"Holy Ghost People" (1967)
Directed by Peter Adair
U.S., 53 minutes
http://www.archive.org/details/HolyGhostPeople (view the whole film, it's in the public domain)
"And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
Peter Adair's Holy Ghost People chronicles life in the tiny mining town of Scrabble Creek, West Virginia for a pentecostal congregation that takes that passage as the basis of their faith. Members of the Holiness Church convulse, speak in foreign tongues, treat disease and sickness by touch rather than medicine, handle live snakes, and drink poison all as testaments to their faith.
As an agnostic who finds religious fervor hard to relate to and often even scary, what struck me most powerfully about the film is how decent these people seem. Plain-spoken, hard-working, honest, without the bigotry, ignorance, and malice I associate with fundamentalists, Adair's subjects' beliefs may seem extreme but they are no extremists. Holy Ghost People achieves this sympathetic portrait of the congregation by utilizing a cinema verité approach that does not judge or comment, merely observes. A brief opening narration establishes the town, church, and congregation, and then Adair lets the people speak for themselves and their actions speak even louder.
An element of what makes the documentary subjects seem sympathetic rather than loony is that they avoid the hypocrisy of most religious followers. The Bible instructs its readers to accept it whole as the direct word of God, so if one truly believes in its divine origin, they must live their lives in accordance with its tenets. Most religious individuals I've encountered seem to pick and choose the elements they want to follow based on convenience, members of the Holiness Church must not find it convenient or easy to handle poisonous snakes and attend frequent 6-hour services, but they do it because of their unwavering conviction. I also found one man's explanation of why the church has no leader or pastor, "because one God's children just as good and close to the Lord as any other" poignant and more in line with the teachings of Jesus than the hierarchical pronouncements of more organized religion. Seeing a child speak to the crowd and command as much attention and respect as the elderly man who preceded him or the woman who followed him is a nice change of pace from the patriarchy often promoted in fundamentalist churches.
This spirit of equality is further illustrated by the sermon that ends "Every individual soul is a creation of God. Makes no difference where they're from, who they are, what color they are, they're God's creation because by one blood he made all nations." The de facto head of the church, or at least the character Adair shows us speaking to the followers more than any other , echoes this by saying "It's the same God right here in Scrabble Creek as it is in Africa and Vietnam today, makes no difference where you are cause we're all brethren." While not exactly radical today, this evangelized message eschews the expectations one would have about an all-white congregation in rural West Virginia in the 1960s and demonstrates that religion can be used as much as an agent of peace as it can be misused to promote intolerance. It's also a reminder that a substantial majority of activists in the Civil Rights Movement were deeply religious and protested out of their moral conviction that all men were equal in the eyes of God and should be treated as such.
This is not to say the church's beliefs are reasonable or its practices all admirable, rather many are more positive and progressive than anyone would likely assume and even their most fanatical elements are understandable given the circumstances of the congregates. Advocating drinking poison or handling deadly snakes is irresponsibly dangerous, and basically unforgivable when done in the presence of children. Seeing the church shake and convulse en masse and babble in "foreign tongues" is also bizarre to say the least and the presence of kids as young as five makes it rather unsettling. When explained as an ultimate proof of their faith by true believers whose life outside the church is the unbearable bleakness of rural poverty, unemployment, and a complete disconnect from the outside world, their actions are given a context that makes them seem almost reasonable. The ecstacy achieved during zealous demonstrations they believe to be direct connections with God is the one respite many of the congregates have from their otherwise dreary lives. It is no coincidence that many of the church's followers are perpetually sick and have turned to pentecostalism after years of suffering unaided by conventional medicine.
Two ironies of the film are revealed only upon researching its background. For all the people in the film who handle snakes, the only one bitten is apparently the owner of the church, its most monied congregate and the only interview subject whose piousness seems disingenuous. Adair ends his film there and regardless of how one feels about divine intervention, it certainly recalls the famous pronouncement "If I'm lying, may God strike me dead." The other unexpected, somewhat humorous fact of the film is that its director is a rather flamboyant homosexual who was forced to leave his New York City home because of constant harassment from his neighbors but revealed he never felt so comfortable and welcome as he did when he spent several months filming the members of the tiny West Virginia church. As a sociological document, Holy Ghost People is endlessly fascinating and raises many questions about religious freedom and extremism and as a short documentary it's a compelling testament to the direct and focused power of cinema verité.