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Sundance: AUM: The Cult at the End of the World

“Cults are living creatures that feed on people’s anxieties. If you are too pure and sincere, you may end up in a place that is different from where you had set out to be in the first place.”

In the 1980s, Japan experienced an occult boom, an after effect of the Cold War and a result of the growing disenchantment in the country’s government. It was during this time that self-imposed guru Shoko Asahara transformed his yoga school into a doomsday cult: Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”). Hundreds of members followed Asahara’s every word and command. What started off as a quest for spiritual enlightenment took a deadly turn. After a disastrous run for local government, Asahara soon transformed AUM  from a cult into a terrorist organization, one that would ultimately be involved in the deadly Tokyo subway sarin attack of 1995. 

Directed by Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto, AUM: The Cult at the End of the World examines the complicated history of AUM and its leader Shoko Asahara. Interviews with former members, including a high ranking monk, loved ones who started a Victims Association and those affected by various sarin attacks, really drive home just how dangerous this cult was in its time. Cult documentaries have gained a following in recent years and anyone fascinated with mind control and cult mentality will find a lot to be horrified by in this film. Apparently AUM is a touchy subject in Japan and the directors made it their mission to handle with delicate topic with great care.

AUM: The Cult at the End of the World premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance: The Mission

Directed by Tania Anderson, The Mission follows a group of young Mormon missionaries as they travel to Finland to proselytize. The missionaries work in twos of the same gender, a way to protect each other but also maintain purity and keep tabs on each other. The film follows the young  elders and sisters as they struggle to learn Finnish, deal with resistance from the locals and connect with other Mormons. 

Anderson’s documentary is very straightforward. There are no formal interviews, no narration, no history lessons, no opinion or debate. The Mormon missionaries are presented in a way that is enlightening and respectful. Sometimes you just need the subjects to tell their own story and Anderson recognized this and gave the missionaries space to do so.

As someone who used to be in a religion that put emphasis on proselytizing, I really felt for the elder who had to cut his mission short because he was suffering from panic attacks. I went through the same thing and I hope he’s able to find help and an escape from his situation.

The Mission premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance: Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul

After controversy drove away all but a handful of congregants from the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) dreams of a new beginning. With his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall), AKA “The First Lady”, by his side he gets to work relaunching the church just in time for Easter. In his time, Lee-Curtis  shared a prosperity gospel from a gold throne, sold worship DVDs, has laser shoes and did “praise miming.” All spectacle for what ended up being false righteousness when he was accused of sexual misconduct. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the details of both his controversy and his crumbling marriage. The couple and their church are the focus of a documentary series with a camera crew following their every move. And the person taking center stage is Trinitie/The First Lady, who feels forced to keep up appearances and support her husband despite all signs warning her to escape.

By filmmaking duo Adamma and Adanne Ebo, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul is a satisfyingly funny satire that features two wonderful performances from its stars Brown and Hall. Regina Hall especially shines in her portrayal of a woman falling apart on the inside but trying to hold it together for everyone else. The story loses steam in the last half and I wish the filmmakers had stuck to a strictly mockumentary style format rather than shifting back and forth from it.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

TIFF: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) was a child of divorce, something that caused her very religious mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) great anguish. She’s kept out of the church that her mother, stepfather and siblings attend but Tammy Faye is inspired by the religious fervor she witnesses from window and is determined to be a part of it. Years later, she meets  Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a fellow student at her Christian college. The two see eye-to-eye on religious matters, including the idea God’s blessings come in several forms including wealth and business opportunities. They preach the gospel first with a puppet show they take on the road and next on television with The Jim and Tammy  Show on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) network CBN.

Seizing every new opportunity and making several of their own, the religious duo became television icons. They started their own network, PTL, and hosted their own hit show. It made them rich but soon their tight bond began to sour. Jim was terrible with money and resented Tammy Faye’s star power. Tammy Faye faced many demons including her own husband, loneliness, a fractured relationship with her mother, an addiction to benzos and opposition from one of the biggest leaders in the Christian world, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). As things unravel, Tammy Faye would need to find the strength to be true to herself.

Based on the 2001 documentary by the same name and directed by Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stunning biopic that hits all the right marks, including an exceptional performance by Jessica Chastain. She got Tammy Faye’s energy, her Minnesota accent and all of her mannerisms all down to a T. The prosthetics and make-up are only mildly distracting and really you can’t help but see Tammy Faye through Jessica Chastain. The film doesn’t try to demonize Jim or Tammy Faye Bakker. They are both presented as flawed personalities, Jim more so than Tammy Faye, who had good intentions but went very badly astray. Tammy Faye is a well-rounded character. We see all aspects of her personality including her great capacity for love and her sympathy for the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, something that went against the evangelical mindset at the time. Tammy Faye epitomizes what we think Christianity should be and pitted against Jerry Falwell we see what it generally has become. With that said, at no point does it criticize Christian religion. Rather it criticizes individuals and their actions.

And let me for a moment talk about how well this movie uses disruptive sound. There are several moments in the film where the sound of a phone ringing cuts into a rather emotional scene. There is also Tammy Faye singing against a very silent backdrop and a tension filled scene is disrupted by a baby crying. It’s quite effective. The film also uses ’70s style fonts and mimics grainy television footage which adds to the nostalgic appeal.

At the TIFF Tribute Awards, Jessica Chastain, who also served on the film as producer, talked about the biopic as her passion project. She’s been working on it for 10 years and wanted to make sure that her portrayal of Tammy Faye really showed the love and compassion she had instead of just depicting her as a grifter. 

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a vague notion as a child of who Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were. I definitely remember the scandal that landed Jim Bakker in jail. Years later I watched the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life and that’s what gave me my first real introduction into who Tammy Faye Bakker was as a person. That show was like a Real World type format but with celebrities. For the second season, they purposely put Tammy Faye in the home with porn star Ron Jeremy in hopes that it would stir up drama. Other cast members included Erik Estrada and Vanilla Ice. I was really impressed with how Tammy Faye handled herself. They put her in situations where she would have to apologize or defend herself and she was ALWAYS true to herself. She showed a genuine love for others that really struck a chord with me and that I never forgot. Years later watching this biopic about her that same Tammy Faye came through.

I highly recommend this film. It’s one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Yes, God, Yes

Alice (Natalia Dyer)’s sexual curiosity is getting her unwanted attention at her Catholic high school. After an illicit AOL chat and a rumor about her performing a sexual act on another student, high school is now even more awkward for the already awkward Alice. When an opportunity arises to go to a supposedly life-changing spiritual treat, Alice jumps at the chance. However, at the retreat she quickly learns that the perception of purity is toxic especially when everyone has their own secrets, including her.

Written and directed by Karen Maine, Yes, God, Yes is a gentle coming-of-age story that examines problems with purity culture. Set during the time when AOL chats and Yahoo! searches online were the norm, Alice navigates the online world to discover her own sexuality. The film tackles all sorts of topics, including gossip, misogyny, homosexuality, and shaming, with a light touch. As someone who had a strict religious upbringing and grew up during this technological era, I found Alice’s story very relatable. The film could have delved into some other aspects of purity culture and religion or given us more background on the characters. However, doing so would have made the story more heavy-handed. Instead, Maine gives us a movie that is equal parts enjoyable and revelatory.

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