I run a small production outfit in New York City called Glass Eye Pix. We are known for making independent horror-themed films with a psychological bent. Through the company I have produced such films as The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, Stake Land and I Sell the Dead. My own films include Habit, Wendigo and The Last Winter. Why would a company known for making independent horror films get involved with a documentary called American Jesus?
The answer is that I am primarily concerned with the construction of meaning in our daily lives, in the human tendency to see the world through narrative. My horror films have been about how we invent monsters and demons to deal with reality. In some way the subtext of my films is that the monsters we invent are a comfort and help us frame and define our existence.
In Habit, the protagonist believes his girlfriend is a vampire causing him to weaken physically, when we the viewer can plainly see he is a drunk debilitating himself. In Wendigo a 10-year-old invents a mythical being to protect himself from the horror that his father has been shot by a disgruntled hunter in the woods. I have always felt that my films are fundamentally about our craving for religious and mythic narratives in a senseless and arbitrary world.
And so it was not a stretch when the filmmaker Aram Garriga came to me with his proposal to make a film that was then titled Pop Church. I had met Garriga at the Sitges Film Festival outside Barcelona, one of the great horror and fantasy festivals in the world. Garriga worked for the fest and played host to myself and my producing associate Brent Kunkle on more than one visit to Sitges.
Garriga had come to the idea of Pop Church through his interest in rock and roll: He had interviewed an American hardcore band touring Spain and was intrigued to discover the lyrics and band members were devoutly Christian. This led Garriga to comb the web for similar bands, and his travels expanded into all sorts of outliers in the American Christian community. Teaming up with writing partner Xavi Prat, Garriga began to envision a journey to the U.S. to meet and interview this array of believers to try to understand what seemed to be a uniquely American response to religious doctrine. They could think of one production company crazy enough to help: Glass Eye Pix.
I found the project fascinating, knowing that Garriga would bring his natural intelligence and charm to every interview, and feeling that he might get genuinely candid on-camera encounters because he was a foreigner—not a New Yorker with a liberal agenda. Kunkle charted a route for the crew of Spaniards to set out into the country and so began the great expedition that would become American Jesus. The team visited 35 States and held dozens of interviews with believers, charlatans, and commentators. The resulting material took over a year to shape into something coherent. Garriga worked in Spain and would consult with Kunkle and myself over Skype and slowly the film came into its own.
What I think distinguishes American Jesus from many other documentaries is its structure. As documentaries have grown more popular in recent years, they have also come to conform to more traditional narrative constraints, often introducing the viewer to a single character and following that subject through a story line that mimics dramatic structure and ends with a catharsis of sorts. Even reality TV has come to edit hours of “found footage” to create the conflict and resolve we expect from drama. American Jesus resists that approach. It is open-ended. It is a pilgrimage through a seemingly disparate series of interviews in search of some meaning, some truth, some unifying message. Unfettered by a linear narrative, the viewer is given the responsibility to respond to each individual and find an overarching theme.
The result is a restless, rich tapestry of testimonials, a vividly humane portrait of individuals struggling with meaning in the world, often trying to conflate personal proclivities and passions with a sense of reverence and responsibility. We can only conclude that faith is a distinctly subjective state of mind. In this way we see that the commonality between the subjects is only that they have placed their trust in the same narrative, but hold it as uniquely their own.
And here is where the creeping horror comes in. For in the last third of the film we become aware that faith institutionalized distorts the message. The film darkens as it progresses, as we are introduced to certain radical factions of the Christian right that would deny science, call for a more punishing violent Jesus and welcome the apocalypse. We encounter institutions that are enriching themselves by harnessing the faith and cash of their flock. Belief systems can be wielded like a hammer and the followers manipulated to nefarious ends.
The key to this unraveling lies in the film’s title: American Jesus. For the corruption that reveals itself is not so much in the religion, but in the American way, that commodifies, politicizes and corporatizes everything. The real believers remain unscathed by the scrutiny of Garriga’s documentary: the cowboys, the surfers, the pastor under a bridge in Tennessee, doing the Lord’s work, feeding the unfortunate among us and spreading a feeling of love and belonging.
But let us be wary of those seeking to hijack our spiritual yearnings and proclaim absolutes where none exist. MM
Watch the American Jesus trailer:
American Jesus can be seen currently at the IFC Center in New York, beginning this Friday, May 23 at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles and on VOD across the country. To learn more about the film visit americanjesusthemovie.com
To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.