One of the great joys in life, at least for movie critics, is attending film festivals, and I was just privileged to attend the 19th annual Virginia Film Festival held this past Thursday through Sunday, right here in my hometown of Charlottesville. The VFF does something unique: each year they pick a theme and book most of their movies based on this. This can create a very interesting experience looking at a topic through multiple perspectives. This year, the theme was “Revelations: Finding God at the Movies.” Through documentaries, features, panel discussions, and shorts, I got to see many different aspects of religion in film.
In honor of the religious theme, the festival opened with an all-faiths Peace Invocation. I thought it was a beautiful little ceremony. The Charlottesville Women’s Choir sang some beautiful songs about peace and ten clergy, representing ten of the world’s religions, lit a candle for peace and offered some sort of prayer or invocation in honor of interfaith togetherness and peace. Each little prayer was moving in its own way; they were all different yet they all shared the common love for humanity. The African representative beat a drum; the Native American offered a chant; the Secular Humanist spoke of our common existence which binds us with all things living and non-living. What a beautiful way to start the festival.
The first documentary I saw was called “Camp Out.” It was a pretty good film about this week-long camp for gay Christian youth. Most people believe that you cannot be both a Christian and openly homosexual at the same time; yet there is a growing movement of progressive Christians who believe you can be a devoted Christian, love God, and still be true to the sexuality that God has given you. Despite the large amount of intense bigotry these teens have endured from their Christian peers, it really isn’t that radical a concept.
The film chronicled the activities of these ten campers. They are from different denominations, different backgrounds, and have different degrees of spiritual maturity and dedication to their religion, yet all face the same problem. It’s very interesting to watch them interact and participate in camp activities, some of which are quite similar to traditional religious camps while others seem more like events from a GLBT Student League. It’s also interesting to see how, at times, they are very serious and at other times act like such immature teenagers, giggling and gossiping about who has a crush on whom. It was curious to note how the camp had everyone sleep in the same room; in a traditional camp it’s considered necessary to separate the boys from the girls, but when they are all gay, that’s not an issue. After the screening, the director, Larry Grimaldi, was there to take questions. It’s always interesting to hear what a filmmaker has to say about his own film, how it came together, and the difficulties of making it and then getting distributed. “Camp Out” will be shown on TV next year and then will be available on DVD.
Another very interesting documentary that I saw was called “Out of Faith.” It was about a woman, Leah Welbel, who was an Auschwitz survivor. Now she has five grandchildren and two of them have married out of the faith—that is, married non-Jews. To her, this is a posthumous victory for Hitler and she refuses to speak to one of them. Although she still talks to the other, she’s not at all pleased and is constantly telling her to get her husband to convert, which of course the granddaughter has no intention of doing. It’s very painful to see such a rift in a family, and yet we know that this is no isolated story—interfaith relationships affect a large percentage of Jewish-American families and often cause real heartbreak. This is even an issue that my own family has dealt with. I have felt that it’s important for Jewish synagogues, organizations, and families to be inclusive and welcoming to interfaith couples. When someone is forced to choose between their soul-mate and a narrow-minded culture that will reject them unless they reject their beloved, that’s a no-brainer. It seems odd that Jews like Leah who reject Jews who marry non-Jews in a misguided attempt to strengthen the religion, don’t get that. Yet, as the director Lisa Leeman says, “I’m willing to cut a lot of slack for anyone who’s been in the camps.” Because as unremitting as Leah is, the film does a good job trying to explain her blind, unyielding resolve by putting it in the context of the horror she went through during the Holocaust.
The talk-back with Leeman was interesting, hearing many of the heated views of audience members many of whom were in an interfaith relationship. Afterwards, I got into a long conversation with a number of people about the issues raised in the film. When films generate such discourse, that’s a really great thing; unfortunately we got too caught up in it and missed the next movie. Instead I ended up at a panel discussion with many overblown and bloated questions asked by people who felt it was necessary to preface their questions with their life story; quite disappointing.
Still there were many good events at the festival. One of the best was a program of Jewish music and film which included a very funny short called “West Bank Story.” This student film was a musical take-off on “West Side Story,” but it was set in Israel’s West Bank and was about two competing fast-food stands, “Kosher King” and “Hummus Hut.” A Jewish soldier and Palestinian girl fall in love as the whole Israeli/Palestinian rivalry is made to look silly. There was a lot of dancing and some very funny moments mocking both Jews and Arabs.
Later in the program, we saw this 1925 silent movie called “His People.” A man played live music to underscore the film. I’ve seen silent films before, but never in a theatre with live music, so that was a real treat for me. And the movie, directed by Edward Sloman, turned out to be really good. It was a story about a Jewish-Russian immigrant who was living in a ghetto in New York’s Lower East Side. One son, who loves an Irish woman and wants to be a prize-fighter is rejected by the father. The other son, whom the father thinks can do no wrong, denies his heritage and his family as he attempts to move upward in society. Rather poignant and moving. I thought it was even better than the similarly-themed “The Jazz Singer” which came out two years later and was the first talkie. However, the ending seemed a bit forced and unrealistic to me, even though most people that I talked to seemed to like the ending.
The absolute best movie that I saw at the festival was a mocumentary called “The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah.” Quite frankly, it was the funniest movie I had seen in the longest time; generally I don’t like comedies but this one was just really great. It was about a not-too-bright guy named Brian who thought he was a messiah. Not the Messiah, but a messiah, who was to help the people who lived within a 100-mile radius of him. He felt that the biggest problem besetting humankind was indigestive problems and the solution was “Aunt Acid” pills. His special powers, proving he was supernatural, included things such as growing facial hair at an extremely slow rate so that he only needed to shave every four days. And the miracles he performed included “The Miracle of the Fruit” in which, when his brother tossed plums to him from a distance of 10 yards, he could catch them in his teeth—that is about one out of thirty. The main plot of the film involves an attempt to raise money to rent a hall at the local civic center where Brian intends to proclaim to the world—or at least the local area he is responsible for—that he is their messiah. Naturally, most people want nothing to do with him; when someone actually expresses interest, it turns out he’s even crazier than Brian. Perhaps the biggest joke of the film involves custom-made t-shirts that are supposed to say “Suffer the Children” and have a picture of an open hand, but when they come back, they have a picture of a hand closed into a fist and say “The Children Will Suffer.” As funny as this movie was, it dealt with some important issues, such as those who misunderstand or abuse religion as well as the need to feel important.
The director, Chris Hansen, answered many questions afterwards. Hansen is a film teacher at Baylor University in Waco, Texas and the majority of the crew were students. I was able to ask a number of questions about the production and the budget. I was quite interested to learn that the movie only cost $18,000. Of course, Hansen had free access to digital high-definition video equipment from the university, but that’s still pretty remarkable. (I’m always impressed that talent and creativity can make an excellent independent film for a fraction of the cost of the big 50 to 100 million dollar studio films, and they are often much better.) Hopefully this film will soon get a distributor because I believe so many people would love it.
So it was a great four days; I wish it could have gone on longer and that I was able to get to more events. At any given moment there were three or four events going on; it was hard to choose. Yet I think I got to experience some of the best of the festival. I don’t know what next year’s theme will be, but I’m sure looking forward to it.
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