When an American tells you that they're a Christian, you might need to ask them what denomination, and the answer you get might not be one of the more common ones. In his second feature documentary, Spanish directer Aram Garriga travels across the United States to find the unique, the odd, and the sometimes arguably baffling Christian sects that find ther niche in a country perhaps too obsessed with religious worship and devotion. Fascinating, open and non-judgemental, American Jesus
is an amazing film, the kind that only an outsider could make.
Garriga introduces the audience to various members of these sects, which are various: a cowboy church, a surfer church, one started by a biker, another that focuses on showing feats of strength as evidence of God, and even one started by the former star of 90s children's show Power Rangers
that involves extreme fighting. As the film introduces each sect, they get more and more bizarre, more seemingly extreme, and a few are more than a little scary (such as one deep in the Bible Belt that claims it can communicate with snakes). In the second half of the film, Garriga brings in some experts on religion in the US and its effect on political dialogue, as well as one or two people who are former members of these kinds of sects, and why they eventually left.
Garriga is the invisible documentarian. With the introduction of each group, he carefully sets up the geographical and physical environment in which each operates, and then allows the spokesperson to explain how and why their beliefs came to them, and how their church operates. Most of the shots are medium or close-ups, bringing the viewer right in front of each of these groups and people, as to emphasize their status as people and not just figures of ridicule. Garriga is most definitely not trying to bring a personal opinion or attitude to the subject matter, which is to the film's great advantage: he is letting these people, and their actions, speak for themselves. Early in the film, he captures a young surfer who asks how anyone could not believe in God in the face of the beauty of the waves and sand; the way Garriga films him, you are inclined to agree. But this also occasionally works against one or two of the sects, as judged by the laughter of the audience, to whom this kind of devotion, or at least how it is practiced, is completely alien.
But these are outsider sects, even as they operate more or less within the Christian faith (i.e. an emphasis on Jesus as saviour). So it would take outsiders to the culture, such as Garriga and co-writer Xavi Prat, to present them without prejudice. It is perfectly paced to take the audience on what is essentially a journey around these fringes of the US. The emphasis on neutrality in the narrative is buoyed by Benet Roman's gorgeous cinematography, that again gives both a beautiful and honest image of the subjects, and Garriga's editing is seamless. In addition, there is an incredible animation sequence used in conjunction with a story, which I won't spoil too much, though I will say that it had shades of the Quay Brothers.
In many ways, this feels like an anthropological film, an attempt to understand why and how these types of outsider Christian demoninations have really only taken hold in this one nation, and how it is connected to the political, social, and cultural history and ideology of the United States. Is this truly the land of religious freedom, or is the emphasis on Christianity (in whatever form it may take) another kind of repression? Such diversity seems to peacefully co-exist, but with more than one of the subjects discussing their belief in an upcoming apocalypse, will that peace continue?
Garriga has made one of the best and most interesting documentaries on religion. It easily stands alongside other recent films on the subject, such as Jesus Camp, that try to understand how religious devotion can often take such strange and radical forms (in fact, that would be a great double bill). It's the best kind of documentary: one that draws you into its story from the first minutes, and will leave you talking about it for hours after.
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