The 5th edition of the Atheist Film Festival makes a very welcome return to the Roxie Theatre on September 14, 2013. This “film festival you can believe in” offers a mix of old and new films for audiences tired of businesses trying to hide their religious-based homophobia behind the First Amendment’s skirts.
Religion-based bad behavior is the subject of the festival’s closing film, Peter Mullan’s controversial 2002 drama “The Magdalene Sisters.” The real-life guilty institution in question is the Irish Catholic Magdalene Asylums, which regularly locked up and brutalized women guilty of “sexual transgressions.” Worse, like quite a few present day prisons, the Asylum inmates were used as slave labor for its Laundries. Mullan’s film follows a trio of women who try to survive their abusive soul-crushing confinement. The Vatican has unsurprisingly attacked the film.
A different form of aggressive religion-based public attack can be found in Scott Thurman’s previously reviewed documentary “The Revisionaries
.” For those who missed the film at its earlier SF Indie Fest showings, it’s a chilling portrait of Texas School Board members Don Mc Elroy and Cynthia Dunbar. The duo lead the school board’s religiously conservative majority in leveraging their state’s textbook buying power to cram fundamentalist Christian spins on evolution and American social studies nationwide.
Jon Amiel’s historical drama “Creation” demonstrates that the clash between the theory of evolution and conservative religious belief dates back to the formulation of the theory. Paul Bettany plays naturalist Charles Darwin. His commitment to building his observations from nature into the game-changing theory of evolution unfortunately conflicts with his devout wife’s beliefs.
Professed non-belief in religion has also sparked fights with Christian fundamentalists. Sylvia Broeckx’ documentary “Hug An Atheist” aims to debunk the myths about atheism and demystify viewers’ conceptions of the people who hold this viewpoint.
While Beyond Chron was unable to preview Broeckx’ documentary prior to its festival premiere, it was able to look at Scott Burdick’s infuriating short documentary “Sophia Investigates The Good News Club.” Supreme Court watchers will be familiar with the national religious organization from a notorious 2001 US Supreme Court case which gave the group unfettered access to America’s schools. Student Sophia Winkler looks into The Good News Club’s activities and discovers the group’s actions are far more harmful than bending the songs “Beat It” and “YMCA” to deliver a fundamentalist Christian message.
The film shows The Good News Club is dedicated to inculcating the young with the joys of religious intolerance. Sadly, this description is not an exaggeration. Katherine Stewart, who’s investigated the club, recounts how one child who believed everything The Good News Club taught her was traumatized by her introduction to the concept of religious tolerance. Club lesson plans’ thousands of references to sin and punishment lend credence to kids thinking that classmates who don’t share their fundamentalist beliefs will suffer eternal punishment. A particularly egregious lesson sugarcoats the idea of ignoring doubts or attacks of conscience in committing religious genocide.
Burdick demonstrates the particular heinousness of The Good News Club lies in its skillful exploitation of its target market’s naivete. Children in the “414 corridor” (the club’s term for kids aged 4 to 14) have barely started developing the critical thinking skills necessary to survive in the world. Cruel acts are rationalized under the guise of such benevolent motivations as completing a task one has started. The fetishism of obedience to higher authority as the greater good short circuits or hinders attempts to question the word of those who claim to speak for God. “Star Trek” villains The Borg may well be The Good News Club’s model citizenry.
Writer Harlan Ellison once declared that organized religion was a source of many of the world’s miseries. Burdick’s illustrations of The Good News Club’s tactics show that the kind little girl who compassionately yet traumatically declared to the young Ellison that his Jewish beliefs condemned him to Hell still exists.
A far less punitive religious figure that even skeptics can believe in is the subject of Vikram Gandhi’s South By Southwest award-winning documentary portrait “Kumare.” Feeling unconnected to India’s religious traditions, the film’s director becomes the fake guru Kumare to discover self-enlightenment. As Gandhi’s ersatz wise man establishes a place in Phoenix’ yoga subculture with his fake exercises, real-life students flock to him.
The film never mocks Kumare’s students as being gullible. The students’ individual stories speak of very real pains which earn the viewer’s empathy. Kumare’s students memorably include: Kimberly, whose empty nest has left her directionless; Toby, a highly stressed out death penalty lawyer; and Molly, a 20-something student who lacks personal direction.
Gandhi shows that finding the real guru within oneself is made difficult by outside influences which undercut a person’s ability to believe in themselves. Flashy New Age therapists and gurus seem more interested in seeking attention or getting students to depend on their supposed wisdom. The director is not above delivering an obvious wink to the camera while in a supposed trance to condemn the self-proclaimed healer he’s visiting.
The greatest challenge Gandhi faces, though, is helping the people who become his students while relinquishing any long-term power he has over them. Throughout the experiment, Gandhi as Kumare repeats his message that his students can function without him. Kumare’s visits to his students’ homes resemble that of a simple guest, not someone exploiting his role as a fake teacher.
Revealing his deception to his students would be the most decisive act of relinquishment of power Gandhi could undertake. Yet that step proves to be the most difficult one for Gandhi to implement. Kumare’s students have become more than experimental subjects, yet Gandhi fears losing their trust. How he resolves his dilemma makes for a moving conclusion.
(“The Revisionaries” screens at 2:00 PM. “Sophia Investigates The Good News Club” screens at 4:10 PM. “Kumare” screens at 5:20 PM. All screenings take place on September 14, 2013 at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street, SF). For further information, go to www.sfatheistfilmfestival.org )