TRAVERSE CITY, Mi. - Among the 59 short films screened at the Traverse City Film Festival, the title that attracted the most attention was "Jesus Was a Commie," directed by the accomplished actor Matthew Modine.
Clearly an attempt to diminish the negative stigma of the word in American culture, the film brought Modine to Traverse City where he appeared dressed in the same commie-type clothing that he wore in the film, while he spread his charm throughout the audience at the well-received screening. Known for his fine acting work in "Birdy" and "Full Metal Jacket," to name just two, here he waxes philosophical as the sole actor (playing himself) who wanders around different city locations musing on what 'communism' really means.
The thought-provoking 15-minute short challenges the traditional image and interpretation of Jesus and his life.
It starts out with scenes of the Berlin Wall falling and familiar images of Gorbachev and others. The voiceover reflects, "Last night I began reading about the fall of communism; the more I read, the less I believed it fell because it didn't make sense or didn't work. It was something simpler. It seems the most logical reason communism failed was because of greed. I'd say rock and roll being broadcast on Radio Free Europe had as much to do with the Berlin Wall coming down as Ronald Reagan demanding it so."
Although many readers might disagree with this assessment, it's a popular position presented sincerely and is sure to prompt further discussion.
But Modine goes on explaining, "I looked 'communism' up in the dictionary. The origin of communism is 'common' which is a word filled with goodness."
He elaborates on the definition and goes on to reason that during the time of Jesus his followers would sell their goods and bring the money to be shared in common. By this definition they were all 'communists.' This heretical claim would probably lose most Christians by now, but then he backpedals and professes that the most well-known world communist leaders 'corrupted' the essence of communism - it was really Jesus and his disciples who practiced the true meaning of it. He offers the familiar quote from Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."
Devoid of a serious examination of Marxism, or communism for that matter, the film still retains a philosophical quest for the truth, and a search for a better understanding of the word 'communism' when used in social discourse. Daringly titled and provocatively scripted, the film is a good starting point for discussion, especially in religious circles - even among progressives.
The longest film (264 minutes), and probably the most progressive at the festival, was shown in the smallest theater (35 seats). Using the Clark Air Base in the Philippines as the focus of the story, "Vapor Trail (Clark)" takes on some challenging themes, effects caused by the toxic contamination left at the base when it was abandoned in 1991, and the relatively unknown American imperialist adventure during the turn of the century that set the groundwork for future escapades in Vietnam, Iraq, and on and on. John Sayles recently took on the same subject, the Philippine/American War, in his new film, "Amigo," based on his own bestseller, "Moment in the Sun."
Those are two totally different styles of direction, though.
Director John Gianvito's work is reminiscent of the great British filmmaker Peter Watkins, known for his highly sensitive and provocative studies of history and politics. Stylistically, he challenges traditional formats, camerawork and film structure; long movies, lingering shots, slower pacing, and deep sensitivity to the subjects. Emerson College Professor Gianvito previously directed a meditative study of progressive landmarks and tombstones in a unique film called "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind." But "Vapor Trail (Clark)" is a major step forward in his work. Despite the challenging directorial approach, he's an artist to watch, and if you are open to accepting original artistic styles, his films are valuable and rewarding for progressives to see and study.
This of course raises the most important question: How can anyone see these films? Many of the great films shown at festivals are never released or seen anywhere else. But some end up in the movie theaters, on TV, cable or even the Internet. Some go directly to DVD and are available from places like Netflix or Blockbuster. The two films discussed here have websites where more detailed information can be found. But your best bet is to try to attend and support local film festivals, which are often the only source for challenging films like these today.
Photo: Film still