Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Silverdocs: What Would Jesus Buy?

What Would Jesus Buy?

This was the East Coast premiere of a film about Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. One of the producers is Morgan Spurlock, of Supersize Me fame. The intertitles in this film are of a similar style as Supersize Me. I’m a big fan of these intertitles. They resemble Monty Python animation.The film opens with something like a movie trailer voiceover saying “Five million extra tons of trash are generated by Christmas,” over images of frenzied holiday shoppers and newcasts referring to holiday shopping. It was the best opening of a film that I’ve ever seen. The crowd applauded the opening as the titles started. Intertitle: Newborn Bling. Interviewees are introduced with title cards that look like gift tags. Peter C. Whybrow, the author of American Mania (http://www.peterwhybrow.com/books/americanmania/), is interviewed. The Choir Director instructs Billy that he should let the performance emerge from a real situation. Intertitle: Shopping Addiction. Intertitle: What Would Jesus Buy? Intertitle: Eternal Debt. Robert D. Manning, author of Credit Card Nation (http://www.creditcardnation.com/books.html), is interviewed. The Stop Shopping Choir carols around a neighborhood of McMansions. They give the homeowner a flyer with the words so they can sing along. The film does a follow the bouncing ball (in this case Rev. Billy’s head) sing-a-long over images of a woman reacting to the song with her children. Judith Levine, author of Not Buying It (http://www.judithlevine.com/), is interviewed. Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature (http://www.billmckibben.com/books.html), is interviewed. The Choir Director explains the group’s goals to a local television news reporter over the telephone. They don’t expect people to actually buy nothing. First, they want people to buy products made in America because it is the best proxy for buying products made by workers who were treated humanely and paid a living wage. Next, they want people to try to buy from locally owned stores to keep their money in their community. Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, is interviewed in his capacity as a spokesperson for a group called Working Families for Walmart (http://www.forwalmart.com/), [for more fascinating information about this group, especially Andrew Young’s involvement and departure go to http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Working_Families_for_Wal-Mart]The Choir stops at the headquarters of Wal-Mart. Before they arrive the Choir Director explains why they’re going there. It is an interesting way to accomplish exposition: first when she talks to the media and then when she talks to the group. After the Wal-Mart stop, Billy is self-critical of the event. He says he thought he would be teleported over the building and instead he just leaped into a bush. The Choir Director says she prefers actions that have a direct impact on people. The only audience to this event was the camera and the security guards. This is a fascinating reflection in a film that is in many ways like Michael Moore’s oeuvre. This statement differentiates this film and this group’s tactics from Moore’s films and tactics. Moore’s films are primarily structured around or prominently feature these sort of staged assaults. For example, in Bowling for Columbine Moore and a wheelchair-bound victim of a school shooting go to the headquarters of the store the sold the ammunition to the Columbine shooters and try to get someone there to respond to their concerns. Here, this group of activists say that sort of action feels hollow. They are activists first and subjects of a documentary second. Whereas Moore has made the act of making a documentary into activism itself. You have to choose to watch his film for it to have an impact, which is preaching to the choir (pun? intended).On a completely different topic, What Would Jesus Buy? is structured around the Choir’s cross-country bus trip from New York City to Disneyland in the countdown of shopping days until Christmas. Along the way one of the two buses is rear-ended by a semi. This is a horrible tragedy and lots of the people on the bus are injured and wind up in the hospital. But they charter another bus and the people get released from the hospital and the journey continues. The question this segment leaves with me is: was it necessary? Would I include any reference to the bus crash in my version of this film? Did it further the message? I don’t think it did. Maybe it demonstrated the participants’ dedication to the mission. Maybe including it honors the people involved and their suffering. Maybe it adds a bit of dramatic tension: our heroes are in peril. Will they ever make it to Disneyland? Maybe it simply explains why half the choir suddenly stops riding in an old bus miraculously appears riding in a brand new bus. I don’t know. I’d like to see how the film runs without it.The film ends with the Choir’s action in Disneyland. Billy is detained by park security. The filmmakers are asked to turn off the camera. The audio picks up the fabulous line, “Disneyland is not like America. People aren’t free to just . . . sing.”

Q & A with the director, Reverend Billy, the Choir Director, and a selection of the Stop Shopping Choir. The interview is conducted by John Ydstie of NPR.

Q: How did you come up with this subject?
A: (Dir) I was looking for a project to do in my spare time. I found the church in New York City. I joined them for their cross-country trip. Then I got invited to do the feature.

Q: How did you film inside stores?
A: (Dir) We had verbal releases from everyone we spoke to on camera, though perhaps not all the people visible in the stores. During invasions there is a grey area between private and public space.
(Rev. Billy) Starbucks dropped their sponsorship of Silverdocs when it discovered Silverdocs had accepted this film.

Q: How did you get Morgan Spurlock involved in the film?
A: (Dir) I med him when we were both shooting for MTV Spring Break in Mexico to pay the bills. He’s also neighbors with Reverend Billy and the Choir Director in New York City. Morgan saw the Stop Shopping Choir in 1999 while he attended NYU film school.

Q: How do you get a film like this distributed?
A: (Rev) Some distributors are backing away because Wal-Mart sells most of their DVDs.
(Choir Dir.) We’re also limiting our market because we decided only to sell stuff that has content we made. When Morgan made buttons for our world premiere, he had to give them away rather than sell them because there was no content that we made.

Q: What was going on in that interview with Andrew Young?
A: (Dir.) It appears to be his cry for help. He has since moved on to other things.

Q: Something about the effect of the film.
A: (Choir director) The effect we hope the film has is that we can see a positive change. Based on our actions I have seen a positive change.

Q: Something about religion.
A: We do have a spiritual relationship to this topic. Corporations have more control over what people do than the Roman Catholic church did in the 1300s. They are fundamentalists. But we are post-religious. Some of the choir members are preacher’s kids. Others aren’t Christian, but agnostic or other religions.

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