We saw the premiere of What Would Jesus Buy?, a documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me), directed by Rob VanAlkemade, about Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. We almost didn't.
I had suggested early on that we might pass on the big buzz films: why fight the crowds when those films will get distribution deals and we can see them when everyone else sees them? But we didn't get in to Little Bitty Titty Comittee at Alamo Downtown. We were near the front of the passholders line, but the badgeholders filled up the theater.
We drove over to Waterloo Icehouse for catfish, looked at the schedule, and decided that What Would Jesus Buy? was the only thing we really wanted to see in the 9:30-ish slot. When we got to the Paramount about an hour and half before the screening, the line was already fairly long, and we entertained ourselves with people-watching. Austin is always good for people-watching, but SXSW is a bonanza.
The documentary follows the tour of Rev. Billy and his choir, their performances in venues across the country as well as their guerrilla performances in malls, Wal-Marts, and Starbucks stores. The story counts down the shopping days to Christmas and climaxes with the holiday season. Along the way they have various setbacks, including getting rear-ended by an 18-wheeler. Their mission is to get people to think about what they're buying. To "Stop Shopping!" and they do it by means of full-on gospel preaching and singing. Rev. Billy in his bleach-blond pompadour and the choir in their red robes baptize a baby in a mall parking lot and perform an exorcism in front of Wal-Mart headquarters. Their guerrilla performances usually culminate with cops and security guards escorting them away, but they don't stop singing.
It was thrilling. I've never been so excited watching a movie. Seeing these talented performers doing political theater, often in front of surprised if not hostile audiences, with humor and total commitment was an inspiration.
Interspersed with the performances are talking head-style interviews with various experts and documentary footage illustrating factory conditions where American products are made, as well as interviews and footage of American families and their shopping habits. But this stuff is never dry. In fact it's very affecting, giving urgency to Rev. Billy's crusade.
Rev. Billy and the choir were in the house and, after the film and the long standing ovation, they performed their signature song, "Stop Shopping."
I hope this film is a huge hit. I can't think of a more urgent message, and this movie, just like Rev. Billy's performances, gets it across by disarming the audience with humor. People wonder what they can do to make a difference when there's so much suffering and injustice in the world, and this film says simply, "Stop shopping." Rampant, insane, American consumerism either causes or exacerbates all the big problems in the world.
I know it's impossible to be a completely clean consumer if you want to live in the modern world and interact with the culture. But that shouldn't be an excuse to ignore the whole thing. Be aware of what you buy, where it was made, who made it, and what it took to get it to you.
Earlier we saw Does Your Soul Have a Cold?, a documentary by the director of Thumbsucker. It was a verite-style doc about 5 Japanese people taking anti-depressants. I didn't feel like I ever got to know the people. It was beautifully shot, and I did get a very strong sense of the numbness of these people's lives, but the pace was slow and even throughout, not so much depressing as just dull.