As the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson is no stranger to controversy. He wore a bullet-proof vest to his consecration in 2003. Robinson stars in Love Free or Die (broadcast Oct. 29 on Independent Lens), a documentary that follows his journey as he calls for equality from New Hampshire to London. Religious documentaries such as this remind us how faith can be volatile, especially when it mixes with pop culture, sexuality, or politics. They also remind us how religion is a ripe subject for fascinating documentaries.
Here are ten of our favorite docs about faith. Please add your favorites to the comments!
8: The Mormon Proposition (2010) directed by Reed Cowan
A former Mormon missionary, director Reed Cowan uncovered his past religion’s financial support of California Proposition 8. He started his documentary as a film about gay teen homelessness and suicide in Utah, and soon found that the Mormon church’s influence was a large contributing factor. The film reveals church documents that show it donated $22 million to pass Prop 8 and defeat gay marriage. Mormon church spokespeople claimed they weren’t interested in watching the film. 8: The Mormon Proposition won the 2011 Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Award for Outstanding Documentary.
For the Bible Tells Me So (2007) directed by Daniel Karslake
The main character of Love Free or Die, Bishop Gene Robinson, is also featured in this acclaimed doc that dissects the supposed tensions between homosexuality and religion. Premiering at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, For the Bible Tells Me So includes interviews with former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and his wife about their experience raising LGBT children. It was shortlisted for the Oscars.
Jesus Camp (2006) directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
A critical darling, Jesus Camp takes a close look at an evangelical Christian summer camp near Devils Lake, North Dakota, and its compelling influence on children’s minds. The leader of the camp, Becky Fischer, says she is building an “army of God” to protect conservative Christian beliefs against “the enemy” (Islam), which she claims is also training its children. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, the film suggests evangelical Christianity’s power over the American right.
Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam (2009), directed by Omar Majeed
Irreverent and religious all at once, the Pakistani punk movement Taqwacore takes its name from the Arabic word taqwa, meaning Islamic self-awareness. The motley rockers in this doc include Koroush, an Iranian American from San Antonio who fronts the band Vote Hezbollah; Sena, a Pakistani lesbian from Vancouver who leads the all-girl Secret Trial Five; and Marwan, whose Chicago group Al-Thawra fuses heavy metal with Arabic beats. Their guru, a white American convert to Islam named Michael Muhammad Knight, leads them to perform handcore punk in Pakistan, while Michael makes peace with his fundamentalist past and newfound rebelliousness.
Devil’s Playground (2002) directed by Lucy Walker
What would you choose? Amish 16-year olds in this documentary debate whether to leave their community and faith in a ritualistic rumspringa (“running around”), when they sample the pleasures and vices of mainstream United States. Amish teens try drugs, drive cars, have premarital sex, and get jobs. Even after all that excitement, 90 percent of Amish children return to their communities, according to the documentary. But if they renounce the community after they have been baptized, they are forever shunned by their friends and family.
Be Like Others (2008) directed by Tanaz Eshaghian
In Iran, homosexual relationships are punishable by death, but sex reassignment surgery is a legal “cure” in accordance with religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1983 fatwa. Be Like Others examines the effects of these two policies, namely that some Iranians are pressured into having sex change surgery who would not otherwise have become transsexuals, according to director Tanaz Eshaghian. Post-surgery, one character is shunned by her family, while another gets engaged to her boyfriend.
Father Roy: Inside the School of Assassins (1997) directed by Robert Richter
Before Abu Ghraib, there was Ft. Benning, Georgia. Vietnam veteran and activist Father Roy Bourgeois risked his life to shut down the secret CIA torture training facility in Ft. Benning. Director Robert Richter also was sworn to secrecy in the making of this film as three witnesses confirmed the existence of the School of the Americas. Despite their efforts, it continues today under a different name: the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation.
Jesus, Politics, the Bible & the Ballot (2009) directed by Ilan Ziv
Before the 2008 election cycle, Israeli director Ilan Ziv traveled 2,000 miles through the US to find out how religion was influencing politics. With tours through mosques, farms, and churches, Ziv highlighted the complicated entanglement of faith and the elections.
The Calling (2010) directed by Daniel Alpert
What drives a person to dedicate their life to religion? The Calling follows Muslims, Jews, Evangelical Christians, and Catholics on their journey to becoming clergy. While modern life pulls people away from faith, the religious leaders in the documentary make extreme sacrifices for a way of life that has increasingly become questioned by the world around them.
Samsara (2011) directed by Ron Fricke
The nonverbal and meditative Samsara (meaning “continuous flow” in Tibetan) captures sacred sites around the world. Filmed over five years and in 25 different countries, this sensuously shot film also shows the variety of international human belief systems through manmade and natural wonders.