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Reflecting on two documentaries.

I recently watched two opposing documentaries; disturbing, irritating, inspiring, uplifting, and frightening documentaries. Both were released in 2006. The first, Jesus Camp, is described thus:

This riveting Oscar-nominated documentary offers an unfiltered look at a revivalist subculture in which devout Christian youngsters are being primed to deliver the fundamentalist community’s religious and political messages. Building an evangelical army of tomorrow, the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil’s Lake, N.D., is dedicated to deepening the preteens’ spirituality and sowing the seeds of political activism.

Tonight’s selection was Small Town Gay Bar, featuring the end(ea)(u)ring Fred Phelps, and is described this way:

Despite the collective outings of Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, Rosie O’Donnell and Olympic diver Greg Louganis, homophobia is alive and well – especially in the small towns of the Deep South. Focusing on the day-to-day struggles of two Mississippi gay bars and the grateful patrons who often travel hundreds of miles to find them, filmmaker Malcolm Ingram reveals a surprisingly close community that treats its residents like family members.

Both films trace cultural experience within rural communities; a powerful yet overlooked and misunderstood side of the nation, at least to city dwellers. The portrayal of these communities begs the viewer to consider the historical context of their cultures and the consequences of their development. Both portray marginalized social minorities and their struggles.  The evangelical leaders, parents, and children seen in Jesus Camp and the small-town southern queers seen in Small Town Gay Bar have a lot in common, both being minorities attempting to define themselves within an intolerant social sphere by establishing groups and physical spaces for support and gathering, but can be seen as inversions of each other.

Yet the group portrayed in Jesus Camp is a minority by choice that makes the effort to remove itself from the society and culture that surrounds it. Simultaneously, the group schemes to find ways to force society to adapt to the distortion it’s made of itself through use of a political agenda. Small Town Gay Bar portrays a group that is not a minority by choice, and fights against efforts of the surrounding society and culture to push it to the fringe, or even wipe it out. This is a minority group making an effort to integrate and define itself within a culture and society without attempts, political or otherwise, intended to control or distort the surrounding society.

The evangelicals are shown to organize themselves around a self-defined system of beliefs, a system that has been constructed, defined, and nurtured within this minority community for the benefit and control of itself in lieu of other systems of belief or governance found in the larger social sphere. This belief system, intentionally or coincidentally, puts the evangelicals at odds with broader society, and, again intentionally or coincidentally, removes them from the surrounding culture and society. As an example, the film depicts home-schooling children as a common activity in the evangelical community, as a means to remove them from the influence of beliefs and ideas that challenge or invalidate their own. In this way, and emphasized further in the film’s depiction of an evangelical summer camp, children are shown as a means for the community to reproduce itself. The queer community defines itself as a result of marginalized individuals coming together, rather than individuals coming together and forming a community that becomes marginalized. It is a community that is not organized around a system of beliefs defined within the community, but results from a surrounding, popular system of beliefs regarding sexuality. The community of southern queers in Small Town Gay Bar is not formed, defined, or organized around doctrine the way in which the evangelical community in Jesus Camp is defined. For example, men and women interviewed in this film explain the effects of the closing of the local gay bar in rural Mississippi. The small community of queers that relied on that bar as a safe place to congregate was dissolved, and once again individuals were split apart, alone and weakened without the support of a group.

Rather than being a group of minorities that come together because of who they are in spite of their own intentions, out of a need to form a community of marginalized individuals defining themselves as a group in relation to broader society as an “other,” the evangelicals is a group of individuals, mostly children, that is gathered to create and reproduce itself through this belief system that the group itself creates. It is true that the children are brought into the group and involved in spite of their own intentions, but they are not included due to any biology, economy, or ethnicity that define other minority groups. One young boy is shown in Jesus Camp in the midst of a crisis because he, admittedly, cannot be convinced to believe what he’s been taught, but he knows he is supposed to believe it; his parents, friends, and community elders expect him to believe it. It becomes clear that he doesn’t feel he has any choice but to make every effort he can to make himself believe and become a part of this group.

The belief system within this community is spearheaded by a small group of community leaders that operate with unquestioned and unchallenged authority, motivation, and fallibility. These leaders are lauded for the relationships they’ve forged with political leaders. As an example, Ted Haggard, shown at the height of his power in the evangelical community (prior to the scandal that lead to his downfall), is presented as an example for the community to follow in establishing political control because of his close connection to the Bush Regime. Churchgoers are also seen praying over a life-sized cardboard cutout of G.W. Bush, described by the group as their great spiritual leader in politics and government. The goal for this minority group, as communicated to the viewer, is to gain majority control of the nation, based on its peculiar belief system, through connections to and influence of political figures. The queer community has no such leaders, only organizers such as the entrepreneurs that open bars and the performers found within. The community is much more “grass roots” in its structure, but the lack of leaders proves to be detrimental. Unlike the evangelical community, there are no leaders in this community of small-town southern queers to forge relationships with political leaders. The result is that there is no one fighting for the rights of this minority group. It is a community that needs to fight for survival, but Small Town Gay Bar does not present anyone that is doing so. This community isn’t interested in imposing controls onto the broader population the way that evangelicals are, but only interested in its own survival, although there is no system of organization in place to make this happen. The evangelicals in Jesus Camp are outraged by those outside of their community for no reason other than disagreement with their belief system, but nonetheless have been successful in achieving political and legal control over those outside their community. The queer community is endangered by those outside of their community that are hostile to their very existence, oftentimes even physical hostile, but nonetheless have not been successful in achieving political and legal rights for themselves.

But what perhaps bothers me the most when comparing these two communities is self-destruction. The evangelicals have carefully defined means to reproduce and expand their community through indoctrination of children, forging political, media, and industrial relations, and creating a very strong physical presence. At the same time, the community is self-supporting and nurturing, careful not to destroy itself. The queer community not only lacks means of reproduction and expansion but has also burdened itself with much self-destruction. Drug use, barebacking and other unsafe sex practices, and an all-too prevalent attitude of exclusivity threaten to destroy the community physically and morally. Queer communities, in both large cities and small towns, have a constant struggle against surrounding society. This is more than enough to contend with.

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