If you think that documentaries are the Brussels sprouts or, even worse, liver, of cinema — triggering the gag-reflex because they're just too self-righteous, too earnest, too cerebral — think again.
The 13th annual Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg, hosted at Sundial, gave evidence that the documentary really is the conscience of cinema.
For sure, feature films can be soaring and lyrical, affirming our need for communal connection and expression through stories. But documentaries can equally connect us and express us.
And transform us too. If there were ever a time that we need films that explore what it means to be human in a nihilistic world, all the while pursuing truth hidden by misunderstanding and the dark underbelly of deception, that time is now.
Three documentaries in particular shown at Sunscreen reflect just such connection, community and humanity. No gag-reflex here, only deep appreciation for the filmmakers and their quest to tell absorbing stories in compelling fashion to a grateful audience.
Consider these, screened at Sunscreen: John Wright’s Leaving My Father’s Faith (Tony Campalo, the voice of evangelism in America, reflects with his adult son Bart on the boy’s loss of faith), Nick Taylor’s The Organizer (Wade Rathke and the establishment of the community organization ACORN), and Evan Smith and Caroline Smith’s St Pete Unfiltered (a USF/SP student film on the lies and deception from city government after raw sewage is dumped into Clam Bayou).
Because such documentaries rarely, if ever, get picked up for mainstream distribution, producers hope Netflix or other video venues will show an interest for wider distribution. For now, your best bet to see such esoteric offerings is indeed via the film festival circuit.
Leaving My Father’s Faith is the story of the Campalos, father Tony and son Bart, who had worked together for decades in the Campalo evangelical Christian ministries. The film leads to a subsequent book that expands the conversation in Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son. It was a devastating shock when 50-year old Bart rejects his father’s Christianity, opting instead for secular humanism as his new outlook on life.
This rejection of father and faith is told with remarkable compassion and humanity. Like most documentary films, it’s a blend of interviews, talking heads, vintage footage of rallies and sermons, some reenactments too, plus stylized emails keyboarded large across the screen as father and son kept up a respectful email contact through these dark nights of the soul.
The film has a superb visual metaphor for this increasing disillusionment with his father’s faith. Remember that classic Hasbro game, Jenga, that asks "how do you stack up?" With a stack of 54 hardwood blocks, how many can you slide out of the stack before the entire edifice crumbles? As Bart explains his disappearing faith with one more question in a growing list of unanswerable questions, another block, then another block, then another is removed until the once-solid and unassailable stack begins to slip and sway and crash.
But what might have been an irreparable rift in many ways brought them closer together. In fact, Tony suggests that in the long run Bart is more like an “anonymous Christian” whose awareness of the poor and “the least of them” is higher and greater than his own, a remarkable confession from the man who probably holds the crown for Most Evangelical Person Amongst Us.
Bart spells out the primary challenges to his once unshakable faith. His mission work in impoverished South America told him that his God has no sovereignty there; otherwise, surely an omnipotent God would have done something to intervene. Further, Bart’s faith was shaken by his increasing awareness that intercessory prayer was an illusion. He saw no supernatural intervention or involvement. Bart talks about gay roommates in college, men who were good and noble and humane, but just happened to have same-sex attractions. Why should they be scripturally condemned to Hell for whom they loved? It seems one thing after another began to erode Bart’s evangelical edifice that had been so carefully constructed by his family and his church, though Tony comments that Bart lost confidence in Jesus because he lost confidence in scripture. They are not the same.
But when Tony asks his son what books he had read in college that likely led to this questioning of his faith, the son immediately answers that the Bible itself became his most faith-challenging book.
Finally, a bicycle accident where Bart is unconscious in a coma with a traumatic brain injury seems the final nail, so to speak, in the coffin of his evangelical outlook. During recovery, as his brain function returned, he began to question the very existence of a soul, and afterlife, and any divinity at all. There was nothing left for him in a post-Christian world except to accept this immediate life that he have right now, no more, no less, and that supposed “Christian values” of nurturing your kids, caring for the poor, loving your neighbor as yourself are actually secular humanist values and have nothing to do with a belief in Christianity or the Bible.
The Organizer, directed by Nick Taylor, is the story of Wade Rathe’s founding of ACORN, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and shepherding its growth into a national political powerhouse for the poor and dispossessed. ACORN is a non-profit organization created for voter registration and advocacy for low-and moderate-income people, a messy and controversial job trying to organize the voiceless and powerless.
This documentary took over eight years to complete, at least in this festival version, and was largely funded through Kickstarter campaigns. It’s a wealth of archival footage (Arkansas, Clintons, 1980s), cinema verité, reenactments, interviews, TV news footage, particularly of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, more talking heads (Noam Chomsky, Marshal Ganz), even the controversial 2009 undercover videos purporting to show criminal activity on the part of ACORN staff.
The film is stuffed with stuff. Maybe too much stuff with too many charts, diagrams, spreadsheets and minutiae — it can overwhelm the viewer.
Wade Rathke attended the screening, and in a Q&A afterwards, he commented that the Breitbart-fomented video controversy led to Obama’s throwing ACORN under the bus, and subsequent loss of government funding. This, even though independent investigations showed no evidence of criminal activity. ACORN had once been the largest community organization in the US, but internal conflict (embezzlement in neighborhood of $1 million by Wade’s own brother) and external political pressure led to its downfall. Rathke is now focused on rebuilding ACORN worldwide, reaching into third-world countries where the disenfranchised are desperate to have their voices heard. In responding to audience questions about the future for such non-profits designed to fight racism and economic inequities, Rathke commented that when hearsay, opinion and conjecture rule the day, it’s even more crucial that science, truth, persistence to verifiable facts ultimately triumph.
Perhaps the most controversial film at Sunscreen Film Festival was the final film of the event, and that’s the USF-SP student-made 35-minute documentary St. Petersburg Unfiltered, directed by Evan Smith and Caroline Smith, both in attendance along with others of the film crew. It’s a truth-to-power film about the 2011 decision to shut down the Albert Whitted Reclamation Sewage Treatment plant. This led to the subsequent inability of the sewer system to handle storm drainage, resulting in a catastrophic dumping of untreated waste water into Clam Bayou and the Gulf of Mexico.
Apparently there were attempts made to restrict the showing of this documentary at the Sunscreen FF with the charge being made that the film and the festival were trying to ruin local tourism. Though all city officials were invited to the Sunday early-evening showing, only one deigned to attend, and that was city commissioner Steve Kornell. He's an outspoken critic of the Rick Kriseman administration and what says are its efforts to downplay the magnitude of the raw sewage dumping in September 2016 after Hurricane Hermine. People at the screening claimed that St. Petersburg is responsible for more than 50% of the groundwater pollution in Florida.
Talk about the documentary as the conscience of cinema!
With its opening line of “Water is everything to us,” the film provides steady examples of how city policies and decisions undercut that reality. The film is filled with TV news clips, interviews, academic talking heads, scientific research and medical reports of sewage-borne bacteria and hospital waste. We hear about plans from the city to create injection wells to pump impure water into deepwater wells, essentially contaminating the aquifer.
Decommissioned water treatment plants and exponential growth in population, even if it is in gentrified high-rises, have put even more pressure on the sewage system. The directors commented that “Poop is poop, no matter the social class it comes from, as expanded population simply makes more shit.” This film does not mince words, suggesting that in the face of cover-up and manipulation, the stakes are too high for anything but the brutal truth.
The length — 35 minutes — is nowhere near long enough to fully explore the ramifications of these city decisions. The filming and editing crew had huge amounts of interview footage to sift and sort into some kind of manageable narrative and timeline. The directors commented that lots of people kept their mouths shut as they believed the city to be often retaliatory and vindictive when employees talk.
Plans are in place to expand this brief film to a full-length documentary treatment of this pressing environmental nightmare. Hurricane season begins in a month’s time and once again, each approaching storm promises an overwhelmed sewage system that is not ready for all that excess water.
What can citizens do? Make noise. Get pissed. Vote. Remember, cinema as conscience!
By the way, for the record, along with documentaries, I like both Brussels sprouts (roasted with olive oil) and liver (with onions).
Ben Wiley taught literature and film at St. Petersburg College. At USF/Tampa, he was statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are film, books, and kayaking Florida rivers. He also writes the BookStories feature in Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact him here.