Tuesday, November 7, 2017

First thoughts on FATHER'S KINGDOM (2017) DOC NYC 2017

When I started to watch FATHER'S KINGDOM I was little thrown off. What I thought was going to be a conventional exploration of the life of the religious leader Father Divine was instead something else entirely. Instead of simply being just about Divine the film is also an exploration about his followers who have dwindled over the years. It’s a move that deepens Divine’s story and makes the film resonate in ways that a simple biography never could.

Father Divine was born possibly born as George Baker (or maybe Frederick Edwards) around 1876. In a time when the country was racially divided he preached across America to mixed race audiences. In his eyes there was no difference between people and his organization was one of the first to be truly integrated. Divine’s message of God’s love didn’t sit well with authorities and they constantly set out to stop him. And if the color blindness wasn’t bad enough, Divine claimed that he was God, a move that further put a target on his back. Divine used the publicity to grow his following (he said that the death of a prosecutor days after convicting was something "he had to do") and he grew into a figure people either loved or hated.

Lenny Feinberg‘s film comes some fifty years after the death of Divine. While the great man is gone, his followers carry on as if he was still around. A place is kept at the table, his room is filled with flowers and his clothes are regularly cleaned. There was something about the man that drew them, and millions of others, and in order to understand who Divine was we need to know who these people are/were so the film wisely splits the running time between telling Divine’s story and that of his followers. Growing older and dwindling in numbers they are a living link to the past. Most of them knew Divine and they continue on in his name.

While you would think that their inclusion would result in a kind of an overly gushy film, that is not the case. They are never reduced to being one thing. We get to know them and come to understand why they chose to follow Divine to this point. It’s a move that lifts FATHER'S KINGDOM up from a standard documentary into the realm of the best documentaries you’ll run across.

While on the surface it is a simple biography, the film is fact far from a straightforward tale. Feinberg has made a film that wrestles with the very central notions of religion – of who or what is God? What does it mean to be a good man? What is charity? What is belief and why do people believe? There also also a head on discussions of race and America. We are given much to chew on. So much so that a week after seeing the film I am still haunted by the film.

What do I think about Father Divine or the film?

To be honest I still haven’t worked out what I think of Father Divine. I know it isn’t what I thought going in, which, spurred on my other documentaries and articles, was that he was a kind of charlatan. AFter seeing  FATHER'S KINGDOM I don’t think its that simple. As the film makes clear there is simply too much to him and his life for that simple answer. Father Divine was not simply just facts and figures but a complex person.

As for the film, FATHER'S KINGDOM is a film that my friend Lou would have called a boomerang film. It’s a film that you watch and think you’re done with (hey that was good) only to find that hours, days or weeks later you find you keep going back to (why can’t I stop thinking about this?). After seeing the film late one night I went through my nightly paces figuring I as done with the film- only to find that I was going back to it as I climbed into bed, and went through the next day. Little things I encountered keep bringing me back to the film. As a result of the film's boomerang nature I think this it is a great film. I don’t know to what degree but the fact that the film has me pondering it a week later with a couple dozen films between now and when I first saw it speaks volumes.

This is a film I need to revisit and think about and discuss.There is simple so much here that I could hold a discussion that lasts many many hours perhaps. It is a film that makes you think and feel – which means it must be seen.

One of DOC NYC’s best and probably 2017’s as well.

For tickets to Saturdays or Monday's screening go here.

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