Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Seeking the truth

I watched a beautiful documentary film a couple of nights back here in Augusta. "BamaGirl" follows a young lady named Jessica Thomas as she seeks to become Homecoming Queen at the University of Alabama. Jessica is black. Despite a well-orchestrated and hard-fought campaign, she does not win the title (although she earns a spot on the homecoming court). The winner is supported by the "Machine," a loose conglomeration of all-white fraternities and sororities. One walks away from the movie impressed by Jessica, and by her willingness to take on an entrenched system.

As a former newspaper guy, I was especially struck by "BamaGirl's" journalistic honesty. Director Rachel Goslins did what good reporters do: she followed her reporting wherever it led her. She talked to a lot of people and uncovered as much information as humanly possible -- and then she allowed what she had learned to give shape to the story.

After the screening, she spoke about the project. She's a west-coast lady, a UCLA grad who had rather well-defined (and not always complimentary) notions about southerners when she started the project. Along the way, she lost a few of her west coast biases. By the time she had finished, she had talked to enough southerners to realize that we are not all knuckle-dragging Neanderthals yearning for the old days of slavery. She walked away from the project liking us for the most part, I think -- although she's inclined to challenge some of the societal structures that remain in place.

Goslins and her movie stand in sharp contrast to a project like Bill Maher's "Religulous." Each is well-crafted, but they take very different storytelling approaches. Like Goslins, Maher does a fairly thorough job of reporting his story. Unlike Goslins, Maher does not follow his reporting. Rather, he shoe-horns his reporting in around the edges of his thesis: that organized religion is an essentially destructive force that is more about controlling people than it is about God.

Maher formed his thesis from life experience and (therefore) from personal bias. Unlike Goslins, who describes tweaking her message in response to what she learned while reporting the story, Maher sticks to his thesis like a bulldog. He loses nuance that way. He also loses any claim that he is seeking to discern the actual truth about God or about the often-faulty structures that human beings have created on God's behalf.

Goslins is like a pastor who starts with a piece of scripture -- studies it -- prays over it -- and then shares on Sunday morning what God is communicating through scripture. Maher is like a preacher who decides that he wants to talk about sin -- that he wants to make certain points about sin -- and then goes looking for scripture to support what he wants to say.

One is communicating an honestly discovered truth. The other is communicating an opinion, supported (not always fairly) by available source materials.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Charlie. thanks for sharing your impressions of Goslin's film too. I've not heard of it. I'm not that interested in Maher's - might be entertaining for 10-15 minutes, but I'd imagine it gets old quick.

Allen Allnoch said...

Very interesting comparison/contrast!