‘The Sacrament’, ‘The Unbelievers’ and Religious Imperialism

The Sacrament
The Unbelievers

“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)”

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 the most attention. Personal beliefs vary, and by definition, they don’t translate cleanly to mass media (re)presentation. 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 stigmatizes 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 Brian de Palma’s Carrie, or Mrs. Carmody from Frank Darabont’s The Mist, or Abin Cooper from Kevin Smith’s 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 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.

Another Kind of Congregation

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss would likely be disturbed by Father, but The Unbelievers indicates that they wouldn’t necessarily see him as any more problematic than everyday believers. For Dawkins, religion is “not wonderful, not beautiful” and it is “dull, boring, petty” and “wrong”. Dawkins links religious beliefs with a lack of education and says that even private religious belief should be subject to exposure and ridicule. Though Krauss is a bit more moderate in believing that private belief is a right that should be respected, he goes on to boast that he tells his students that their religious beliefs are “crazy”.

This is the tone offered up and shared by The Unbelievers, a movie about the world opening its mind to the message of two atheist-evangelists who want to close the debate about religion. While it’s not likely that a low-budget horror movie would have more on its mind and be more open-minded than a professionally produced documentary about religion, such is the case when comparing The Sacrament with The Unbelievers.

Holwerda’s film is framed with the age-old persuasive technique of celebrity endorsement. Outspoken figures like Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais, and Cameron Diaz appear in black and white interview setups, extolling the value of skepticism and introducing the skeptical heroes of the film. The cumulative message of the endorsements is that all religion stifles thoughtfulness and truth seeking. Dawkins and Krauss are presented as a corrective force of reason to combat religion’s destructive influence.

Whereas The Sacrament has both the intention and effect of investigation, The Unbelievers is focused strictly on persuasion. Dawkins and Krauss have already reached their conclusions, and evidently so have the creative decision-makers behind the film. In fact, Krauss is listed in the credits as both a writer and executive producer of the film, providing additional evidence that the purpose of the film is to promote his specific worldview. From time to time, the documentary feels like nothing more than a feature-length commercial intended to sell the authors’ books and to fill chairs at their speaking engagements.

Beyond the shortcomings of the film’s commercial/travelogue packaging is the larger problem of the characters’ many inconsistencies. Their perspective is the guiding outlook for the documentary, and so the integrity of their position has a direct bearing on the effectiveness of the film. Yet in the beginning minutes, there are some clues that Dawkins and Krauss haven’t sufficiently examined their own approaches to spreading the message of reason.

Dawkins has a tendency to start phrases with “If we can get people to believe…” which is an inadvertent admission that accepting the message he offers also requires a sort of faith. Krauss jokingly refers to Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great as his bible. But his quip hardly masks the fact that the culture of reason promoted by The Unbelievers is heavily reliant on that book and those written by Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Krauss (A Universe From Nothing) as sacrosanct texts akin to scripture. Krauss emphasizes an assumed moral authority when he explains that his and Dawkins’ mission (supported by books and book tours and rallies) is “launching out against the forces of evil”.

As the cameras roll, this “launching out” looks a lot like a desire for domination. The Unbelievers documents a 2012 episode of Q & A in which Dawkins discuss/debates religion and atheism with Cardinal George Pell. Dawkins appears self-satisfied during his performance. He says “why” is a silly question. He later bemoans the BBC panel program style of using moderators and asks, “Why do we bother with chairmen? They’re not necessary.” The entire sequence attests to the strict limits he would like to place on debate. Considered next to The Sacrament‘s depiction of a cult leader willing to answer questions from the perceived opposition, Dawkins appears especially insecure.

The Unbelievers is largely structured in a way that assents to Dawkins’ wishes. He and Krauss travel from one appearance to the next, and the filmmaker rarely presents extended sections of their talks. It’s as if Holwerda lacks faith in the arguments they construct, but doesn’t want to introduce a perspective of doubt. He therefore relies on fragments to assemble “greatest hits” or an ideal version of their dialogues. Aside from a lighthearted (but brilliantly incisive) retort from Stephen Colbert, Krauss and Dawkins spend the movie free from any significant challenge to their argument. The film’s representation of religious figures is either as objects to be ridiculed (such as Pell and a group of Muslim men praying) or as provocative figures with placards.

To be fair, it must be noted that a lack of balance in perspectives is not a fatal flaw in an advocacy documentary. Ironically, though, by keeping reasonable religious individuals and moderators and challenging opinions off screen, the filmmaker and subjects undo the impression they’re trying to create of religion as a necessarily and monolithically oppressive means of obstructing science and reason. Like Father, they end up seeming above all paranoid, responding to an unseen enemy that nevertheless is said to pose a threat sufficient to generate hysterical counteraction.

A global atheist convention called “Celebration of Reason” emerges as a meeting place for those faithful followers of Dawkins and Krauss’ message. The attendees don’t look like a threatened minority. In fact, as presented in the documentary, the gathering looks exactly like a worship service or religious revival unfolding at a mega-church. The irony of this goes unnoticed or unmentioned.

Another incongruity also emerges. Krauss preaches to the crowd that, as humans, they are insignificant and that life is miserable. Then Dawkins says that the very same audience members should be “re-designers” who reshape the common worldview. He declares, “The ability to design is one of the crowning glories of our species.” An individual in attendance and/or viewer of the documentary is left to decide which truth to embrace. Are we insignificant and miserable? Or are we impressive and capable? Who made it so? Who decides? The film isn’t interested in going into all that.

Somewhere during the production of the documentary, a decision must have been made to structure the piece as an event-centered film leading up to the Reason Rally. The event in DC, another gathering in “celebration of secular values”, is well attended and displays no shortage of enthusiasm. But it, too, suffers from some of the same issues that plague the entirety of Dawkins’ and Krauss’ tour (or at least the part of that tour we see in the film). Specifically, the clips of speakers on stage offer nothing but cheap shots and jokes at the expense of religious belief and believers. The overwhelming mood is not one of celebration and action, but of condescension and reaction.

Dawkins typifies this attitude and further muddies the purpose of the gathering by contradicting his own outlook on religion. He addresses the mass of attendees who cheer and chant his name, having chosen him as their leader. First he tells them, “I don’t despise religious people. I despise what they stand for.” Then he concludes with, “religion … needs to be ridiculed with contempt.”

At moments like this, the crowd (billed as “freethinkers and non-believers”) couldn’t be blamed for feeling confused. In the same sequence, the documentary editors fuse the sound of enthusiastic applause with a wide shot of the still crowd. It’s an insufficient means to create an impression of widespread support. In the crowd, Krauss walks among the people who self-identify as his adherents. He glides through the dense part of the gathering, ensuring a series of stops for photograph requests and opportunities for attendees to explain to him that he changed their lives. Holwerda again misses the religious parallel.

In an age of mashups, it’s easy to imagine West’s pseudo-documentary horror film combining with Holwerda’s travelogue in any number of enlightening ways. Imagine Dawkins and Krauss using Father as Exhibit A in their case against religion. Imagine Vice journalists Sam and Jake turning their investigative cameras on these two highly intelligent scientists who have thousands of followers but mysteriously refuse to be questioned. Imagine Holwerda trapped by the horror of having to propagandize on behalf of a religious figure he doesn’t agree with.

The question that unites these films is, who is the final authority that determines the truth? The Sacrament is designed to make the viewer question the decision to submit completely to any individual human as an ultimate authority. In contrast, The Unbelievers is a document of submission. Dawkins and Krauss don’t self-identify as imperialistic figures. But in more ways than one, Holwerda’s film allows us to see what his subjects choose not to believe.