At Sundance, "Love Free Or Die," Documentary About Bishop Gene Robinson Takes Center Stage
By Lisa Schencker
Salt Lake Tribune
(RNS) It's been years since the incident, but Bishop Gene Robinson's heart still races when he sees it on film.
Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly bishop, was preaching in London when a man in the audience stood and began yelling at him. The heckler waved a motorcycle helmet in his hand as he ranted. Robinson silently wondered if he was hiding a gun or a bomb beneath it.
Ultimately, the man was escorted from the church, but the moment reminded everyone, including Robinson, of the risks of taking a stand.
It's one of many moments -- some suspenseful, some inspiring, some heartbreaking -- captured in "Love Free or Die," a documentary about Robinson that's premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
"As far as we've come in terms of equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, we still have a long way to go, particularly in the central part of the country," Robinson said in an interview.
"If my story can help a young boy or girl in their teens believe they can have a wonderful and productive life and family, then it's worth my putting up with a film crew following me around for two years in order to comfort and inspire them."
The film follows Robinson as the church grapples with how to handle lesbian and gay issues. Robinson's election brought to a head divisions between liberal and conservative Episcopalians, and between the U.S. church and more conservative members of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Filmmakers followed Robinson to England in 2008, where he was excluded from the Anglicans' Lambeth Conference of bishops. And they followed him to the Episcopal Church's 2009 General Convention, where leaders voted to allow blessings of same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships (where legal) and allow gay men and women to become bishops.
Along the way, they interviewed Robinson, his family and other church leaders, many of whom supported his quest for equality and some of whom did not. In one scene, a woman sobs that she is torn between wanting to do what's best for the people around her while also remaining true to Scripture.
Filmmakers also interviewed other gay church leaders, including former Utah Episcopal Bishop Otis Charles, who came out after he retired.
"It's like trying to put on a suit that doesn't fit," Charles says in the documentary of trying to hide his sexual orientation.
Sandra Itkoff, the film's producer, said she was surprised how many people still live cloaked existences.
"Gay people live in many of our communities in seemingly comfortable situations," Itkoff said, "and we don't remember how precarious many aspects of their lives really are."
Robinson sees himself as part of a new generation of church leaders who want to be open and honest about whom they are. He wants to show that people need not choose between their faith and their sexuality.
"The church asks its clergy to climb into the pulpit every week and call people to a life of integrity, but for countless generations it's asked its gay and lesbian clergy to live a life without integrity while calling on other people to do it, and that just seems crazy to me," Robinson said. "I think people are drawn to a religion that supports integrity and honesty and openness."
It's a message Robinson and filmmakers know could resonate, especially in Utah, home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes same-sex marriage.
"My hope," Robinson said, "would be the Mormon church and other conservative churches would see the difference between civil rights for LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) people and whatever theological stance the church might take."
Director Macky Alston called Robinson a "historic figure?? who has inspired many to see homosexuality in a new light. Though Alston knew Robinson before they started filming, the bishop still took his breath away at times, particularly during the clash in the London church.
"Tears were just streaming down my face because I had come to already love the guy," Alston said, "but it was also the moment I recognized that he's put his life on the line and made himself entirely vulnerable for my freedom."
It's a vulnerability Robinson has lived with for some time, and he knows this film could raise his profile even higher. But the exposure doesn't bother Robinson. He welcomes it.
"My husband, Mark, and I had to decide very early on about the safety issue," Robinson said, "and what we decided was if you live your life in fear, it's not much of a life worth living. So we decided to put that in God's hands and do what we felt was right and speak out whenever we could."
(Lisa Schencker writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)Below, a list of religion and spirituality themed films screened at the Sundance Fim Festival 2012
'Corpo Celeste' (Heavenly Body)
After growing up in Switzerland, 13-year-old Marta returns to a city in southern Italy with her mother and older sister. Independent and inquisitive, she joins a catechism class at a local church. However, the games and religious pop songs she encounters there do not nearly satisfy her interest in faith. Struggling to find her place, Marta pushes the boundaries of the class, the priest, and the church. Contemplating religion is an enduring tradition in Italian cinema, but Rohrwacher brings a fresh inflection and a provocative artistic vision. Her vérité aesthetic emphasizes character and subtle behavior. Uninterested in shallow critique, "Corpo Celeste" posits a girl who is resolutely searching for deeper truths. Marta instinctively rebels against the apathy and hypocrisy of the adults around her, including a priest who is more interested in his career than he is in faith. Ultimately, her spirituality is as much of the Earth as it is of the heavens. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'Young & Wild'
Daniela is a petite, pretty teenager raised in the bosom of a strict and well-to-do evangelical family in Santiago, Chile. Daniela is also a 17-year-old who finds that her raging sexual drive is difficult to reconcile with the orders of her religion. With no outlet for her desire, Daniela taps into a rampant underground network of other horny teenagers through her sexually charged blog. As she types the gospel of her life as a fornicator online, Daniela still goes to church and prays to Jesus, "Lord, see to it that Mother doesn't type youngandwild.blogspot.com!" Director Marialy Rivas's handsome debut feature is a playful and energetic coming-of-age story about a young woman who refuses to make choices that limit her pleasure. Brought to life by an attractive cast, led by the enigmatic Alicia Rodríguez, Young & Wild romps through the burning fires of religious fervor and youthful sexual energy to deliver a delightful portrait of contemporary teenage life in Santiago. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
A popular sensation in medieval Europe, bestiaries were catalogs of beasts featuring exotic animal illustrations, zoological wisdom, and ancient legends. Denis Côté's startling "Bestiaire" unfolds like a filmic picture book where both humans and animals are on display. As we observe them, they also observe us and one another, invoking the Hindu idea of darshan: a mutual beholding that initiates a shift in consciousness. Fascinating, beguiling creatures like buffalo, hyenas, zookeepers, zebras, taxidermists, rhinos, and ostriches silently inhabit uncluttered, beautifully composed frames of a locked-off camera, conducting curious affairs in holding pens and fields. Their unself-consciousness before the camera's eye renders them equally objectified. Whether we anthropomorphize, poeticize, abstract, or judge them is up to us. Côté invites his audience to reflect on control and power as lions rattle cages, a taxidermist recreates a duck, and artists copy a stuffed deer. Using the film form to challenge the very notion of representation, "Bestiaire" is an elegant, bewitching meditation on the nature of sentience and the boundaries between nature and "civilization." <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'5 Broken Cameras'
Five broken cameras--and each one has a powerful tale to tell. Embedded in the bullet-ridden remains of digital technology is the story of Emad Burnat, a farmer from the Palestinian village of Bil'in, which famously chose nonviolent resistance when the Israeli army encroached upon its land to make room for Jewish colonists. Emad buys his first camera in 2005 to document the birth of his fourth son, Gibreel. Over the course of the film, he becomes the peaceful archivist of an escalating struggle as olive trees are bulldozed, lives are lost, and a wall is built to segregate burgeoning Israeli settlements. Gibreel's loss of innocence and the destruction of each camera are potent metaphors in a deeply personal documentary that vividly portrays a conflict many of us think we know. Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, joins forces with Guy Davidi, an Israeli, and--from the wreckage of five broken cameras--two filmmakers create one extraordinary work of art. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'Les Conquerants' (The Conquerors)
At the dawn of time, a young man and woman set out to conquer an inhospitable land and transform it into paradise. Between prehistory and Genesis, Eden and hell, this animated film questions human conquests and the rise of civilizations. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'Love Free Or Die'
In June 2003, the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire came under fire when it became the first to elect an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as a bishop. Since that flash point, Robinson has been at the center of the contentious battle for LGBT people to receive full acceptance in the faith. Director Macky Alston (whose film, Family Name, won the Freedom of Expression Award at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival) follows Robinson into the breach in the struggle for equality. While resolute in his calling, Robinson grows increasingly critical of the central role that religious institutions have played in fostering homophobia and hatred. He is pointedly not invited to a once-a-decade convocation of bishops and courts controversy by attending. His presence the next year for the Episcopal General Convention underscores the impact of its impending decisions about the church's stance on the consecration of future gay bishops and the performance of same-sex marriage ceremonies. While Robinson never intended to be the poster boy for gay bishops, Love Free or Die demonstrates that he has become a beacon of hope for millions. His history-making church provides a model for other communities of faith to treat all people with dignity and respect, regardless of their sexuality. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
During his lifetime, each man plays cosmic chess against the devil. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
'Red Hook Summer'
When his mom deposits him at the Red Hook housing project in Brooklyn to spend the summer with the grandfather he's never met, young Flik may as well have landed on Mars. Fresh from his cushy life in Atlanta, he's bored and friendless, and his strict grandfather, Enoch, a firebrand preacher, is bent on getting him to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Only Chazz, the feisty girl from church, provides a diversion from the drudgery. As hot summer simmers and Sunday mornings brim with Enoch's operatic sermons, things turn anything but dull as people's conflicting agendas collide. Playfully ironic, heightened, yet grounded, Spike Lee's bold new movie returns him to his roots, where lovable, larger-than-life characters form the tinderbox of a tight-knit community. A story about the coexistence of altruism and corruption, "Red Hook Summer" toys with expectations, seducing us with the promise of moral and spiritual transcendence. Spike is back in the 'hood. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
The quest for love appears insurmountable when a man confined to an iron lung determines, at age 38, to lose his virginity. Based on the autobiographical writings of Berkeley, California-based journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, "The Surrogate" chronicles his attempt to transcend the limbo between childhood and adulthood, in which he is literally trapped. With the blessing of an unusual priest and support from enlightened caregivers, the poignantly optimistic and always droll O'Brien swallows his fear and hires a sex surrogate. What transpires over a handful of sessions transforms them both. Rivetingly, sensitively, and humorously portrayed by John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, the couple's clinical exercise becomes a tender, awkward, and gracious journey from isolation to connection -- corporal and spiritual. This poet's extraordinary story resonates with the elegance and precision of a poem. No line in "The Surrogate is extraneous," no frame accidental. Filmmaker Ben Lewin's masterful brushstrokes endow every character with fullness and authenticity, fashioning rich metaphors and emotional nuance and fusing them into an exquisite, unforgettable awakening. <em>Caption credited to www.sundance.org</em>
Sundance Film Festival 2012 Opens