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We Believe in Dinosaurs

I had first heard about The Creation Museum by way of the Duggars. You remember them. The Quiverfull family who had their own hit show on TLC that went from 17 to 18 to 19 Kids and Counting. It was eventually pulled off the air when their oldest son was involved in a sex abuse scandal and a spin-off show eventually replaced it. On one episode of the 18 Kids and Counting, the Duggar clan visits said museum and I was both fascinated and horrified by what I saw. The fierce protection of their literal interpretation of the book of Genesis meant that dinosaurs had to be explained and Darwin’s theory of evolution had to be debunked. Led by Ken Ham, the president and founder of Answers in Genesis, the museum’s sole purpose is to prove that the Bible is scientifically accurate.

A new documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross visits Petersburg, KY, home of The Creation Museum and the center of a turbulent battle between creationists and pro-science communities. Shot over the course of four years, it chronicles the building of the Ark Encounter, a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. In addition to interviews with creationists who work for the museum or support its cause, the documentary also follows two outspoken critics. First there is Dan, a pro-science geologist who has had a lifelong fascination with dinosaurs. Then there is David, a former creationist with a lifelong membership to the museum whose Christian beliefs have evolved away from the psuedo-science of creationism. The events in the documentary lead up to the unveiling of the Ark Encounter and the consequent protest. As a whole the film serves as a portrait of a rural conservative town that has a complicated relationship with the Creation Museum and the economic growth that it promises to bring but ultimately fails to.

I’m impressed by how We Believe in Dinosaurs takes a balanced approach to this subject matter even though it’s clear that this is a critique on creationism. We hear from both sides which is quite extraordinary as the creationists are very protective of their ideology. Ken Ham is not interviewed but several others are including a lecturer, one of the artists working on the Ark Encounter and a pastor who orchestrates a protest to the protest.

“The film echoes the present political climate as Americans stare across a divide at one another, science growing ever more politicized and truth dependent on one’s worldview. Given this highly polarized state of affairs, we understand that WE BELIEVE IN DINOSAURS will not convert creationists to the truth of evolution. However, we do believe the film will spark a vibrant dialogue about the thorny intersection of belief, religion, and science, penetrating the cultural “bubbles” in which so many Americans seem to exist.”

–    from the directors’ statement by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross

As someone who grew up in a Christian denomination that promoted a problematic interpretation of Genesis, I felt closest to David. I wanted to hear more from him. In fact, this would have been a better documentary had David been the center of the story. He’s an in-between figure; someone who’s been on both sides of the creationist vs. science debate and can offer a unique perspective. It would have grounded the story and made it more relatable.

We Believe in Dinosaurs opens up a dialogue about America’s problematic relationship with science. It’s a difficult subject to broach and will make some viewers angry. Where it lacks in storytelling it makes up for in starting the much needed conversation that we’ve all been avoiding.

We Believe in Dinosaurs had its world premiere at SFFilm.

SXSW: Sister Aimee

On May 18, 1926, celebrity evangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared. Presumed drowned in Ocean Park Beach, Santa Monica, the news of her disappearance caused a national frenzy. Just as her devoted followers were ready to mourn her death, she resurfaced over a month later claiming that a woman named Mexicali Rose and a man named Steve kidnapped her and held her hostage. When she returned, the story of her escape raised some eyebrows and while Sister Aimee stuck to her story there were many who didn’t believe her tale. A case was brought against her in court but eventually dropped. What exactly did happen to Sister Aimee?

This story is 5-1/2% truth… the rest is imagination.

Written and directed by Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, Sister Aimee is reimagines the events that happened during her disappearance. Based on truth, the film is primarily fantasy that blends elements of a period piece, a Western, a road trip movie, an LGBT love story and even features a climactic musical number. Anna Margaret Hollyman stars as Sister Aimee. Frustrated with the trappings of fame, she decides to fake her own death and runaway with her love Kenny/Steve (Michael Mosley). The two go undercover and travel to Mexico to start a new life together. Kenny hires Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), a tough-as-nails Mexican woman who serves as their bodyguard and guide on the treacherous journey ahead. Along the way, the trio meet a variety of nefarious characters. Juxtaposed with the road trip scenes, is the investigation into Sister Aimee’s disappearance and the affect on her religious following. Aimee and Rey eventually get arrested and must plot their escape. 

If you’re looking for a Aimee Semple McPherson biopic, this is not it. Instead of a period piece about a fraudulent evangelist, I got a lesbian road trip movie instead. And let me tell you I was very happy with this. I attended the SXSW premiere of the film, settled into my seat, had a couple of mojitos and went along for the ride. Sister Aimee is my favorite film I saw at SXSW. Set in the 1920s, one of my favorite eras, with strong female protagonists and plenty of Latino characters… I was very happy with the end result! 

“As a Latino coming into a project… a period piece, it’s something that rarely happens. Apparently we didn’t exist back then… To have the freedom to not speak in an accent, when you speak in English or Spanish for the character… for me it was pretty revolutionary… [the directors] were very free to let the person be the person and not the stereotype.”

Luis Bordonada

Aimee is a complex character who evolves as the story progresses. Rey is just a bad ass through and through. I developed a massive crush on her. If I’m getting too personal in this review it’s because this film spoke to me on so many level and I can’t separate my emotional reactions enough to write an objective review. I just loved this movie. It does start off a bit slow but picks up. The performances, especially from Paz and Hollyman, were fantastic and Hollyman’s music and dance number is the highlight of the film.

Director-writer duo Schlingmann and Buck are partners in work and life and I wonder how much of their relationship worked its way into the script. In a Q&A after the SXSW screening, Schlingmann said the idea to make the film came to them from Anna Margaret Hollyman, who starred in their short film The Mink Catcher, who was interested in L.A. local history. The filmmakers did research and found the perfect subject for their debut feature-length film. 

For those of you, like me, who are very particular about period detail, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. The finger waves were a little too ironed on for my taste but I thought the costumes and the sets were on point. It was shot on location in Austin, TX and seeing it in that city added something special to the experience.

Sister Aimee is a brilliant road trip movie centered on empowered female characters and reimagines an obscure event from early 20th century American history.

Sister Aimee screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Festival Favorites series.

SXSW: Strange Negotiations

“There’s this push for your faith to be fully integrated into your person, into your identity.”

David Bazan on being Evangelical Christian

In 2006, Christian Rock star David Bazan left his band Pedro the Lion to pursue a solo career. Bazan’s entire world had been deeply entrenched in Evangelical Christianity. When he begins to question his belief and ultimately loses his faith he struggles to find a way to maintain his music career and support his family.

Director Brandon Vedder’s documentary Strange Negotiations follows Bazan a decade into his journey as he travels across the country as a solo act, performing in fan’s living rooms and in many other venues. There is this sense of community when you’re religious. It almost acts as a safety net. And when everyone in your life, your friends, your family, and your colleagues are in that world, leaving it can be incredibly isolating. The viewer goes on a road trip with Bazan and he becomes a spiritual guide. In interviews, we hear Bazan process his past, present and future within the scope of his religion and his personal struggles. Bazan’s story is juxtaposed with NPR coverage of the Evangelical movement in the U.S. and how that has effected the current political climate.

“I [saw] vulnerability as the antidote to all this anxiety and self-loathing.”

David Bazan

The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. I still have mixed feelings about the use of fancy drone shots but in this case it just plain works. The drone flies high above the barren landscape of the Bible Belt as we follow Bazan on his road trip. These shots are gorgeous, almost ethereal. It’s as if we’re seeing Bazan’s world from an angel’s point of view. The camera also gets right up into the personal space of its subject with Bazan being filmed in a tight frame while in conversation, driving through an urban landscape or in the intimate space of one of his performances.

Strange Negotiations is a poetic and deeply personal documentary about the loss of faith and the struggle to find oneself. If you’re someone, like me, whose struggled with faith, you may find a kindred spirit in Bazan. If the faith aspect doesn’t speak to you, it’s simply an interesting story about a musician at a crossroads in his life and career.

Strange Negotiations had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second documentary series.

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