Showing a film at the Atheist Film Festival is kind of like preaching to the choir. Now in its 5th year, the festival (tagline: "A film festival you can believe in") plays at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco this Saturday. Its limited line-up is an argument for the importance of the event itself: There aren't enough atheists out there, organizers would surely argue, and neither are there enough movies on the subject, at least with the film festival's particular bent.
Scott Thurman tackles church and state in the The Revisionaries, a documentary covering the Texas Board of Education, the country's most influential. Representing one of the most largely populated states in the U.S., it's a board that holds unmatched sway over textbook publishers and what they print -- and subsequently, what other states end up buying for their own schools, as well.
With mostly religious conservatives on the board, partisan politics brings faith into the agenda, with the majority harnessing its clout to change core axioms of the current curriculum: Under their guidance, science books are altered to question evolution, and history texts to promote American government as founded according to Christian principles. While the clash between religion versus science is expected, watching board members play scientists and historians -- with selective memories suited to their spiritual beliefs -- is revealing. That the chairman of the board claims the world is only 6,000 years old is proof of his academic singularity. That he chooses to strike "hip hop" out of the history textbooks and substitute it with "country and western music" is proof of his discriminatory eye.
Make no mistake: The film is the product of reactionary activists, and while it dives into the minutiae of board hearings, angling in on policy nitpicking and vote collecting, it's more concerned with chronicling -- and stopping -- the modern-day crusade of religious evangelicals. There's a certain dogmatism and hypocrisy apparent in key members of the board, who are willing to reject or cite scientific fact at their convenience, and have few misgivings with letting their personal faith dictate the study materials of millions of young people. At its core, the film is about how religion is a fundamental component to the way our country is run.
Zealotry takes another turn in the festival, in a documentary orchestrated much in the same vein as Borat. The award-winning Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet is a personal and thoughtful film, though with a premise drenched in novelty. Vikram Gandhi, a second-generation Indian American raised in accordance with Hinduism, finds himself losing faith just as the west is buying into Indian spirituality. His work on a documentary featuring gurus at home and in the motherland brings him to encounter his fair share of frauds, ultimately pointing him to pose the film's main question: How much of the meaning behind spirituality is just an illusion that we choose to believe? Can a false religion affect its followers just as powerfully as a "real" one?
Cue the film's novel twist: Gandhi will transform himself into an Indian guru named Kumare and appear on the Arizona yoga scene to build a following throughout the state. Should he achieve success, it will prove that spiritual authenticity is merely something we fabricate.
The film maneuvers between the heartfelt and farcical: Gandhi grows out his hair, creates unthinkable, laughable yoga postures, and puts on an Indian accent modeled after his grandmother's. But while the lighter moments get their share of snickers, they're sometimes uncomfortably mean-spirited -- we're laughing at the people he's fooling, and often when they're at their most vulnerable. At times when the movie delves deeper, things gets ethically messy: like when Gandhi is privy to heartfelt, intimate confessions from "disciples" who trust and confide in him as Kumare, the guru. Little do they know he's actually from New Jersey.
As his teachings begin to gain traction, Gandhi pushes them to the edge for the mere sake of doing so, even leading an eager follower to meditate before an altar displaying three images: one of Kumare himself, and two more featuring framed pictures of Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden. The revelation of his true identity at the end pushes the film even further into mixed emotional territory, playing both genuine ... and not unlike the final episode of yet another unethically-premised reality TV show.
What Kumare reveals is that, skeptical as the director may be, the public -- or the self-selected public within the film, at least -- perceives a real need to believe. It's an uncomfortable realization for a film showing at an atheist festival, but one that offers more complexity to a sometimes staunchly rational set list.
Relying largely on reason and science for coherence and for narrative thrust, the documentaries in the festival can come off as clinical. The dramatic films offer more of a personal take on the atheist perspective. Creation offers its own interpretation of Charles Darwin's struggle to produce the book he knew would offend the western world. The Magdalene Sisters promotes its own political agenda, taking on the Irish legacy of "Magdalene Asylums," where "shamed" women were sent to laundry houses to repent for their sins, with a critical and unforgiving eye. These films are an important addition to the festival for rendering, quite beautifully, the inner agony of those rejecting and rejected by religion.
The 5th Atheist Film Festival is September 14, 2013 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. For more information, visit sfatheistfilmfestival.org.