Another reprint from the Docs In Progress website...
While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available in theaters, through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we occasionally offer reviews of documentary films which reflect a wide variety of styles, but offer something to be learned from a storytelling perspective.
RELIGULOUS by Larry Charles
(Reviewed by Erica Ginsberg)
As this goes to print, the film Religulous has spent two consecutive weeks as the #1 documentary in theaters and will likely be one of the highest-grossing theatrically-released documentaries of the year. It is surely one of the most talked-about films of 2008 because it highlights a hot topic (religion), is directed by an acclaimed director (Larry Charles, probably best known for Borat), and stars a successful TV political comedian (Bill Maher). With this resume, the film seems ready-made for success at the box office and in the blogosphere.
But does that mean it is successful as a documentary? While we have spent past reviews discussing films which should be seen as showcasing elements of an effective documentary, I would argue that Religulous should be seen as an example of an ineffective documentary.
I say this without prejudice against the film’s message or its messenger. I watch Maher’s HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, er, religiously because it allows me to see viewpoints expressed that are often not expressed elsewhere…at a least not on television. Going into the film, I knew a bit about Maher’s skepticism about religion which he expresses frequently on his show and in his comedy act. But I was also aware of his ability to re-evaluate his own opinions over time as a thinking person rather than an ideologue. And I expected to see some aspect of this intellectual exploration conveyed in this film, much as it has been explored by Maher’s counterpart religious skeptics in the print world, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. But this was not successfully achieved.
While addressing such a lofty topic as religion can create an enormous structural challenge, I had high hopes that Charles and Maher could pull it off. We would follow them on an intercontinental journey as Maher talks to and challenges different people of faith. As could be expected from a comedian and a comedic director, hi-jinks would ensue. But, between the laughs, we would also discover something new, something which allows us to think more deeply about religious faith and whether it is really necessary in contemporary society.
My concerns about the film have little to do with my own beliefs about religion or concerns with how the film treats such a delicate topic. Some documentary purists believe that a film addressing such a controversial theme should present all sides of a story. But I disagree. Documentary film includes as many sub-genres as fiction films and there is a definite place for point-of-view documentaries and indeed for what could perhaps be categorized as provocateur-documentaries. With an unapologetic POV and an engaging host who takes us on a journey into the absurdities and exasperations of society, provocateur documentaries create an opportunity for an audience to engage, whether or not they agree with the point of view presented. Love or hate Michael Moore, there is no question that he is the master of the genre. But what makes Moore so masterful is that he finds ways through his films to use a surface topic to explore a deeper theme about society. In Bowling for Columbine, for example, a film about America’s love affair with guns ultimately becomes a film about the manipulation of fear and the violence with permeates so many aspects of American society. In Sicko, a film about health care becomes a film about how societies view the individual vs. the group and whether a society should consider human health a basic human right.
Religulous, on the other hand, only skims the surface. The film veers between personal film, road movie, and essay. But none of these structural elements is developed enough for it to ever come across as more than a scattershot approach to documentary storytelling. The film starts promisingly with Maher talking to his mother and sister to help explain his own familial religious roots and how religious observance within his own family changed over time. During several different driving sequences (somewhat reminiscent in style of reality television confessionals), Maher offers to the camera additional glimpses into how he has come over time to reject of blind faith. But these moments are few and far between. Most of the car commentary gets us no deeper than a comedy bit.
The road movie takes us from the holy sites to the holy smokes sites, hitting everything from the Vatican to a truckstop chapel, from Salt Lake City to a Florida religious theme park, from Jerusalem to an Amsterdam coffeeshop. We meet a cast of characters who could have come out of central casting for their bizarre religious beliefs. But does so much focus on extremists build Maher's premise that ALL religion is suspect? Much has been written about how Religulous focuses predominantly on adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and pays scant attention to eastern or western indigenous religions. Even within the faith traditions the film does portray, the filmmakers are remarkably selective in the believers they spotlight. Nowhere to be found are Unitarians, Reform Jews, or people whose religious faith has been at the core of their involvement with civil rights, environmentalism, the anti-war movement, or other forms of activism (Maher may be capable of making a valid case against the religious necessity for activism, but it is not reflected in the film).
Even the interviewees who are somewhat sane are digitally enhanced with unfavorable reaction-shot editing, snarky subtitles, and cutaways to contextually humorous stock film clips which underscore Maher’s point that religious faith is the province of the crazy. We touch on religion’s impact on politics, on war, on science, on sexuality, and on history. And yet we do little more than touch, only to be swooped off quickly to the next site where Maher can continue to drive home his point.
And that may be the point. This film is like the point of a pencil which has run out of lead. My Docs In Progress colleague Adele Schmidt refers to documentaries as being a use of visual storytelling to explore a hypothesis; a documentary which enters production with the answer already in mind is not a documentary. It is an advocacy film. And this, in my mind, is what diminishes the potential of Religulous to either bring in new "believers" in disbelief or "preach to the converted" because we already know where the film will take us. There are no surprises.
The irony of Religulous is that, for a film seeking to critique the simplistic aspects of religious belief, it suffers from its own simplistic storytelling. And yet plods on for nearly two hours without really building the story beyond a one-trick pony of showcasing the extremes of religion. By not exploring faith in any thoughtful way but that which supports a pre-conceived notion, the film becomes a lost opportunity. A documentary which may do well short-term at the box-office, but will not have the shelf life of a deeper provocateur-documentary which resonates for years to come.
© October 2008, Docs In Progress, Inc.
This article may not be reprinted without permission.