Saturday 9 February 2013

And these signs shall follow them that believe

In 1966-67, then-twentysomething filmmaker Peter Adair and his crew spent a year with a Pentecostal Holiness congregation in rural Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. Shot on a shoestring budget, the resulting 53-minute documentary Holy Ghost People (1967) was not released to cinemas* but made some critical waves and survived on the rental market. (Today it's in the public domain, so you are without excuse.)

Adair went on to carve out a career far from the mainstream with Word Is Out (1977), the first significant documentary to present LGBTQ people on their own terms. His later films, The AIDS Show: Artists Involved in Death and Survival (1986) and Absolutely Positive (1991), chronicled the impact of the disease on the gay community, as well as Adair's own life under the shadow of being HIV-positive. He died in 1996, aged fifty-two.

Holy Ghost People opens with decontextualised snapshots of a Pentecostal service: music is played, a girl dances frantically, someone holds a serpent, an old woman looks at the camera, a Bible reading is cut off mid-sentence by the editing. It's not too bold, I think, to call it a critique of the sort of sensationalist reporting on extreme religious phenomena that leaves us understanding less, not more. The rest of the film is a careful examination of the forces shaping the church's practices, an aetiology of Pentecostal worship in Appalachia as much as it is a record.

The film steps back, and Adair's narration sets the scene over footage of the area around Scrabble Creek shot from a moving car. The poverty of rural West Virginia in the sixties is frankly shocking: in the heart of the world's richest nation, these communities look more like the villages I've seen in the backwoods of Bolivia and Paraguay. Adair explains that while the church's raucous, unstructured worship practices are legal in West Virginia (but not in neighbouring states), adherents are often ostracised by their own communities. He stresses that snakebite, though common, is not usually fatal.

Most of the film is taken up by a lengthy service that unites the Scrabble Creek congregation with fellow believers who have travelled over sixty miles from Virginia. Adair starts us off slowly, showing most of the worship leader's somewhat rambling notices - tributes to those in attendance, prayer requests, and remarks on the film crew in attendance. (In classic cinéma vérité style, Adair draws attention to the presence of the camera.) From there, the service gradually escalates from singing and testimonies to wild dancing, speaking in tongues, convulsions, falling over ('being slain in the Spirit') and eventually snake-handling.

A key part of the film comes just before that, though, in the form of individual interviews with four congregants. One man first spoke in tongues at the age of thirteen, but grew up to be 'a very mean fellow' and spent a year praying in vain for the return of the gift after his release from prison, before finally receiving tongues again during a service. Another was dissatisfied with the evangelical churches he attended, and eventually found 'the Holiness way' through his father-in-law's influence and the powerful experience of a supernatural wind sweeping through his body at night. A woman talks about the happiness brought by the Holy Spirit, and her first experience drinking strychnine during a worship meeting. The last interviewee is a middle-aged woman who is wracked by convulsions and breaks into glossolalia in the middle of sentences she shouts with a preacher's cadence and inflection, rendering her all but incoherent.

Letting these people explain themselves in their own words, without interruption or cuts, is indispensable in setting out the background against which their worship takes place. It turns them from an incomprehensible - and, given their practices, possibly terrifying - Other into ordinary, sympathetic protagonists. As anthropologist Margaret Mead, who invited Adair to introduce the film to her students at Columbia, writes: 'The people in the film are work-worn and show the marks of malnutrition, poverty, and poor medical care, and yet, on a recent showing to a very sophisticated audience, someone on my right exclaimed: "What beautiful people!"' That's a privileged perspective, of course. But it reflects Adair's success in breaking through the liberal sneer at rural people preferred by the light entertainment that passes for public discourse.

In the face of their small number, legal trouble and hostility from neighbours, adherents resist by appealing to authenticity: the free, unfettered flow of God's spirit. In worship at least, the myriad hierarchies and restrictions on their lives disappear. In his testimony, one congregant lambastes people who 'think it's a disgrace to touch a serpent'. He is unashamed because 'I don't want to be highly esteemed among men. I gotta be just what I am, glory be to God.'

While Adair emphasises that serpent-handling only occurs when adherents feel led by the Spirit and far more time is dedicated to prayer and other charismatic manifestations, the congregation eventually do pick up venomous snakes, lifting them in the air, throwing them across the room and dancing with them. It's unsurprising that this requires hype, but it's still an astonishing display of faith (at least quantitatively). Near the end of the meeting the worship leader is bitten by a copperhead on camera. While he cleans the blood from his hand with a borrowed handkerchief he calmly declares: 'If I die with this snakebite, it's still God's word, just the same. God's word is just the same... Whether we die by it or live by it, it's still God's word.' Is that an impressive reliance on God's grace - whatever the folly of deliberately provoking venomous snakes - or a deeply problematic flirting with death?

Shot on the cheapest 16mm film stock known to man, Holy Ghost People's rough and ready look reinforces its down-to-earth setting. (The poor lighting and sound recording is inevitable in a low-budget documentary, but the awful digitisation isn't - what is this 'file size' you speak of?) Structured carefully and without sensationalism, Holy Ghost People nonetheless transports the wild atmosphere and sense of real danger to the screen (I challenge you not to squirm during the snake-handling scenes.)

The first charismatic service I went to ended with an altar call to come forward and receive the Holy Spirit. I stayed in my seat, not just because I was a firmer cessationist then than I am now but because I was frankly intimidated by the manifestations I'd just witnessed. Yes, they could easily be explained by appeal to religious euphoria, but it wasn't just implausibility. Charismatic worship requires an abandonment of self-control that is pretty alien to the bourgeois ideal of the individual (which is why it appeals to so many people). Holy Ghost People lays bare both why I find the charismatic movement fascinating and why it isn't for me.

*So far as I know, at least; I've been able to find woefully little information on the film online. Anyone who knows more, don't hesitate to pitch in.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review (and link to the public domain video) - I really enjoyed Word Is Out, and am looking forward to seeing a similar take on a very different subject.