Bwog’s very own Christ-fearing cinephile Mark Hay is back (or resurrected, you might say) with this week’s film recommendations.
Bwog did not get a chance to talk with the Westboro Baptist protestors this Thursday – the police would not allow that simple liberty. Neither, one would expect, would these protestors have been willing or able to articulate themselves without some reference to Bwog as a godless heathen. Which is absolutely true, but one need not remind us constantly. It is in light of this inability to communicate with our dear Kansan friends that Bwog offers up three movies on religious extremism – one through the eyes of the believer, another the manipulator, and the last from the confused and out of place (just like us).
Jesus Camp (2006)
An astounding documentary by directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing in which the zealots get to speak their peace uninterrupted and unperturbed, “Jesus Camp” follows three devout Pentecostal evangelical children on their journey to and stay at Becky Fischer’s “Kids on Fire School and Ministry” in Devil’s Lake, ND. Watching this film the first time through, one feels as if something is being missed – that the directors, godless brutes that they are, have made every effort to rob these children (Levi, Rachel and Tory) of some element of their personalities and turned them into caricatures of evangelicalism. It is hard to believe that any human beings could be so two-dimensional, so flat and violent towards the concept of nuance. But this is the magic of Grady and Ewing’s film – they simply turn on cameras and step away.
The directors approached and edited the movie, as far as can be told, with no political, social or religious agenda. The subjects themselves, not the filmmakers, craft their own binary world and it is this self-created black and white realm that makes the film so jaw-droppingly unbelievable. Once one overcomes that disbelief, they can parse the film for explanation, search out the mechanisms by which children become limbs of what Ms. Fischer refers to as “God’s Army” (which she openly admits to be an attempt to compete with jihadist indoctrination in the Islamic world – the camp was first organized, after all, in 2001). And the scenes of chanting, of idol worship, of little girls dancing to Christian heavy metal rock – the slightly bemused, possible dead or dying tint of the children’s eyes – no attempt is made to equate these practices to, say, Communist China or Nazi Germany (although the temptation for a cutaway must have been great).
One walks away from this film feeling a little disoriented. It is confusing to understand a world so foreign and so simplistic and even more so to grasp how much of the belief exhorted by these proselytizing children is sincere, and how much created. At the very least, the audience feels that they have seen something real, something honest – which is why the film generated so much criticism of the “Kids on Fire School and Ministry” that it was forced to close soon after.
Directors Howard Smith and Sara Kernochan’s “Marjoe” is somehow both the spiritual ancestor of and sequel to “Jesus Camp” (think Star Wars chronology dilemma). The film was made mainly at the behest of Marjoe Gortner, at the time a household name in Southern evangelical communities. Raised from birth to be a tool of the evangelical movement, indoctrinated and trained since first his eyes saw the light of the world, Marjoe’s parents had him ordained at the age of 4 and then led him on tent revival tours to deliver inspired firebrand sermons. And then Marjoe disappeared through most of the 1960s, only to reemerge as a powerhouse of brimstone evangelism and a pioneer of the televangelist movement. And it was at this point that he invited two documentarians to follow him on what would become his final revival tour – giving them absolute access to every aspect of his life.
Marjoe was a sham – a huckster and a con artist. Throughout the film, while flipping through bills extracted from his poor and naïve audiences, Marjoe admits to his own spiritual ambivalence and his conscious attempt to rob his followers of their wealth, to make his living by preying on the spirituality that created him. He claims to have had a crisis of conscience, but the nonchalance with which he refers to his crimes and the passion with which he continues to practice his sham makes him an utterly enigmatic character. Is he truly penitent? Does he do this because he knows no other way to live? Or is he simply so narcissistic that he is willing to capitalize on his own sleaze to boost his visibility?
Regardless of the reality of Marjoe’s regrets, his decision to fling open the world of televangelists to cameras is frighteningly informative, but somewhat comforting. It shatters the two-dimensional world of “Jesus Camp,” exploring the extraordinary complexity of the world beyond the Word. It makes the crusade of extremism a human endeavor – admittedly one of conflated ego, greed, regret, and all manner of strange emotions, but a human endeavor nonetheless.
And it is worth noting that audiences find Marjoe equally entrancing for his godliness and his godlessness. We pay wads of cash to view his angels and his demons alike. It’s a quandary, and a rather profitable one for people of Marjoe’s bent.
As if coming of age wasn’t hard enough, try doing it in post-revolutionary Iran. Directors Marjane Satrapi (author of the autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based) and Vincent Paronnaud’s “Persepolis” details the struggles of a girl caught up in Islamic extremism. As a child, Marji (child’s voice – Gabrielle Lopes, teen’s voice – Chiara Mastroianni) fits nicely into Iranian society. An outspoken girl, she dreams of one day becoming a Bruce Lee-Quranic prophet hybrid. All of this changes with the rise of Islamic governance in 1979 and Marji finds herself forced into the life of a fundamentalist, but retains the soul of an innocent. Her inability to reconcile her beliefs with the hard-line society around her lead Marji into confrontations that challenge and eventually break her faith and her sense of identity, launching her into an aimless, confused and painful journey from Iran to Europe to Iran to Europe. She must face life alone, unwelcome in her own homeland, bereft of her sense of belonging, and distanced even physically from her family.
It is both humorous and beautiful that such a story of grays – of middle grounds and borderlands, of transience and confusion – should be told primarily through simplistic, two-dimensional, black-and-white animation. One would hardly expect to find such depth and such chaos in such simplicity, but those occasional and brilliant dashes of color that grace the film, jarring the senses, are a stark reminder of the fragility of such binary worlds and the earth-shattering consequences of even slight deviations from an all-or-nothing world.
Confusion, resistance, acceptance, flight, return, longing, and acceptance – “Persepolis” lends new life and merit to the coming-of-age genre. Aside from its absolute beauty, its story is rich and engaging and largely free of the self-pity and narcissism that so often accompanies such films. And, as a study of life among but separate from religious extremism, it is quite the instructive piece with which to end this week’s list.
Images via www.imdb.com