Blind Hookers, Floating Monks, and Gay Marxists at the Sundance Film Festival.

By Patton Dodd

Question: Where you can find a see a quiet film about a floating Buddhist monastery, an affecting documentary about a Pentecostal church in Washington D.C.’s mean streets, and an ear-shattering socialistic gay porn flick . . . all in the same weekend?

Answer: The 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

Going to Sundance with the intention of looking for religious cinema might not be the best way to go to Sundance. Though held in Park City, Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has nothing to do with the selection of films, and the subject matter is as miscellaneous as it is abundant—over 250 films from countries all over the world.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring, Kim Ki-duk

But religious film is what I went to look for, at least partially, and religious film is what I found. I found, in fact, a plurality of religious expression (and even religious experience) in the movies themselves and in audience reactions afterwards. I don’t know that I met a single religious filmmaker or saw a film by someone who subscribes to any doctrine, but for those looking for it (perhaps only me), religion hung in the air and flashed on the screens, at twenty-four frames per second.

Day One, Screening One started surprising well in this regard. The short film program entitled “Frontier Shorts” was a package of ten eclectic experimental films. The first, Micaela O’Herlihy’s“Thunder Perfect Mind,” was a tribute to a blind prostitute-turned-pagan spritualist with the nom de plume Saint Teresa Hester. Part documentary, part striptease, the fourteen-minute film is simultaneously dark and translucent, using double exposures and rhythmic editing to produce a loving meditation on an odd character.

The years of prostitution and drugs, biker bars and strip joints register on every inch of Saint Hester’s supple flesh, and it is flesh that the movie frames in myriad iconography. Paul Schraeder wrote years ago that there is a form of film that is itself transcendent, that communicates a spiritual-ness if not a spiritual story, and “Thunder Perfect Mind” gropes toward that form, lifting Hester on high and, at the same time, trying to get high itself.

Later that afternoon, Sundance held the world premiere of Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s new film, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring.” Set on a floating monastery in a lush, unnamed valley, “Spring, Summer” is the story of a Buddhist monk and his young protégé and the cycles that bind and loose their lives.

In the opening segment, “Spring,” the boy explores his mischievous side by tying small stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake and watching them struggle to carry the weight. He laughs with cruel pleasure, the just-past-innocent pleasure of a boy learning how he can manipulate the world. The monk watches secretly, disappointedly.

The next morning, the boy awakens under the weight of a large stone. When he cries to be released, the monk tells him to first go release the animals. “But if any of them have died,” he warns, “you will carry that stone in your heart for the rest of your life.”

Spoken like a koan, those words become a prophecy. As the seasons change, the boy grows by a decade or more, and by the time we arrive at “Winter” he has learned about the cycles of love and hate, birth and death, bondage and freedom.

Raspberry Reich, Bruce LaBruce

Ki-duk depicts Buddhism as a blessing and a curse, a force for evil and redemption. We are constantly reminded of the role of the Buddha statue, which, in this monastery, is made sacred only to haunt its worshippers. Both the master and his pupil are forced to confront the reality that freedom from the self may finally mean self-obliteration.

Much of what is interesting about Sundance is what happens after the screenings, when there is usually a Q&A session with directors/actors, and then an extended period of milling about. “Spring, Summer” had no representation, but audience members were yet eager to chat with each other. As the lights came up after the movie, I turned to get the reactions of the four guys sitting behind me. Hollywood screenwriters all, they were buzzing with the lessons they learned from Ki-duk’s precise, methodical storytelling. They didn’t know anything about Buddhism, they said, but the movie had awakened dormant curiosities.

The next movie I saw did have representation—the director, leading actress, and cinematographer were all present—but the director spoke for all three. Canadian director Bruce LaBruce introduced his “Raspberry Reich” with his star Susanne Sachsse close by his side, and photographer James Carman tilting a few feet away. Sachsse and Carman seemed frightened of what people would think of the movie, but LaBruce was brusque. “This is a hardcore gay porn film,” he said bluntly, as if issuing a challenge. “You’re all going to be pissed off afterwards.” He was daring us not to be.

“Rasberry Reich” opens touchingly: a tight shot of a tender-faced Muslim reciting the Qur’an in Arabic as he sways on a swing. His sibilant-S is pronounced, but not affected. The camera lingers on him, and conjures up a host of questions: What must it be like to be both Muslim and gay? Does he recite the Qur’an as something that he has lost, something that has been withheld from him? Why is this image of Islam something we’ve not seen before, that we needed a midnight Sundance movie (and a porn flick, to boot) to reveal to us?

When the reciter fades, the movie takes a hairpin turn into an ironic-comedic socialist propaganda tract. Sachsse’s character wants a revolution, and she assembles a motley crew of young German men to struggle against heterosexual hegemony in all its incarnations, from straight porn videos to the cattle industry. She is silly, and she’s supposed to be—she quotes from Marx and Marcuse as she has sex with the men and forces them to have sex with one another (which isn’t difficult). The revolution will not be televised, because censors will never allow it.

Activist slogans scroll across the screen in large, flashing font throughout the movie, lambasting George W. Bush, multinational corporations, and the rest of the usual suspects. The mottoes are inscribed upon the actors’ flesh in this way, but the connection between sex and politics stops there, mostly because it has nowhere else to go. The critique is sincere but the delivery is a bumpy spectacle, which makes the critique collapsible, too—in the end, the anti-fascist ideologue has herself become a fascist, and then a realist, succumbing to marriage with children.

The Muslim from the prologue never returns to the movie, and the only other references to Islam are cynical sideways glances—the Raspberry Reich’s inept brand of terrorism is disconcertingly close to the real thing. After the Reich breaks up, one of its members joins an terrorist outfit a la Al-Quaeda. The scene is played as a joke (and the Sundance audience took it that way), but we were also meant to remember the reciter, and how his brand of Islam, though isolating (and isolated within the movie), is a much more reasonable refuge.

After the movie, LaBruce’s prediction proved correct, as all but a handful of the moviegoers headed for the exits. Those who stayed asked questions about production budgets and dropped references to LaBruce’s earlier work. LaBruce plugged his upcoming DVD boxed set. Socialism, globalization, and homosexuality, along with Islam, did not come up.

 

Let the Church Say Amen!, David Peterson

 

There is no segue from “Rasberry Reich”’ to “Let the Church Say Amen!” except for this: while the former movie wonders about pious possibilities for only a half-serious moment, the latter movie documents those possibilities for ninety minutes.

Director David Peterson says that his documentary, produced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is about “the very bones of faith.” He grew up in northeast Washington D.C. where there were five churches on every block, and he says he wanted to reveal the sights and sounds that shaped his understanding of what faith is and what faith can do.

So “Let the Church Say Amen!” takes us inside the walls of an African-American church called World Missions for Christ, and then inside the lives of its pastor and three of its congregants. The pastor, Bobby Perkins, is a former crack cocaine addict who says he was delivered by the Holy Spirit. His conviction that the church “is responsible to the community” has infected his congregation and clothed and fed their neighborhood.

One of the congregants, also an ex-junkie, dreams of buying a home and restoring his relationship with his children. Another mourns his son’s murder at the hands of supposed drug dealers; he crusades the D.C. streets with both the gospel and social activism, coaxing a unresponsive police department to address the neighborhood’s several unsolved murders. The last is a woman who, with just a sixth-grade education behind her, struggles to become a nurse’s aid so she can make ends meet.

The camera follows their trials and tribulations, anchored by weekly church services that look and sound like nothing so much as victory marches. The services resemble scenes we’ve seen before of African-American churches, but early in the movie the dancing, shouting, tongues-speaking congregants seem off-kilter, crazed with faith. We halfway expect them to crumble, to realize that their religious experience—their inexhaustible expectation of goodness—cannot quite match up to their experience of the world.

But it never happens, at least not for the congregants the camera reveals. The pastor keeps pastoring, and we see how his teaching transforms those who choose to let it. The ex-junkie doesn’t get a house, but he does get time with his children. The mourning father sees his son’s murderer incarcerated, and, moreover, he inspires the local police force to take a greater role in the community. The woman is certified as a nurse’s aid, weeping with an accomplishment she feels she never could have achieved on her own.

The movie is a competent if straight-forward documentary, but, again, much of what is interesting at Sundance is what happens after the movies. After “Let the Church Say Amen!” the audience was treated to something entirely unexpected, yet completely natural given the movie we had just watched: a Pentecostal church service.

Peterson brought forward all of the movie’s main characters and many other church members besides, and as we applauded their persistence they pointed heavenward. I noticed that some of the people in the crowd pointed in suit.

As World Missions for Christ congregants had a chance to speak, we learned that the ex-junkie had been given not one, but two houses, and that the nurse’s aid was both running a house church from her town home and functioning as a neighborhood nurse. These news bits elicited “Amen”s and arm waves among the crowd.

Someone then asked Perkins how many of his on-camera conversations were rehearsed. He looked puzzled. The questioner rephrased. “I just thought there was a rehearsed quality to some it. Some of the interactions just seemed so rhythmic, I thought maybe you had reenacted some things.”

“No, no,” Perkins replied. “See, when you get the Spirit of God, you become a living apostle, read by men. This is what we do. Rehearsed? No. It’s the Spirit of God.”

Perkins continued for several minutes, quoting scriptures and talking about the gospel, just as we had seen him do in the movie. As he did, audience members rose to their feet again, stamping and clapping and waving their arms in the air. More shouts of “Amen, brother!” rose up from different parts of the theater. The shouters were not World Missions for Christ people—they were gray-or-blond-haired Sundance attendees, people with press badges, or filmmakers whose movies I had seen earlier in the week. Maybe they were all lifelong Christians who were glad to find their element amid the glitz of Sundance, but really, they acted like sudden converts, or at least sudden fans of D.C.’s finest. Either way, the movie had clearly inspired the crowd to celebrate the people of World Missions for Christ in the style of World Missions for Christ—which was appropriate, because in depicting the bones of faith, Peterson’s movie had given muscle and skin to those bones. Even those who may have had no faith were yet touched to see it in action.

Perkins preached mini-sermons not once but three times, as did several of the other congregants. Like any Pentecostal service, the “Let the Church Say Amen!” Q&A session was protracted. But unlike many of those services, no one left until the very last “Amen” was spoken.

Some critics recently have been fond of saying that cinema is the new cathedral, where we have collective experiences in the dark and watch culture’s collective memories and dreams acted out for us. That is only true in a theoretical sense, or at least a sense which does not dawn upon the viewers themselves. But while watching the impromptu church service after “Let the Church Say Amen!”, and considering the odd silence that followed “Thunder Struck Mind,” the stimulating buzz after “Spring, Summer,” and the mass exodus after “Raspberry Reich,” I realized that what happens on screen is always a sermon, a message coming down from on high, something to be challenged or celebrated, rejected or revered.

Patton Dodd is the author of My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass, and a contributing editor to The New Pantagruel and Killing the Buddha.