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Archive for March 2016

jesus camp

No. 7 – Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, 2006)

I read a review of Jesus Camp that described it as hilarious to watch with a group, but deeply depressing to watch alone. That description is utterly accurate.

I watched it alone. Mostly, I felt terrible. Partly, I wondered how I would write about it without lapsing into lazy criticism of religious zealots, despite how often people act like clichés throughout the film. The documentary claims to have taken an unbiased approach to the activities of the Christian summer camp and its staff and attendees, and while, like previous subject West Of Memphis, its directors are entirely unobtrusive and off-camera, I couldn’t help wonder quite how selective the editing had been. And yet, and yet. Nothing in culture convinces me that Charismatic Christianity (all chanting and metaphors and raw emotions) is exaggerated by the film. Intentionally or otherwise, Jesus Camp will only reinforce the stereotypes.

The Jesus Camp itself comes fairly late in the film, which is instead framed by the election of Sandra Day O’Connor’s replacement to the Supreme Court, and the eventual choice of Samuel Alito, himself far more extreme than his moderate predecessor.  It is an appropriate metaphor for the significant split emerging throughout the US in the early 2000s, one that has only become more vivid in recent years. Throughout, a radio host challenges the views of religious extremists, and is the only voice of secular America we hear. The remainder of the film is filled with parents, children and Christian evangelicals. Yes, there are mullets.

Even before the camp, the film has the surreal edge of a mockumentary in places. A mother homeschools her son, where she guides him into an elegant refutation of evolution, wherein he states Galileo was right to turn him back on science and turn towards the Lord. The influence of the Spanish inquisition has somehow escaped from their textbook. A little girl approaches a bemused but polite woman at a bowling alley and gives her a pamphlet, later telling the cameras that God told her to do it. Another asserts how she loves to dance to Christian rock, but is worried that sometimes she dances more for herself than for the Lord. This is, of course, a sin. It is in this aspect that the film churns your stomach – not the religious beliefs, and not the sometimes screwing ways of expressing them, but in the youth of our protagonists, how vulnerable and malleable they seem. These kids, frequently in tears, are really fucking afraid of going to hell.

It’s not for me – or the documentary – to comment on whether such religious devotion gets in the way of children having a childhood. Certainly they seem to enjoy the camp at times, particularly during one laboured lesson on Government corruption which culminates in the children being invited up to smash mugs with a hammer. But who doesn’t want to smash something with a hammer? But even the moments of kids being kids comes with an asterix. Even if God isn’t watching their every move for the hint of sin, the camp staff certainly are. The boys’ bunk, enjoying a boisterous round of ghost stories after bedtime, is interrupted by one guardian, warning that while they might be having fun, God would want them to be truthful, which swiftly dampens the mood. And there’s something sickly at seeing young children being forced into complex and decidedly adult debates – how the Government is a corrupt force, the state of the nation under liberalism, and, naturally abortion (which is, to them, the murder of many possible friends). Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum (and this liberal Catholic feminist is choosing her words with care), it is uncomfortable to watch the range of emotions the children encounter – confusion during the abortion debate, passion when laying hands on a cardboard cut-out of then-President Bush, who, in fairness, did need the prayers, and, repeatedly, fear, despair and sorrow, with numerous scenes of the children sobbing to the point of incoherence, fearing damnation, ashamed of their sins, and told that before they can be forgiven, they will have to “simmer” first.

Regardless of your political or religious views, there’s no doubt the techniques on display are questionable. The kids chant repetitive truisms like “righteous judgement”, are lulled in by friendly pastors whose playful discussions of Harry Potter turn into fire and brimstone accusations of warlocks as enemies of God. The children confess their sins in front of the room. They have masking tape with the word LIFE placed over their mouths to represent aborted children. In the most chilling scene, they take a vow to pray for the end of abortion in American, and warned not to be “a promise breaker” – as though every baby not born is their own personal burden. Who knows how much actual understanding there was – I know at that age I was more concerned with the approval of adults than achieving nuanced comprehension of political touchstones. It feels more like indoctrination than education.

The radio presenter interviews leader Becky, challenging her on the camp’s vigorous methods, but she remains cool, saying they don’t do anything different than any other church. The argument could certainly be made that all churches impress their views on their followers from birth, with various levels of intensity. On the group’s involvement in political causes, including taking the kids to protest abortion in Washington, Becky insists she is not political, since democracy is merely an earthly concern. According to the documentary, 75% of home schooled kids are evangelical, and evangelicals make up 25% of Americans. No matter how much my liberal self recoils, surely the voices of such a chunk of society should be heard? And yet their creationist stance and amateur debate touchstones are uncomfortable to watch.

It’s one thing if the children were guided by honourable people. A late scene takes place at a megachurch, where aspiring preacher Levi meets senior pastor Ted Haggard after a sermon against homosexuality, performed more like a stand up than a religious guide. Ted’s rictus grin is steely when Levi recounts his own experiences, then Ted asks Levi if people listen to him because of his words or because he’s a cute kid. Levi stutters a response. Ted looks proud of himself. Ted Haggard is not a cute kid. For further adventures of Ted Haggard, do Google him, he’s had an exciting few years. But perhaps what Jesus Camp reinforces most of all is that these children, and maybe all children, deserve better leaders than the hypocrites and manipulators on offer.


 

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No. 6 – The Sisterhood Of Night (Caryn Waechter, 2014)

sisterhood

The Sisterhood Of Night has a dreamy, ethereal tone that I would have eaten up as a teenage girl. Unfortunately, I’m old as balls now, so I couldn’t help being shaken out of reverie by the occasional spotty moments. But I would still mark this down as a sweet film for teenagers to watch, one of those noble attempts of filmmakers to understand and depict contemporary teenage girls, but there’s something elusive and ephemeral about those girls, something that’s nearly impossible to capture with any accuracy. By the time you think you have them figured out, they’ve grown up and gone, and the next group appear with a new language and set of references and dreams. The Sisterhood Of Night does an honourable job, and yet something is missing. Which, for a film which attempts to do SO much, is a shame.

The film is told in a mix of flashbacks and faux-documentary talking heads, in a way that is slightly muddled and confusing. It dives right into the battlegrounds of social media, where so many other films are reluctant to engage, because Robert McKee doesn’t explain how in Story. (Start noticing how many films involving someone losing / forgetting / breaking their mobile phone early on in a plot that would be easily solved with a quick call, and prepare to be infuriated by many, many horrors films and thrillers of the past fifteen years.) The film initially sets up a rivalry between Emily, a lonely blogger desperate to be part of the in-crowd, and Mary, an intriguing and charismatic student who decides to go quiet on social media. Mary then decides to start a secret society of girls, selected by invitation, with an aim that isn’t immediately clear. Emily follows the group out one night, and later writes a blog post outlining the abuse she suffers at the Sisterhood’s hands, starting something akin to a witchhunt that escalates throughout the town. The Sisterhood are sworn to secrecy, so refuse to comment, adding fuel to the fire.

At this point, the different story threads spiral out like a hydra, and never quite come together. A society of isolated teenagers echoes Joyce Carol Oates’ Foxfire (beautifully filmed by Laurent Cantet in 2012). The mass hysteria surrounding the group recalls The Falling by Carol Morley (which I’ll be watching within the next few weeks). Emily and Mary’s rivalry recalls any number of teen films. Other, more minor strands would have been an interesting primary forcus – Emily’s blog compels other girls to open up about the abuse they have suffered, Lavinia is vexed by her mother’s dating activities and her own emergent sexuality (she borrows a copy of The Joy Of Sex, a book which has not been read since 1976 but nice try, set designers) and is then brutally catfished by her schoolfriends, Catherine refuses to visit her sick mother since she lost her hair, school councillor Gordo Gambhir’s attempts to reach out to the Sisterhood led to him losing his job over a perceived inappropriate relationship with Mary. Any one of these storylines would have a place as the A story in a hammy after-school special, or a touching indie film. It is almost a shame to have them as such small plot points. The Sisterhood Of Night suffers from too many ideas and too much ambition – and that is an honourable way to fail.

But The Sisterhood Of Night has some unique aspects to it as well. This is a rare – and non-judgemental – depiction of a religious community. While it feeds into the mass panic, the focus is more on how the town is tightly-knit and aware of each other’s business, rather than mocking the theists. Likewise, it walks a fine line in the depiction of female sexuality. While Lavinia is shamed and mocked for her desires, the film treats her with more dignity – most films view as a cause for punishment, or the most emotional, moving moment of a woman’s life, and both are equally unrealistic interpretations. Mary’s relationship, another minor thread in the film, is treated sincerely but as an afterthought. She loses her virginity on her terms, and is happy with her decision, which remains private. Throughout the film, privacy and silence is a revolutionary act, particularly in a world of noise, where nothing goes unnoticed or unread by the people around you, and that itself is refreshing.

 

 

wanda

No. 5 – Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)

The 1970s are considered a golden age of independent cinema in the US, with talents such as John Cassavettes, Robert Altman and Terrance Malick rising up to deliver a cinematic voice unique from the bastions of the classic Hollywood era. Yet this era is defiantly macho, as the dual narratives of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Robert Evan’s The Kid Stays In The Picture demonstrate. This was an era of drugs, defiance and ego, and one where the female voice was largely at the sidelines, if present at all.

Barbara Loden is not a name that would be dropped in the glamorous appraisals of this vital era in American cinema. Wanda was her only feature as director (she also wrote and starred) and, coming at the beginning of the decade, it made little impact on release, though it was warmly received in Europe. I could pontificate at length why an exploration of the interior life of a dissatisfied, lower class woman in contemporary America didn’t enjoy the acclaim and longevity of similarly meandering but male-focused pictures, but why bother? It’s nothing new. Social realism was for the boys. Women’s stories have rarely been their own to tell.

But Wanda is a compelling piece of cinema, and not just because of its proto-feminist credentials, its deserved place in the independent canon, or the mythology around Barbara Loden. The former model, Tony winner and mainstay of the Actors Studio had the misfortune to marry Elia Kazan and died of breast cancer by 1980, ensuring that Wanda was the crux of her legacy. Loden conceded that the film was semi-autobiographical, but it’s not hard to imagine many women seeing their lives at the time reflected in the passive, inscrutable Wanda, or would have, if they had seen the film.

Wanda is a unique protagonist from the off, arriving late to a court date where her divorce is finalised and she gives up parental rights to her young children. She demonstrates little emotion, at this point and throughout the film. She has little money, no job, and no plans. Even now, it would be unusual for a film to begin with the (female) lead renouncing her wifely and maternal duties and expect the audience to willingly follow the subsequent narrative without judgement, but Wanda gives no apologies and makes no concession to the viewer. At one point, she misplaces her wallet in the motel room, but shrugs it off, unperturbed. Mr Dennis, a bank thief who looks like a geography teacher, finds it and flicks through, finding photographs of Wanda’s children, a past life she is seemingly at peace with discarding. The film spends much of its time meandering along with Wanda as she bounces from café to bed to car with no particular aim. The plot unfurls so gradually it’s almost a surprise when it takes a turn into a kitchen sink Bonnie and Clyde when she accidentally hooks up with Mr Dennis.

Wanda feels startlingly contemporary, and has aged much better than a lot of 1970s independent cinema. The low key crime spree that emerges gives the film a lot of momentum that is missing in a lot of character pieces, and a much-needed boost just as the viewer starts to tire of its listless heroine. Wanda as a character is filled with the kind of ennui that is familiar and almost cliché in the independent cinema of this millennial, and while we are receptive and familiar with this type of protagonist now, it must have been surprising in 1970, when a female protagonist at all was a rarity, let alone one not beholden to society’s expectations. There are no attempts to seek the audience’s sympathy, nor raise their ire – Wanda simply is, and the audience’s reaction to her is irrelevant. Before her death, Loden was working on a second film, and it’s a real shame that we missed how her unique and prescient voice would evolve. She wrote:

“There’s so much I didn’t achieve, but I tried to be independent and to create my own way…otherwise, I would have become like Wanda, all my life just floating around.”

 

 

middle

No. 4 – Middle Of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay, 2012)

In light of last week’s Oscars, it seemed apropos to look back at the work of Ava DuVernay, who is probably the most notable female director working at the moment, and also the origin of 2015’s #Oscarssowhite movement. With a year passing now, it seems inexcusable that a future classic like Selma eked out merely two nominations in a field that saw nominations for forgettable films as Unbroken, The Judge and American Sniper (a box office hit that I literally forgot existed). DuVernay herself has become a modern-day icon, in a way that has eluded her director peers such as Tom Hooper and Michel Hazanavicius, but the fact that Mattel has made a Barbie version of her has not diminished her into a mere image of a dreadlocked beauty in a director’s chair. The facts are clear: DuVernay is the most exciting director working in Hollywood right now. A mere three features into her career, her skill and significance is such that she will doubtless be present at many Oscar ceremonies in the future, and, most likely, at the podium herself.

DuVernay’s second film Middle Of Nowhere brought her one step closer to the mainstream. A Sundance success, it won multiple awards and nominations including a strong showing at the Independent Spirit Awards, centred around DuVernay’s writing and directing, and her excellent cast, led by the luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby. Ruby is a determined young medical student putting her life on hold while she waits for her husband Derek to get out of prison (“five good years,” she makes him promise). As the years tick by and her family question what, precisely, she is waiting for, Ruby begins to question her husband’s commitment, and her own, in the face of the interest of bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo, later Selma’s Martin Luther King). To Ruby’s surprise, Brian doesn’t ask questions. He waits for people to confide, he tells her, and points out his ex used to complain about it. Ruby tentatively opens up to him, lets him into her life, then pulls away, still tied to Derek and the life she thought they were going to lead.

Middle Of Nowhere is an atmospheric and captivating character piece, focusing on 3 black women whose lives have stalled for various reasons, intentional or otherwise. If intersectionality teaches us anything, it’s that few groups are as ignored or misrepresented as the black woman. Ruby, her mother Ruth and sister Rosie, are not the finger-snapping, fiery and sassy women of Hollywood cinema, but real characters in a way that is so sorely lacking in the mainstream. It is a film that does not hold its audience’s hands, with much of the narrative left to implication, with DuVernay demonstrating a refreshing confidence in the intelligence of her viewers. These are women who are surviving, but struggling against external forces, and their own expectations for themselves. They are in each other’s lives, but each separate. The film’s thesis may be the loneliness of the black woman. Derek, an equally atypical depiction of the young black criminal, is more downtrodden and hopeless than deceitful, his sense of his own failure leading to more mistakes and betrayals, as though deliberately pushing away Ruby, a woman who stubbornly sees “we” where he sees their distance and isolation.

It is primarily a film of silence. We aren’t told the specifics of Derek’s crime (late in the film, Ruby concedes a single word “guns”), nor the prison fight that extends his sentence, or the nature of the sexual assault on the prison guard. We don’t know the cause of Rosie’s tension with her mother, though there is some suggestion that she was a tough parent. In a more textual way, we are told Ruby takes night shifts so she can stay home and not miss Derek’s calls, yet we hear many of his calls as answerphone messages. Voices are heard, but at a distance. Ruby and Rosie have a rare, open conversation about love, but find they can’t relate to each other, as Rosie admits she feels jealous of Ruby as, even though her husband is in prison, she still has a man thinking about her. Ruby doesn’t contradict this, though she doesn’t open up either. The key scene sees Ruth, played by the incredible Lorraine Toussaint, berate her daughters for their self-imposed isolation – why Ruby has given up her med school dreams, why Rosie refuses her help to care for her grandchild – and yet nothing is really resolved, Rosie leaving before the conversation can unveil any truths. “Why don’t you say anything?” she demands of her remaining daughter.

Ruby’s prison is one of silence. She is framed indoors, under harsh hospital lighting, or hiding at home from the daytime behind the gauze curtains which cover the windows. The film is filled with brief flashbacks out of time, further adding to the ambiguous nature of the narrative – are they Ruby’s memories or her dreams? In the end, Ruby’s voice is powerful when she wields it. An out of character outburst at Derek’s lawyer’s office achieves a desired compromise when it seems like his lawyer might drop his case. Similarly, she calmly, gently tells Derek that she will not spend the remainder of his imprisonment with him. The film ends with a letter to Derek in voiceover, emphasising the traps they all find themselves in, and Ruby’s determination not to be caught the same way. The scene is overlaid with shots of Ruby and Brian arm in arm (a memory, a fantasy, or a glimpse at Ruby’s future?) and of Ruby and Derek, washing dishes side by side (a memory, a fantasy, or a glimpse at Ruby’s future?), but ends with Ruby at the bus stop, alone, responding to a stranger’s greeting. The film’s resolution is ambiguous, but the film is impactful, and its atmosphere lingers for a long time after.