'The Sacrament', 'The Unbelievers' and Religious Imperialism

From cult leader Jim Jones to scientist Richard Dawkins, once in a rare while, Hollywood gets a religious idea, or an idea about religion, right.

"A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic."

-- Winston Churchill, "The Defence of Freedom and Peace (The Lights are Going Out)"

The ordinary religious life doesn't get much attention in the American media. It recedes into the background, behind the noise of outspoken figures, scandals, debates and other sensational characters and interactions that populate our screens but don't proportionately represent the day-to-day conduct of most adherents.

From certain standpoints, this imbalance is to be expected. As with any subject matter, that which maximizes conflict receives most attention. Personal beliefs vary and by definition, they don't translate cleanly to mass media (re)presentation. And when personal beliefs have public consequences, the media have every right to respond. So the corruption or hypocrisy of a clergyman is fair game. The investigation of religiously motivated or affiliated terrorism is fair game. To avoid the negative realities would be to pretend the problems don't exist.

However, it's probably safe to say that exposure to only the most controversial segments of a religious group could affect public perception of that group in a negative way. For example, the news media's frequent coverage of the Westboro Baptist Church becomes a de facto promotion for that fringe organization, and has the effect of stigmatizing other Baptist churches. The Discovery Channel's Amish Mafia grossly misrepresents Amish life for entertainment purposes.

Fictional depictions lose the pretense of pairing entertainment with information. The potential for distortion increases. Christians aren't likely to uphold the character of the mother in Carrie, or Mrs. Carmody from The Mist, or Abin Cooper from Red State as exemplars of the faith. A significant phase of the golden age of Hollywood included religious anti-Semitism within the content and regulation of movies. And author Jack Shaheen has spent decades counting examples of Hollywood's historical stereotyping of Arabs, which is at times accompanied by religious connotations concerning Muslims. In short, Hollywood rarely gets religion right, and those looking to the entertainment media with an expectation of accuracy or reverence are probably looking in the wrong place.

Once in a while, however, a movie or other sort of program will grasp a religious idea (or idea about religion) that goes closer to the center of the matter, rather than reaching for the fringe. These media more fully acknowledge the complexity of representation and religious identity. Recently, the carnivalesque depictions of Christian tent revivals on acclaimed television programs Justified and True Detective have resulted in serious existential questioning and/or spiritual growth for key characters on those series (and possibly in the hearts and minds of viewers). In both cases, what first appeared to be well-worn stereotypical presentations nonetheless provoke profound questions of faith.

Two films from 2013 center on the particular subject of religious imperialism. These films are noteworthy for the questions they raise about religious authority, as well as the conclusions they reach. Ti West's The Sacrament is a low-budget film that updates the story of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple for the found-footage horror movie age. Gus Holwerda's The Unbelievers is a documentary that follows scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss on their speaking tour "about the importance of science and reason in the modern world."

Neither film is especially original. The Sacrament benefits from the found footage approach to restrict visual/narrative points of view as well as to contribute to a feeling of being trapped in a cult situation. But it suffers from a common problem of the subgenre, which is an incomplete realization of that restricted perspective. The Unbelievers could be criticized for its failure to add any new dimension to the travelogue. And the documentary's glaring flaw is its resemblance to a specific film, which is Grant Gee's Meeting People is Easy. The shooting, cutting, and soundtrack selections of The Unbelievers are all utterly derivative of Gee's film about Radiohead.

Though they both have a limited cinematic imagination for exploring their subject matters, one of these films involves considerably more critical thinking than the other. The Sacrament is an internally consistent film. By creating a horrific vision of a life-consuming cult, West offers a warning about mind control. Yet the film also affirms the freedom of an individual believer to pursue the call of faith in his/her own life and attests to a need for deliverance. Additionally, the film exposes hypocrisies of political rule. Thus the film treats as tragic the combination of deceptive cult leader with earnest, but misled believers, who are ultimately sacrificed to one man’s insane vision of utopia.

The Unbelievers, on the other hand, becomes repeatedly ensnared in multiple contradictions about the conflict of faith and reason. Holwerda deifies Dawkins and Krauss as they lecture to small and large audiences about the efficacy of science and the absurdity of religious belief. Holwerda's film and his subjects are plainly not considerate towards individuals who express religious belief, which they see as a sort of unthinking (unreasonable) philosophy. Yet Dawkins and Krauss' tour is presented as an effort to absolutely persuade and control opinion around their specific set of beliefs. Neither the film director nor the two men on screen ever acknowledge the significant paradox therein.

The introductory events of The Sacrament suggest a film that will be investigative. With a conceit that connects journalist characters with the real-life Vice media brand, West's film looks plausible as an act of "immersionist journalism" in the here and now. But the actors playing the journalists (A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) are recognizable from other films, so for that reason alone seasoned viewers would not mistake the film for an actual documentary or news report. Nevertheless, there is a clear motivating context for the pseudo-documentary format.

The plot begins with recovering addict Caroline (Amy Seimetz, another familiar face) having joined a commune called Eden Parish. In a letter to her brother Patrick (Kentucker Audley), she describes Eden Parish as a "community where we can finally live free as God intended." Patrick, a photographer, travels to Eden Parish with Sam (Bowen) and Jake (Swanberg) to see Caroline and to investigate the mysterious community.

There are numerous signs that Caroline's new home is a tragedy waiting to happen. Like Jonestown, Eden Parish is situated in a remote location in order to maximize the leader’s control over the inhabitants and to minimize any snooping by outsiders. The arrival of a team of journalists, including a family member from the "outside world", represents a threat to the power exerted by the paranoid leader, known only as Father (Gene Jones).

Knowledge of the particulars of Jonestown adds to impression that an inevitable horror will unfold. But even a viewer unfamiliar with that historical event would be able to identify Father as an outsized influence in the lives of his followers. Compared to Jim Jones, Father relies more on specifically Christian language and iconography to maintain control over his flock. Much like Jim Jones, extreme political ideas fuel his self-styled dictatorship.

West's most effective storytelling techniques involve implicit and explicit challenges to Father's use of religion to attract and control his followers. Before the viewer sees Father up close, we hear his voice over a loudspeaker. He reminds the community to "represent ourselves the way the Lord has taught us." But when Caroline describes Father, she says he "had a vision, and was of course right, and we built heaven here on earth." It's clear that Father has replaced the Lord as the visionary and authority of this community.

A diverse group of believers have arrived in Eden Parish. Their reasons for relocating are recognizable and believable as conditions that precede conversion experiences. They seek deliverance.

Yet regardless of these pure intentions, their mistake is to place faith in Father and to not be more critical in examining the brand of freedom he offers. After giving all of their money, mind and selves to the cause of his community, they depend on him alone. Those members who do realize they are in a cult/mind control situation are subject to additional intimidation and abuse. There is no escape.

One key horror of The Sacrament is this bondage disguised as freedom. The journalists observe the abnormal and harmful exercise of control, but there's little change they could affect while on Father's grounds. An interview scene, in which Sam directly questions Father about his community, reveals the political foundations of Father's beliefs and the irrational fears on which they are founded and sustained.

Father uses scripture to cloak his revolutionary stance. He says that to remain in the United States would be to continue to "conform to this world". His course of action, he claims, was to withdraw from the fight and thus avoid the violence that claimed other like-minded individuals such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., President Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy.

Father preemptively warns Sam against calling him a Communist or Socialist, insisting that his goal is simply to help others. He rants against "imperialists" and the negative forces that conspire to kill him and his people. Father's words to Sam, his mass of deluded followers and the small contingent of panicked dissenters, are all evidence that Father is the single strongest imperialistic force in the lives of those at Eden Parish. His dream is total domination.

Thus, Father is unmistakably the villain of The Sacrament. In modeling his story of domination on Jim Jones and Jonestown, West stays within a plausible scenario of mind control and its effects. Never once is religion itself the target. Father uses religion as a means to establish himself as the ultimate authority.

Near the end of the film, as he's commanding his followers to kill themselves, Father again quotes from Romans. He asks them to become living sacrifices. The content of the scene would be difficult to watch without this context. His perversion of the scriptural concept of sacrifice intensifies the horror by a considerable magnitude.

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