Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Film: Andrew Denton's God on My Side

Lowdown: In case you didn't know it, there are a lot of loonies in the USA.
In my limited Australian career I got to know Andrew Denton mainly as an interesting talk show host on the ABC (a government owned TV channel devoid of commercialism that's quite high on quality for a TV station). His interviews are intelligent and although he interviews people who are currently in the news because they want to sell you something the interviews themselves are not on how good that thing they're trying to sell is.
About a year ago this documentary that Denton has made, God on My Side, was released at the cinemas; critics have criticized it saying that it's much more suitable for TV. Having just watched it on TV, I tend to agree.
At its beginning, God on My Side is declared by Denton to be an attempt of his to show us how Muslims, which we tend to view as dangerous religious fundamentalists (do we?), view us when the telescope switches sides. And in order to answer this question Denton visits the yearly convention of the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, gathered at the Gaylord (!) Convention Center in Dallas. Basically, the entire hour and a half or so of the documentary is spent in interviews of people at the convention and interviews with people that took part at the convention. Obviously, most of the interviewees are of the typical American evangelist breed, but there are a few exceptions.
It works this way: Denton introduces us to a few characters in the convention, most of them quite bizarre; he then asks them a question that tends to be provocative, the type of a question an atheist would use to challenge a theist - yet he asks it in such a politically correct, unoffensive way, that it loses all potency; and then we watch as the collection of weirdos gives us an answer that is edited in such a way that would just about stops short of making rational people jump and say something like "but they must be mad!". Or something similar.
Amongst the issues at hand are homosexuality, relations between Christianity and other religions, Israel - which is actually the biggest presenter at the convention (it tries to attract the religious tourists), the end of days, and similar seemingly provocative issues.
There are some exceptions to the rule which make the film more interesting, such interviews with a couple of Israelis who try, on one hand, to make money out of the evangelists, but on the other hand think that those same people are loonies by definition since they believe in that phony Jesus story (their phony story is obviously incredibly superior); and more interestingly, there is a European Christian that tends to look at things in a different way to the American Christian, and he questions the way in which religion has been downgraded into a consumer product in the USA.
Indeed, there is not much you can take from God on My Side, but if there is it would generally be around the way in which American right wing politics has shaped belief in its own image.
Best scene: As expected, there are many a funny moment with people exposing the irrationality of their religious faith before the camera. The film seems to excel with those; if it weren't for them, the entire affair would have probably been too boring to watch.
There's a nice old saleslady that tries to sell Denton a copy of the bible where his name is entered into the text so that he would feel that god is talking directly to him. There is also a religious artist (as in a sculptor/painter) who holds Denton's hand and asks him if he sees god's sparkling lights over his fingers, claiming he has investigated them and found they are not of this world (yet both Denton and the camera fail to see anything other than fingers).
The top scene, however, could have been the funniest of them all if it wasn't tragically sad. A guy who took part in identifying bodies for three straight days after an industrial accident in Texas during the forties gives an account on how, after three days, the bodies started talking to him and telling him that Jesus has been waiting for them. The guy is utterly sure that this really happened and he tells his story with utter conviction; truly scary stuff!
Overall: God on my side is very interesting to watch because of its sensationalism factor and the Borat like comedy scenes depicting the stereotype American that votes for Bush. But as far as being a good documentary that questions and answers, it's a complete failure; it does ask some questions, but it never goes deep enough, and it definitely doesn't attempt any answers. You watch it and you cry out for Denton to be more aggressive with his questions, but even the declared aim of exposing the way we would look to a fundamentalist Muslim is unfulfilled.
So I will give it 3 out of 5 stars because it is still interesting to watch, but if I was to look for a proper documentary on religion - one that questions and answers - I would prefer to watch Richard Dawkins' Root of All Evil for the 10th time rather than watch Denton's doco.

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