American Jesus – Day 6 FFF 2014

How Do You Define Jesus in America?

How Do You Define Jesus in America?

Mrs. LanceAround was so touched by this film, she could hardly speak.

LanceAround was confused. What was the film about, really?

For Mrs. LanceAround, she saw a movie that portrayed a lot of sincere people, doing their utmost to interpret the Bible and follow the path of Jesus to the best of their ability. She was amazed by the many different ways people were trying to help others. She also felt sorry for the pastor who took the Bible so literally, he would handle snakes and drink poison trusting that his belief would protect him before he died from a snake bite. She was amused by the tattoo encrusted biker who ministered to other bikers. The cowboy church, surfer church, martial art church and even the stripper church in Las Vegas were all efforts by people, in her eyes, trying to interpret Biblical truths and follow the teachings of Jesus in a modern world. Most touching of all, to her, was the man who held church under the highway bridge, bringing bags of fruit and other food to feed the hungry and homeless in his community.

LanceAround, on the other hand, saw confusion and dichotomy. How could the same book and the same Jesus produce religious beliefs on one side that contends abortion is utterly sinful and another side finds it a compassionate choice? How could someone lose his father to a snake bite, then continue with the same practice until he himself deprives his children of their father? How could someone believe in the teachings of Jesus then work as a stripper in Las Vegas?

Just the fact that one movie could affect two people in such different ways is a testament to the objectivity and skillfulness of the documentarian. Unlike the movie Jesus Camp or Bill Maher’s documentary, Religulous, both of which appeared to have a bias against the subject matter, American Jesus seems to have no agenda. It simply provides audiences with different viewpoints of its subjects and allows the audiences to come to their own conclusions

Perhaps the best understanding of this film can be found during the Q&A at the end of the movie. Here’s a brief snippet with Brent Kunkle, producer of American Jesus, as he interacts with the audience at the conclusion of his feature documentary:

Brent: I drove a van across the country with six Spaniards who were the crew. The director of this movie is from Barcelona, Spain. Being able to meet these people [in the film], all incredible people with different points of view, I can’t really single out any one of them…except whenever I see Bob Beamon, who’s the one who feeds the homeless under the bridge…that guy makes me want to cry… [At this point, Brent literally begins to tear up as he continues talking]…every time I see that scene…He was just a beautiful, beautiful man…And of course the snake handler church. Unfortunately the pastor actually got bit and died a few years ago. In a way that became even more of a special thing. Frank Schaeffer, he just has an incredible story, whether you agree with him or not. Phil Aguilar same thing, just an incredible story.

Q: Don’t know exactly how to ask this question, just to be real blunt, what were you trying to do? Or, how did the idea come about? What was the goal?

Brent: This was from a very sincere, foreign point of view. The filmmaker’s from Spain. He approached us and said, “you know it’s really interesting how Americans express their faith. There’s so many different ways they’re expressing faith. I live in Spain and everything’s very Catholic; everything’s all about the Vatican. Honestly we’re young guys and we all find that to be very stale and boring. We’re not interested in the church where we grew up.” Obviously there’s some very hard hitting and controversial things that come up in the film, but I think the real thing is to show there’s obviously a very grass roots, sincere effort approach to religion, faith, you know: doing it simple, love thy neighbor. I should say there is the thing about faith and expressing faith–Too many times now we tend to exploit those things. They can be exploited very quickly. Things like having sermons based on the antichrist being in Europe, you know. Are these things really part of religion? Are they part of what faith is about? Is it really those things? I hope this film really says a little about what it is to have faith and really follow teachings of Jesus Christ and then also how easily those things are being exploited these days.

Q: There seemed to be a real respect that you guys as filmmakers had for the subject.

Brent: Absolutely. I hope this film is not interpreted as some kind of farce. That would be a disservice to what we were trying to do.

Q: I don’t mean to pick on a film like Jesus Camp I always felt like we were laughing or there’s a distance and we’re looking at this and judging and I didn’t feel that, at all, with this film. I felt like these were sincere, real people.

Brent: Yea, that’s definitely the intent of the film.

Q: Have you thought of the possibility of doing another film about religion on a world scale because religion is going through a change–all of it–because of a conflict between it and science. I think that would be very interesting because a lot of people are being affected by this.

Brent: I think, in general, religion is such a compelling topic. I agree. A lot of people will say, “This movie does not represent all Christians.” I say, “Well that’ll take a Ken Burns seven part documentary series to do and I would love to see it.” I think it would be fantastic.

Q: I just want to pick up on a previous answer you had, it seems like religion kind of runs into a problem when there’s a kind of conversion between religion and politics; when it kind of becomes a racket. It’s that combination that seems to make it break down and become dangerous.

Brent: Well I think you should come up and do the Q&A. That’s very well put. A lot of it, from this foreigner’s point of view, is politics and capitalism. I understand that there are some blurry lines and sometimes it does get into all these things. But when it comes to the point of exploiting it, I think that’s the issue.

Q: Did making this film change your beliefs in any way about religion? Because you saw a whole range of strange things…

Brent: Like anything, if you’re in someone else’s environment you’re much more attune to having respect for what they’re doing. I’m a person of faith–not necessarily any distinct religion. But I do think faith is important. I think people find it in many different ways. I think it just reaffirmed for me that it is valuable; keeping it for yourself and not pushing it onto other people. It should be important to you. As long as you’re treating people well and that has a hand in it, that’s great for me. Faith used and expressed in the right ways is just an incredibly valuable thing and does amazing things for people.

LanceAround’s favorite quote from American Jesus–It drew a big laugh from the audience when someone in the film quips, “…In Texas, where everyone thinks they’re a Christian, but nobody knows God!”

Fantasy Land

Prior to the feature documentary, we were treated to a short film by local UCF grad, Gabrielle Tillenburg, which she describes as an “essay film.” It follows the filmmaker’s journey in search of a childhood memory lost somewhere in the magical world of Disney World. I saw this as a coming of age movie, where the filmmaker goes back to Disney World in an attempt to reconcile the current experience of her father (which is never fully defined) with the knowledge that at four she was a princess in Disney World with a doting father at her side. A moving documentary. Mostly done with handheld camera shots (of which I am not a big fan) and featuring a voiceover essay as one watches varies scenes from present and past Disney trips. Also reminiscent of the feature narrative, Escape From Tomorrow, which made waves when it premiered at Sundance because it was surreptitiously filmed entirely at Disney without their knowledge or permission. (Gabrielle says she is familiar with that film and in part it helped embolden her to make her own movie at Disney.)

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