MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

New documentaries focus on Franken's crusade, Jesus Youth and Tibetan skies

September 20, 2007
Digital Dretzka officially digs documentaries, and, each year, we like to welcome the start of Documentary Season. In fact, we much prefer watching documentaries at 10 in the morning on a Tuesday than attending prime-time screenings of 90 percent of all Hollywood movies on a Saturday night. We also enjoy watching non-fiction fare on cable television and PBS, whether it shines a light on ancient civilizations or the apprehension of serial killers.
We wish people who profess to love movies as much as we do would pay to see documentaries in theaters, or, if not there, at home on DVD. We have a similar fondness for indies and foreign titles. And, we’re firmly on the side of world peace and ending poverty … but, that’s another column.
Like you, we don’t trust members of the Motion Picture Academy to nominate — let alone, award — the finest examples of any year’s crop of films in any category, but especially those honoring documentaries. No matter how hard the academy attempts to reform itself, huge blunders invariably are made. Like those responsible for the quagmire in Iraq, no one in the academy feels it necessary to acknowledge such mistakes, explain how they might have occurred or, God forbid, apologize.
Others of you are just as passionate about perceived injustices in more glamorous categories, such as Best Picture, Best Director and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Good for you. We rarely have a rooting interest in those contests, and choose to direct our unhappiness elsewhere.
(Anyone who takes the Golden Globes or Peoples Choice Awards seriously enough to give a crap, one way or the other, ought to make an appointment with Dr. Phil.)
Being Documentary Season, art houses suddenly are playing documentaries people have been waiting to see since reading about them Sundance or some other long-ago festivals. It’s a brief period of time — a veritable Brigadoon — so pay careful attention to the listings for those mandatory one-week qualifying runs in a major city or college town. Here a few that are making the rounds right now.
Al Franken: God Spoke
The release of “Al Franken: God Spoke” — Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus’s follow-ups to “” and “The War Room” — coincides both with the satirist’s drive to raise funds for his Midwest Values PAC and news that financially strapped Air America Radio was forced to hold back at least one of his paychecks. Franken always makes for good copy, especially in an election year, but even those who think bad publicity is better than no publicity would agree the timing was less than advantageous for the film. Even worse, it gave Franken’s many enemies on the right even more material for their liberal-baiting diatribes on talk radio.
Two years in the making, “God Spoke” describes the process that greased the longtime Minnesotan’s progression from “SNL” writer-comedian to fully engaged political activist. It wasn’t all that much of a stretch for the author of “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations” and “Why Not Me?,” as he was quickly emerging as one of the few loyal Democrats with something resembling a sense of humor. In October, 2002, that quality was severely tested by the untimely death of his friend, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, during a campaign trip to northern Minnesota.
That tragic event, in combination with the voters’ refusal to honor Wellstone’s memory by electing a like-minded Democrat, prompted Franken to pick up the baton and advance the cause of progressivism in a state that had elected Jesse Ventura governor. He would write another best-seller, this one targeting Fox News’ pet Neanderthal Bill O’Reilly, before the launch of Air America. A year later, in 2005, he launched the PAC, and has since hinted at a run for public office in 2008.
It’s difficult to imagine what Doob and Hegedus had in mind when they decided to focus on the 57-year-old Harvard grad. More than likely, they saw an opportunity to document the launch and possible meltdown of Air America … that, or the emergence of the new Great Liberal Hope.
In real life, Franken is no Stuart Smalley: he’s smart, well-read, industrious, dedicated, funny, charismatic and a non-Hollywood celebrity … everything most politicians aren’t. But, that much we already knew walking into the theater.
Inadvertently, perhaps, “God Spoke” also reveals just how smarmy the electoral process has become in this country, and how easy it is to succumb to the trappings of power. Franken emerges from the movie with his integrity intact, but it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for him as he makes nice with Henry Kissinger and other Republican swine at a cocktail party he’s just gate-crashed with camera crew in tow. Even worse are his bordering-on-childish exchanges — they could hardly be called debates — with such professional provocateurs as Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity.
By the end of the film, it’s impossible not to wonder how many compromises Franken might have to make to succeed as a candidate for offices higher than the ones provided him at Air America and “Saturday Night Live.” Or, at what point he’ll start pulling back from his more progressive beliefs and morph into a pragmatist, just as Bill and Hillary Clinton did when push came to shove.
You won’t find the answers to those questions in “God Spoke,” or many clues as to what kind of leader he would be. Still, for those voters disgusted by the gutlessness and greed demonstrated by our elected politicians, Franken could offer a ray of hope for the future. As a politician, he could probably do exponentially more good than as a host for a radio network that can’t even pay its employees.
Jesus Camp
It’s highly likely that most admirers of Al Franken and his brand of liberalism would view “Jesus Camp” with the same horror usually reserved for newsreel footage of World War II concentration camps and skull collections in Cambodia and Rwanda. Conservatives, however, might see in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s portrait of contemporary red-state Evangelism great hope for the future of the U.S. That’s how deeply the filmmakers have buried their own points of view in the film’s even-handed narrative.
On-screen graphics tell us that there are 100 million Evangelicals in this country, including a generation of kids raised on Christian-rock music, Christian cable networks, the well-publicized re-births of miscreants ranging from politicians to serial killers, and increasingly divisive public debates over abortion, evolution and Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic outbursts. The filmmakers were given so much access to Pentecostal Pastor Becky Fischer’s “Kids on Fire Summer Camp” that it’s possible to believe she was conned into thinking they were making an infomercial for it. Neither did any of the children or adults featured in “Jesus Camp” appear uptight about how it possibly could be used to make them look ridiculous.
Fears that “Jesus Camp” might be seen as leftist propaganda likely prompted the producers’ request to pull the film from Michael Moore’s film festival in Traverse City, Mich. Moore is so despised by conservatives, any connection could damage hopes for box-office success in the Heartland. Magnolia’s strategy was to open “Jesus Camp” in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Missouri, ahead of its Friday debut in New York and other major cities on September 29. It’s the rare documentary that will find admirers on both sides of the political and critical aisle, but for entirely different reasons.
Liberals’ worst fears will be realized, watching home-schooled kids being taught utter nonsense about globe warming, evolution, homosexuality, the Supreme Court and the godlessness of the “Harry Potter” novels. Some will go into shock listening to anti-abortion diatribes by pre-teens and hearing the war chants of kids wearing jungle-camouflage makeup in the war for souls. More disturbing, perhaps, is Pastor Fischer’s stated admiration for indoctrination techniques employed by militant Muslims “in Israel and Palestine.”
Any kids in the audience might wonder, too, if the campers were allowed to read any other book than the bible, or play games that didn‘t involve unborn fetuses, cardboard cut-outs of George W. Bush or talking in tongues. What ever happened to snipe hunts and frog bashing? Maybe that sort of thing is left for the kids of the snake-handling Pentecostals.
The one thing hard-core Evangelical audiences certainly will find suspect is the sporadic commentary of a liberal Christian talk-show host. Ostensibly, he’s there to balance the rhetoric and remind blue-staters than not all born-again Christians are consumed with inflicting their political opinions on children barely out of kindergarten.
The kids featured in “Jesus Camp” all seem intelligent, articulate, obedient and fun to be around, when they aren‘t politely asking strangers if they‘ve been “saved.“ The adults don’t look as if they might someday put on red armbands and march to City Hall demanding the detention of folks who were only born once, either.
But, you never know.
Vajra Sky Over Tibet
Filmed surreptitiously by writer-director John Bush while was on a pilgrimage to Tibet, “Vajra Sky Over Tibet” will be of great interest to lovers of travel and religious documentaries, as well as those folks who put “Free Tibet” stickers on their hybrid cars. By successfully avoiding the watchful eyes of Chinese authorities, Bush’s small team was able to capture images of daily life and religious ritual rarely seen by Western audiences … or anyone else, for that matter. To avoid the risk of exposing civilians to reprisal by police, Bush wisely elected to forgo on-location interviews and add the narration of fellow Buddhist Tenzin L. Choegyal in post-production.
Despite these limitations, “Vajra Sky Over Tibet” is a spectacularly beautiful and highly informative movie … remarkably well lit for the conditions and shot as if Bush had all the time in the world to set up his cameras. His Buddhist credentials allowed the team access to the inner sanctums of temples beyond the reach of most tourists and bear witness to the determination of the residents to practice their religion openly. Their strength and resolve are palpable.
Well beyond any political subtext are wondrous scenes of sky-piercing mountains, raging rivers, lakes with mirror surfaces and picture-postcard valleys. The religious art and architecture is magnificent, as well.
“Vajra Sky Over Tibet” is slowly making its way around the country. This week it‘s playing in the San Francisco area. — G.D.

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “New documentaries focus on Franken's crusade, Jesus Youth and Tibetan skies”

  1. Phil_Taylor says:

    Just found your blog and LOVE it – very insightful film industry reviews here. Just wondering why it hasn’t been updated in quite a while?

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon