A Decade for Documentaries

As Richard and I mentioned in our review of some of the most spiritually and theologically significant films of the decade, the ‘aughts were a particularly good decade for documentaries.  Interestingly enough, some of the best documentaries addressed religious subject matter.  Here is a list of ten significant religious documentaries of the decade.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)

One of the first religious documentaries of decade, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, focuses on the (in)famous rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the couple responsible for nearly every major network and program in Christian broadcasting.  Victims of their own fame, Jim Bakker could not manage the growing million-dollar-a-day ministry that he had founded.  Tammy Faye suffered not only the similar stress, but a cheating husband.  Though they lived and worked in a very conservative religious/theological environment, the Bakkers were also very progressive and prophetic, a welcoming voice for members of the gay and AIDS communities, communities who would also return the favor to Tammy after her virtual exile from the conservative Christian broadcasting community.

Hell House (2001)

Directed by George Ratliff, Hell House goes behind the scenes of events that take place at conservative, evangelical Christian churches across the Southeast.  Every Halloween, instead of tricks and treats, many churches host Hell Houses, transforming their facilities into giant morality plays that warn of the threats of hell and the promises of heaven.  These are increasingly gruesome and disturbing, drawing on the fears and terror of hell to scare viewers into heaven.

Devil’s Playground (2002)

Devil’s Playground, directed by Lucy Walker, takes as its subject the Amish tradition of Rumspringa during which Amish teenagers are given the freedom to temporarily leave the community and experience the outside life, or as they call it, to live English.  Church-sanctioned hedonism, the teenagers drink, party, do drugs, have sex, dress English, and live on their own.  Rumspringa can last anywhere from a few weeks to several years until the teenager decides to return to the church or remain apart.  At the end of this “religious spring break,” the person can return to the community, where they remain for life, but if they choose to leave after making that decision, they can no longer return.

Into Great Silence (2005)

In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Groning wrote to La Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps to get permission to make a documentary of the Carthusian monks there. Sixteen years later, they contacted him and told him they were ready. Groning shot for six months without a crew or any artificial lighting, and the result is Into Great Silence, a two hour and forty minute documentary of almost pure silence.  The documentary encourages viewers to pause and reflect on their own lives and how they too might be an “eternal prayer.”  Watching this film requires something akin to spiritual and mental preparation. It offers a quiet space for reflection and meditation during the film rather than afterwards.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006)

The Oscar-nominated documentary, Deliver Us From Evil, directed by Amy Berg, examines clergy sexual abuse in Catholic congregations throughout northern California during the 70s and 80s.  It focuses on Father Oliver O’Grady and the church’s attempts to ignore and/or cover up his behavior before ultimately sending him back to his native Ireland.  This documentary takes an incendiary topic and presents it in a straightforward fashion, no easy task given the evil subject matter which could have been easily sensationalized.

Jesus Camp (2006)

Another of the conservative, evangelical Christianity exposes, Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady and nominated for an Oscar, follows a group of children as they participate in a week-long camp that indoctrinates the children into both religious and cultural conservatism.  The images of children as young as 5 years old weeping and confessing sins makes one think of the notion of Protestant clerical abuse as well.

Jonestown:  The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)

A fantastic documentary, Jonestown:  The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, directed by Stanley Nelson, uncovers the events surrounding the birth, life, and death of Peoples Temple lead by Jim Jones.  Though the events of Jonestown will live in infamy (both MSNBC and CNN aired 30th anniversary specials last year), the documentary reveals just how socially progressive and inclusive the Peoples Temple was at its beginning.  It also reveals the dangerous turns a religious community can take when it is based on the cult of the celebrity.

Renewal (2007)

Directed by Terry Rockefeller and Marty Ostrow, this is a documentary with which I had the privilege of working to implement in religious, environmental, and academic settings.  Renewal takes a multi-faith approach to the growing religious environmental movement taking place across the country and reveals that this might be one of the most fruitful places for interfaith dialogue and action.  The film presents eight different stories set in different communities of faith…each addressing a different environmental concern ranging from mountain top removal in Appalachia to ethically raised and slaughtered meat in Illinois.

For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)

Perhaps the most significant documentary of the decade, For the Bible Tells Me So focuses on homosexuality and the Christian church.  Directed by Daniel Karslake, it examines a variety of Christian families whose children have come out of the closet.  The film draws from their personal testimony along with moderate to liberal scholars, ministers, and activists who discuss the various interpretations of Scripture that have generally been taken as prohibitions of homosexuality.  At its heart, this film is also about the issue of Biblical inerrancy which so fervently fuels one side of the discussion.

New Muslim Cool (2009)

A documentary which premiered in the P.O.V. series on PBS, New Muslim Cool (directed by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor) follows Hamza Perez, a Puerto-Rican American Muslim convert who was raised Catholic and used to deal drugs.  This serves as a perfect illustration of Diana Eck‘s work on religious plurality in contemporary America entitled A New Religious America:  How a “Christian County” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.  The most interesting aspect of New Muslim Cool is not just Hamza’s conversion to Islam, but his move from a more militant, exclusivist approach to his faith to a more inclusive and interfaith understanding of his religious calling.