Holly Hardman's new documentary film Good People Go to Hell, Saved People Go to Heaven takes as its subject the everyday lives of Louisianans coping with the impending end of the world. Without commentary or an obvious agenda, Hardman gives us blue-collar, mostly white, mostly West- and North-Louisiana folks trying to rebuild their own lives between disasters (Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Isaac) while spreading the word of an impending, scripturally guaranteed mega-disaster that only the souls of the saved can survive.
The overall approach is impressionistic, a pastiche of moments and interactions. With the exception of a few glimpses of megachurch executives, the people in this movie don't have money or power. They're fighting to keep their families housed and their marriages from collapsing, struggling to overcome very familiar varieties of post-flood depression and chemical dependency.
Making someone the subject of a documentary inherently exoticizes him or her. Hardman's film is refreshingly free of classism or Yankee snobbery; her subjects come across on their own terms, and besides a few doctrinal quirks — believing almost every human ever born deserves eternal torture at the hands of a sadistically deranged demiurge — they seem sympathetic and likable.
There are one or two scenes in which individuals offer Hardman's camera their personal calculus on the posthumous buoyancy of queer souls, but those sentiments are coming from people so manifestly consigned to the fuzzy end of life's lollipop that only the most complacent of liberal audiences will feel moved to clutch their pearls. It doesn't take a strict Marxist materialist to feel people raising kids in camper vans are more victims of inequality than its architects. Still, any time poor folks are allowed to speak for themselves, there will be gatekeepers and tastemakers who don't like what's said. Local PBS affiliate WYES, who faithfully brings us the yearly antics of arch-racists Comus, declined to screen Good People Go To Hell, according to Hardman. Its New Orleans debut will be Sunday, March 1st at Indywood.
The movie begins at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a Q&A moderated by local Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jed Horne, where director Holly Hardman will be joined by panelists John Barry of Restore Louisiana Now and the New Orleans Museum of Art's Fari Nzinga. Hardman talked to Gambit about the movie.
Gambit: I enjoyed your movie; can you tell us a little about how you came to the subject matter?
Hardman: I was in a conference in the Berkshires in January 2005, and there was a great deal of talk about the Patriot Act and the problems it was creating for artists, and I was determined to figure out: why was George (W.) Bush elected, ever, and who were these evangelicals who put him over the top? I didn't grow up in that culture, so I didn't understand it. And as I started exploring this world, I started learning more and more about something else I didn't understand and had never heard of, and that was the Rapture, the belief in the Rapture. I became fascinated, and started learning more and more about conservative Christianity and the literal interpretation of the Bible.
After Katrina, my attention was then focused on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I did a relief effort in my community, gathering supplies, and in doing that I started hooking up with a lot of church groups who were helping get items down to the Gulf Coast, and so I ended up partnering with them. I started asking more pointed questions. As I was speaking to people, some of them became pretty forthcoming and said they would share their stories with me, so in a roundabout way, that's how I got to the Gulf Coast.
Going into your film I felt concerned that it might be a freak show, that your documentary might be looking down on Louisianans who, after all, have lost their homes, and whose communities have been devastated... and I was relieved to find that wasn't the case. But I wonder, how has it played to different audiences in other places you've screened it?
Almost across the board people appreciate the fact that we respected our subjects even though we disagreed. And when I say almost across the board, that means once the film had finally been selected for screenings. There were many venues that did not select this film because they felt the film was too friendly towards evangelicals. Even the local PBS affiliate, WYES in New Orleans, refused to broadcast it because they told me, in their opinion, it promoted intolerance.
But the viewpoints expressed in this film, some of which are intolerant, aren't an ideological fringe. Some of the most virulently homophobic churches in our state are also those with the largest congregations.
That's what's interesting. After a very wonderful screening in Amsterdam, where the film premiered, an audience member came up to me and said, "I'm one of the only people in the audience who thinks you did something wrong here: you made these people seem like they're just everyday people. I wanted to see something more like —" then she mentioned a film that I guess she felt was more sensationalized. But all people have their points of view, and I have mine. I think letting people share their points of view is worthwhile, and while I may not have agreed with the points of view the people in this film expressed, I still respected them as people. We can still care about them.
As your movie's title reflects, an important piece of this ideological doctrine concerns the division between faith and works — that correct belief is what matters, not good deeds. But as you mentioned, there are a lot of Christian groups, including very conservative born-again Christians, who've done a lot of rebuilding work in the Gulf Coast since the failure of the federal levees, and been very generous. Which do you believe is more important: what someone says they believe, or how they conduct themselves towards other people?
I was brought up Episcopalian, but don't really practice any religion these days. I'm very much a "good deeds" person. I believe in the golden rule. I feel deeply for the world, for people, and that's my guiding force. It was interesting; Mitzi, [one of the people in the documentary] who for a while I really befriended, at one point sat me down and said, "I want you to know it's not about your good works, it's not about the good things you do— it's about whether you take Jesus into your heart." And I was like, "Well, you know, Mitzi, that's not really me."
Between when you began following the lives of the folks in this film and when you finished, what surprised you most?
That they were so narrow-minded. I thought there'd be a little more bending of beliefs, a little more flexibility in thinking — that if you introduce other concepts to people, they might consider them. If you talked about the science of global warming, that they would respect it and accept it... and actually I do believe that people can read the Bible, and read Revelation, and see a metaphor for global warming in there. I thought: can't they embrace that as a metaphor and do whatever they can do to help our planet and heal the Gulf Coast, and use science to save humankind and the planet?
Okay, but in the movie, Lance, who's carrying a cross alongside the Mississippi River, suggests that science is the metaphor, more or less — a way for people to rationalize or wrap their heads around the emergence of an underlying truth which, for him, is a biblical apocalypse. Did you re-examine your own thinking or beliefs as a result of your contact with their ideas?
Well, what I saw was people using passages from the Bible to serve these narrow beliefs, and not acknowledging that the Bible, if you take it literally, contradicts itself all over the place. I just read the Bible very differently, and I do think somebody who's as intelligent as Lance is, if it came down to it, if he had to accept the science, he would. We ran into a lot of poverty, suffering, people who don't have a chance — when we talk about Left Behind [the concept of unsaved souls remaining on earth post-Rapture, based on a series of popular novels], this was a left behind population, in my mind, left behind by their leadership, by design.
Not to press the issue, but you're telling me there wasn't ever a point, maybe in one of those prayer sessions that are so emotionally intense, where you felt something kindling in your breast? The spirit never spoke to you?
Oh no— if you think I didn't see anything wonderful in all this, I did, over and over again. I experienced love, and joy, and being uplifted— it's contagious, and there is something to it. It's spiritual. There's something there that's "beyond." I could never deny that wasn't real, in the way that we can understand the universe. It was palpable, and we felt it over and over again, and I loved being a part of that. You could just see how these people's lives were— they were enriched and fuller, beyond the material world that so many believe that we're stuck in. They really have found a spiritual truth— there are just aspects of how they practice it that I really disagree with.