JWR Articles: Film/DVD - American Documentary Film Festival 2015 (Directors: Daniele Rodrigues, Julian T. Pinder, Billie Mintz) - March 31, 2015

American Documentary Film Festival 2015

4.5 4.5

Reviewed at the 2015 American Documentary Film Festival
For the love of (someone’s) god

These two films appear to be miles part, yet the notion of faith and belief (recent or long, long ago) binds them together.

Guarani M’Byá
Daniele Rodrigues (2014)
4 min. Four and one-half stars

Out of the mouths of babes

How refreshing indeed it was to spend a few precious moments with very young lives in a remote Brazilian village.

Largely told through lively, colourful animations, the kids’ singing, narration and behind-the-scenes involvement—notably with hand-held cameras—became the perfect tonic for all of the adult work seen before and after.

Merci mille fois! JWR

Production photo

Jesus Town, USA
Julian T. Pinder, Billie Mintz (2014)
79 min. Four and one-half stars

Blind faith unmasked

The biggest surprise thus far at AmDocs 2015 is this decidedly narrative-driven production that feels more like a fully scripted happening than being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time documentary. (Some in our midst admitted to being “manipulated.”)

Happily Pinder (”I don’t give a shit what people think.”) and Mintz were both on hand for the Q&A following this world première to assure one and all that nothing had been staged or blocked, and that—with up to four cameras rolling simultaneously—there was such an abundance of material, and all of the real-life characters were amateur actors that they had remained ever-true to their craft. Still, then, why the need for three writers?

That aside, the real subject of their work was faith.

Since 1926, The Holy City of the Wichitas has been home to the annual Easter Passion play, fully staged in an outdoor amphitheatre.

The permanent sets put early Greek theatre to shame. Patrons sit and observe from the aptly named, Audience Hill. The large, costumed cast (with a few cross-dressers when there aren’t enough men to muster 12 disciples) largely mime the action while a covey of readers dutifully narrates the lines for one and all to hear over strategically located loudspeakers.

In its heyday (‘30s and ‘40s), up to 200,000 souls (confirmed, teetering or lost) jammed the hillside. More recently, reportedly, there seems to be more people involved with the dogmatic enterprise than watching it—that in itself a measurable outcome of the state of organized, Christian religion in America.

At the centre of the drama, most naturally, is Jesus. The long-serving, previous Christ has just made it known that he will be crucified no more, so a casting call goes out to the local community for a divine replacement (long hair a must; beard provided).

None better than twentysomething, obese, paperboy Zach Little offers his services. And before you can say, “Jesus wept,” he snags the cross-bearing part.

Trouble is, he’s abandoned his family’s beliefs and become a practising Buddhist. In the company of his girlfriend, he admits to being somewhat nervous about disclosing (the camera acts as confessor on many occasions) this fact to his cast-and-crew mates.

Fellow actor in the role of Peter, Cason (whose grandpa is the religious theme park’s live-in custodian), takes it upon himself to clear up a nagging doubt about Zack’s fervour for the Lord. (No better place to do so than the local bowling alley—how fortunate indeed that the filmmakers were on hand for the invitation to knock down pins….)

Once drawn out, Zack tells all, but is given assurance—sealed by a handshake—by his suddenly distraught friend that “no one else will know.”

Perhaps the best sequence of the film comes next—even as cutaways of Judas Iscariot from the 1979 production of The Prince of Peace linger in memory—when Cason rats out his pal to holier-than-thou “Pops” (“Anyone who hasn’t been saved will go straight to hell”), leading to a difficult conversation between father and son.

From there things heat up until the—by now predictable, even in a documentary—self-outing scene by Zack in front of his peers.

The filmmakers succinctly make their points and infuse the film with a bounty of visual delights (notably the “runaway” camera as always-chatty Zack delivers his early morning papers) and carefully framed shots (from running gerbils, to “don’t let the crack show” while, er, assuming the position on the cross through an oversized soft drink container, silently reinforcing the larger-than-life saviour battling the sugar devil).

Special kudos to the entire music staff, including the cheesy strings which usher in the bowling match to Spaghetti Western brass underscoring the key moments of crisis (three cheers to trumpeter Chris Tedesco!) along with decidedly tongue-in-cheek interludes from composer Charles Bernstein: the combined result is almost as much fun to listen to as the film is to watch.

Purists can—and will at tomorrow’s panel: “The Mating of Documentary & Narrative Cinematography”—argue as to whether or not Jesus Town, USA is a vrai doc. For anyone else who has ever struggled with a crisis of faith, it’s time well spent. JWR

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