates a positive and beneficial synthesis of the two -- and while Medved grumpily posits the discontinuity between degenerate, contemporary American cinema from (what he imagines to be) the entirely wholesome studio products of Hollywood's Production Code era, Lindvall takes a broader view, finding more in common between the old and the new than anyone might have guessed.
The only problem is that Lindvall has at least three hours' worth of material, and about an hour and a half to present it. The result is that the lecture runs into overtime, and there's no opportunity to explore what might have been a fascinating discussion with the audience. Pressed for time, I skip lunch and run to the next movie on my schedule, Rolf De Heer's Ten Canoes. Sponsored by UVA's Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum, Ten Canoes is supposed to be the most authentic expression of Yolngu culture on film to date.
The film bored and annoyed me in roughly equal measure.
Ten Canoes tells two stories, one wrapped in the other like Russian nesting dolls, and slaps yet another framework on both. First, we have a storyteller, voiced by the ubiquitous Aboriginal character actor David Guplil. If an Australian movie features any Aboriginal characters at all, chances are about three to one Guplil will be in it. Guplil tells a story set in the "long-ago" time before European contact, involving a very long goose hunt in the swamps of Arnhemland and a young man who covets one of the many wives of his brother, the chief. The chief, knowing his younger brother possesses a "wrong love," spins an even longer saga designed to cure him of his affliction: an elaborate comedy of manners (so to speak) set in "ancient" times, about an elaborate misunderstanding -- also involving a brother's wife -- which gradually pushes a tribal society to the brink of war. The "long-ago" story is filmed mainly in black-and-white, and the "ancient" tale is in rich, vibrant color.
The production is deeply indebted to Donald Thompson's anthropological photographs of the Yolngu from the 1930s. Imagine if someone were to base the visual element of a film around Edward S. Curtis's turn-of-the-century ethnography of Amerindians -- or better still, around George Catlin's paintings of the American West -- and you might have an idea of what watching Ten Canoes is like. De Heer takes pains to reproduce Thompson's photos in precise detail: In many cases he not only found the locations where the original pictures were taken, but he also located linear descendants of Thompson's original subjects to stand within the frame. To be fair, the visual design of the film is lovely, drawing some fairly obvious inspiration from the natural beauty of Robert Flaherty's later films.
I'm told Yolngu audiences find this movie absolutely hilarious. I think I can understand why: The scenario is chock-full of scatological jokes and mild sexual shenanigans, which the English subtitles mostly fail to convey. For my part, I think I would like Ten Canoes much better if I knew more about its context, intent, or even its general story beforehand. I suspect it is an artistically successful film -- that is, it does what it sets out to do -- and at this screening, the two speakers (one a graduate student from Connecticut) who explain the film afterwards make a persuasive case for its merits. But I'm in a cinema, not a museum. And I don't care how multicultural Ten Canoes is: I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it.
Having had one dose of spinach today, I'm not sure that I want to have another, in the form of Pat Aufderheide's annual panel discussion. She does one of these every year, and I'm always shocked and amazed at how vitriolic and despicable it gets -- spending two hours with her is enough to make me a staunch right-winger for another twelve months. The title of this year's discussion is "Religion, Media and Politics: Reaching Beyond Preaching to the Converted," which should alert you to Aufderheide's own evangelical aims: Aufderheide is "central director" of the Center for Social Media at American University, a support group for left-wing documentary filmmakers. In fact, Aufderheide leans so far to the left it's a wonder she doesn't fall over. From what I can tell it looks like she thinks she knows the Real Truth About America and wants to make some converts in time for midterm elections. Good luck to her -- but as anyone can tell you, if you want to reach beyond preaching to the converted, it helps if you're not batshit crazy.
I figure that if nothing else, this panel will give me some raw meat on a few screenings I won't get to attend. In particular, I'm not certain I'll get into the premiere of Paul Wagner's God of a Second Chance this evening -- and because I'm covering the festival for an African-American weekly in the DC metro area, God of a Second Chance is the one event I have to cover.
Three women and three men are on the panel, and it's pretty much a parade of facial hair: Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye and star of the upcoming Sundance Channel series One Punk Under God, has a punk-rock goatee -- he's the only non-filmmaker probably the only evangelical Christian on the panel itself. Calvin Skaggs, director of the six-part British miniseries With God On Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right (which he condensed to two hours for American audiences), sports a thick mustache -- and although it's hard to tell, I think the androgynous Aufderheide has a wisp of a mustache too. Paul Wagner, of course, sports a full, well-trimmed gray beard -- he's the panel's Oscar-winner as well as a last-minute replacement (apparently Randy Olson, director of a documentary on the "Evolution Wars" in Kansas, couldn't attend), and he's here to discuss God of a Second Chance. Two women sit at the end of the panel: Andrea Press and Lisa Leeman have no facial hair to speak of. But Press is a sociologist at UVA who wrote a well-received book on women's responses to abortion (unfortunately for her self-esteem, the people who received it best were socially conservative pro-lifers), and Leeman directed Out of Faith, a documentary on interfaith marriage in New York's Jewish community.
Naturally enough, the discussion promptly descends into round after round of Bush-bashing -- and since the panel is free of charge and easy to get to (it's just off the Downtown Mall), it looks like some real eccentrics have found their way in. An older lady near the front of the auditorium launches into a five-minute tirade against rationality, which she calls "biting into the rotten apple of my left brain." An older man -- again, with facial hair not unlike Santa Claus -- introduces himself as a film critic and a media consultant for James Webb's campaign for US Senate; he launches into an odd combination of self-promotion, a paean to James Webb, and a few remarks on behalf of "Sojourner's," which he claims offers the sort of leftist spirituality we all want but somehow can't find. Aufderheide asks Film Critic Guy if he has a question; he doesn't, though he's oblivious to the hint and keeps going anyway. Aufderheide finally tells the audience that if we're looking for opportunities to volunteer with the Webb campaign, we can talk with him.
I'm not so sure he's the go-to guy, though: Go-to guys tend to be sane. So after the panel I walk to the Charlottesville campaign office for James Webb, and ask the staff about Film Critic Guy: Is he really a media consultant for the campaign? No, the staffers inform me -- he's merely "a supporter." But this kind of "support" is every candidate's worst nightmare: I've heard through the grapevine that Film Critic Guy crashed the Virginia Film Festival's opening-night gala without an invitation, hounded festival staff over the past few days, and stumped for Webb and Sojourner's at every screening he has attended. I start to wonder if he's a Republican plant with the George Allen campaign: If we weren't in Charlottesville, where support for Webb is absolutely unshakable, Film Critic Guy could have done some serious damage at the festival. (I've been looking for his film reviews but can't find them on the Web -- so maybe he's a fake movie critic as well as a fake media consultant.)
Back to the panel: It seems as though the filmmakers are growing more and more frustrated at the audience's assumption that their art must have a specific political effect for it to be meaningful -- namely, that it must assist in the election of Democrats to higher office. Andrea Press is most explicit about this concern: "For me, film is a really political medium, and we cannot afford to think of it outside of that." (I ran this comment past an aspiring filmmaker I know who said, "Wow, that's really not true.") She has written a book, Speaking of Abortion, which records women's stories about abortion, and she seems genuinely horrified that the pro-life movement has embraced her book (it turned out that, like her subjects, many pro-lifers also care about women, and see abortion as a very serious matter). Now she's working on another book that will attempt to examine how American evangelicals are responding to popular media. ("There wasn't a lot of religious media as such" in the churches, she explains.) I suspect this book will be much more deliberately useful to the Left, inasmuch as it will show how film clips and other media used in American churches convey, in Press's words, "conservative, traditionalist, masculinist, militarist values."
DeeDee Halleck, a retired professor from UC San Diego who is working on community-media projects (and who founded the "Democracy Now!" show, playing on a public-access channel near you), shows up at these panels whether she's a featured speaker or not, and this eminence grise of ultra-left-wing filmmaking wants leftists to appropriate "the sort of religious conversion experience that we on the Left have no idea how to do." (Here's a thought: Shave. You don't see many evangelical ministers, male or female, with facial hair.) Unfortunately, Halleck's idea of a religious conversion experience is "Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping,", a street-theater group that blocks shopping malls, campaigns against Wal-Marts, and generally tries to make it more difficult for people to obtain the goods they want or need. No hallelujahs here, but Jay Bakker, trying to prove his left-wing bona fides, says that he showed Robert Greenwald's anti Wal-Mart "documentary" The High Cost of Low Prices to his congregation, and now a conservative housewife who attended the service refuses to shop at Wal-Mart. Her loss, I suppose.
Lisa Leeman describes a conflict between the "politics of religion versus humanity of religion," and notes that her documentary inevitably straddles that line. Her producer wanted her to make a film against interfaith marriages because they inevitably dilute American Jewish culture. (There is even a sense in some Jewish communities that interfaith marriage is accomplishing what even the Holocaust could not -- the eradication of God's chosen people.) But Leeman isn't necessarily against interfaith marriage. So she created a dialogue between traditionalists and Holocaust survivors who oppose it, and the actual couples who are in love and plan to marry. "If film can get people to understand each other," she adds, "then perhaps we can stop demonizing each other."
Calvin Skaggs and Paul Wagner, the other "apoliticals" on the panel, agree with that sentiment: Their focus is on telling true stories about individuals, regardless of who gets elected. Skaggs has just completed a documentary, God's Next Army, about Patrick Henry College, the first Christian college in the nation (he claims) designed exclusively to train political activists and operatives. (The college promptly sent the video to its Board of Trustees.) He praised Jay Bakker and his series One Punk Under God for reaching out to liberals and conservatives on the human level. He's probably the most angry with the incessant politicization of this discussion: "Have I limited the choir that I belong to?" he asks, with the fury of an Old Testament prophet. "And if I have, is that part of the problem?"
But Paul Wagner gets the best moment of the afternoon by giving Press one of the kindest, most complimentary dress-downs I've ever heard: He tells Press that she should be proud of her book on abortion precisely because pro-lifers embraced it, since it meant that her reporting was not controlled by an ideological agenda. In other words, the reason she's concerned about the reception of her book He notes that "filmmakers may be drawn to political subjects, but they tell stories about individuals."
Now I really hope I can get into God of a Second Chance ....
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