There is a small town in Oklahoma that has been hosting an elaborate Passion Play for 88 years running – the longest run in all of America. While it once brought in crowds in the hundreds of thousands, its heyday is clearly behind it…but don’t tell that to the cast and crew. For them, the members of this small community, this is a matter of pride – a labour of love they spend weeks on end preparing.
As our film begins, the actor who has been playing Christ for the last eight years is hanging up his crown of thorns, and a new saviour needs to be cast. This is when we meet Zak – a warm and loving young man who has wanted to play Jesus for a long time. He seems a little less “Blessed are the peacemakers” and more “You want fries with that?”, but there’s no denying his spirit and enthusiasm. Sure enough, Zak lands the part.
One small problem: Zak has quietly left the faith behind and now considers himself a Buddhist. In his eyes, what he believes in shouldn’t matter, since nothing about it will stand in his way when time comes to represent the core of Christian ideology…but what do the townspeople think? Will they love thy neighbours? Or will they regard a non-Christian Christ as a curious form of blasphemy? Will they practice what they preach or reach for a different kind of community feeling?
JESUS TOWN, USA is more than a question of faith in 21st Century America – it’s a portrait of 21st Century America. The town it takes place in has its own characters and quirks, but the pace of it, the vibe of it, and the devotion these people have to each other is common in many places across middle America.
Like the town we see in this movie, there are many places where the year culminates with a pumpkin festival, or a midsummer concert…something that everyone comes together for to bask in one glorious moment in the sun. Where the rest of the year is concerned, there may be precious little to do in these places other than bowl or go to the mall, but when these grand events happen, people are reminded of what their town once was, and what it could be again. It’s these moments that deserve documenting, and these moments that make these similar places more unique.
More than one of my Christian friends have mentioned to me in the past that they dislike the way Christians are portrayed in modern media. They mention that it is often the worst among them that seems to making the most noise, and the most non-Christian situations that get the most attention. They fear – quite rightly – that whole legions of the faithful are getting painted with a bad brush.
JESUS TOWN, USA is for them. Like the passion play it depicts, it requires the viewer to “go with it” at times, but its heart is firmly in the right place. It paints a quirky portrait of true community and speaks from the heart to believers and non-believers alike. It represents the best of what Christians believe and once again ask that age-old question, “What would Jesus do?”
JESUS TOWN, USA plays at Hot Docs 2015 tonight, Friday April 24th – 9:15pm at Isabel Bader Theatre. It plays again at Hart House on Saturday April 25th – 1pm, and finally at Isabel Bader on Sunday May 3rd – 9pm (official website)