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Faith And Film: SILVERDOCS Finds Religion

Thursday, June 15----One of the tenets of the American system of governing is a strict separation of church and state. It is very clearly written into our Constitution, and was certainly the intention of our "founding fathers", who had experienced the persecutions of state religions in Europe. This seperation between church doctrine and the rule of law has been scrupulously followed but that wall is definitely crumbling.

A number of documentaries premiering at the SILVERDOCS festival this week, look at the newly politicized role of religion, and its influence on domestic and international policy in the United States and other nations. At last evening's sold-out screening of JESUS CAMP, an eye-opening look at Missouri evangelicals, directed by SILVERDOCS alumni Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (who produced the highly regarded film BOYS OF BARAKA), the message was clear. Evangelical Christians in America are confident in their growing political influence. They see America as essentially a Christian nation (so much for multi-culturalism) and are using their considerable clout to formulate policy based on their religious beliefs.

In the film, set in and around Kansas City, Missouri in America's heartland, evangelical preachers and devout parents target young children for training into the precepts of the church, as well as indoctrinating them into its newly found fundamentalist perspective on such issues as abortion, gay rights and the secular media. At a summer camp set up for young people, the filmmakers profile both the teachers and the students, many of whom have become preachers of the gospel at the tender age of 10 or 11.

While parents taking control of the education and upbringing of their children is not alarming in itself (nearly 20% of all children in America are now being home schooled instead of attending public or private schools), the drilling of the children to espouse far right concepts that target liberals, gays, feminists and the government itself has dangerous implications. Not surprisingly, President George W. Bush is their poster child, a "born again" Christian who is in office due to God's will. Most of those interviewed in the film believe that Bush's Presidency is another palpable sign of the Second Coming of Christ, where all non-believers will be thrown into perpetual hellfire, and the "devout" will rule the earth. The film, a combination religious drama and horror film, is a shocking treatise on America's deliberate move to the right.

Several others films in the program delve into the personal and political implications of religious belief. DANIELSON: A FAMILY MOVIE, directed by JL Aronson, is a profile of the musically innovative Christian band Danielson Famile as they struggle to find their place in the secular music scene. Their popularity is a testament to the growing influence of Christian music on the radio, in concerts and on television. This music has evolved into sub-genres including pop, rock, gospel, rock-n-roll and even heavy metal. As an added treat for SILVERDOCS audiences, the Danielson Familewill perform live at a special post-screening concert.

JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE PEOPLES TEMPLE, directed by Stanley Nelson, is a harrowing tale of the religious followers of the cult leader Jim Jones, who enduced a mass suicide in one of the 1970s most shocking tales of religious extremism. Featuring never-before-seen archival and personal video footage, award-winning documentarian Nelson traces Jim Jones' origins, his childhood poverty and the ideaologies behind his movement. Poignant interviews with survivors of the mass suicide personalize this sensational footnote to America's fanatical embrace of cultish religious values.

In US director John Mounier's BEYOND EYURV, a more personal struggle is chronicled in the story of a young man who leaves his ultra-orthodox Hasidic community to find meaning in the secular world. The film follows the struggles of Moshe Galan as he tries to support himself and deal with the temptations of the greater world, once he has left the close-knit community of his birth. His struggle to find his place in the world, while rejecting the close-mindedness of his former family and mentors, is a highly personal mission of how to accomodate belief in God with an equally strong belief in man.

The Closing Plenary Session of the International Documentary Conference, which runs parallel to the Festival, will also focus on religion in films. Titled ENVISIONING FAITH THROUGH THE DOCUMENTARY LENS, the panel discussion to be held on Saturday will attempt to answer complex questions of how documentary films can help us better understand the role of faith in our lives. Leading experts and several Festival filmmakers will discuss the power of film to transport an audience inside the world of devout believers (be they Orthodox Jews, Islamic Fundamentalists or Evangelical Christians) to better appreciate their choices and religion's role in our society.

Sandy Mandelberger


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Dates: June 13-18, 2006

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