I had a chance to screen three documentaries in three very different settings last week. On Monday, I showed Heidi Ewing’s Jesus Camp to my Survey of Literature I class, comparing its ironic portrayal of religious practises to that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. On Saturday evening, at my monthly Dinner and a Doc event, I showed With God on Our Side: George Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right as a supplement to the discussion group that my wife will be running later this month on the role that religion is playing in the current political environment. On Sunday morning, for my Senior High group, I showed Jehane Noujaim’s The Control Room, as an introduction to the problem of bias in the media. I like all three of these films very much, and they are certainly relevant to one another, so there are likely things that could be said about the experience of watching them in so c lose a proximity, but I think that I will just share a moment from each and leave the analysis for another day.
My favourite scene from Jesus Camp is also one of the most surreal moments in any documentary I have ever seen. It takes place during a worship session at the camp. All the children are assembled in the auditorium, when one of the leaders enters the stage with a life-sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. The cutout is placed on the stage and introduced as if it is the President himself, and the children are invited to come forward, lay their hands on it, and pray for the leader of their country. The resulting scene resembles nothing more than the kind of stereotype of idol worship that one finds in a Hollywood film. It is, though it certainly does not intend to be, a pointed parody, not only of how many Americans worship the president, not only of how many American Christians have come to conflate politics for religion, but also of how American Christians have often depicted other religions as idolatrous.
There are actually several related moments that I like in With God on Our Side. The first is a scene of Billy Graham telling a crowd that, contrary to the communists, Christ taught the value of private property. The second is of an evangelical leader telling the interviewer that getting registered to vote is the most important thing that a person can do besides attaining to eternal salvation. The third is of Jerry Falwell saying that the three main purposes of evangelicalism are to get people saved, get them baptised, and get them registered to vote. The three scenes together illustrate so perfectly the ways that Christianity in the United States has become conflated with a certain kind of capitalist economics and a certain kind of democratic politics, to the point where they have become three inseparable tenets of some uniquely American religion that is as much economic and political as it is theological.
The part of The Control Room that I enjoy most is also a series of scenes, functioning as a kind of personal narrative that ties the film together. They are the scenes of the young United States Army Captain, a communications liaison at the army’s Central Command. Though the Captain initially defends the party line very closely, the images he sees begin to disrupt the certainty of his thinking, and he eventually admits that he has come to hate war, even if he does not think the world can do without it yet. The interviews of the Captain by various other media representatives and by the filmmakers themselves are among the most interesting in the film. They feel very personal at times, and yet they are filmed in ways and in places that constantly remind the viewer of the Captain’s public location and official position. The effect is interestingly conflicted.
All three films are worth seeing, and they inform each other in strange ways. There is an argument to be made from them on the interrelation of politics, economics, religion, and nationalism in the United States, and also on the way that the media functions to reinforce the conflation of these elements, but, as I said earlier, I will leave the analysis for another day.