Being more of a spiritual person than a religious type I often hesitate when it comes to films dealing with religion. Going to see directors Billie Mintz and Julian T. Pinder’s film Jesus Town, USA was a bit of a leap of, if you will pardon the pun, faith.
In the small rural town of Lawton set in the Wichita foothills of Oklahoma for the past 88 years they have put on a passion play that involves over 100 people and recreates the life of Jesus. It is the longest running play of its type and at first they drew in over 200,000 and now they struggle for anyone at all. Those putting it on are undaunted and remain passionate as ever.
Coming up to the Easter 2013 pageant, after the same man who has played the lead role of Jesus for the past 8 years up and “retires” those behind the production begin the search for the next Jesus. This search caught the attention of the two directors and they decided they happened upon a virtual goldmine in regards to documentary filmmaking.
The twenty-something Zack comes forward and declares himself for the role of Jesus. He wins those behind the play over and is cast in the lead. The play is to go on. Mintz and Pinder settle into a traditional portrayal with its focus on the rehearsals and the like. Nothing too interesting to be found here. What is worth your time and attention is the look at the lives and minds of the people in the town. Some rather interesting characters that reside within the town surface at this point. Dudley the bar owner, Charlie – Santa/bank robber and Jerry the pageant producer and a lawyer all have their chance to be in front of the camera with their personalities shining through. Even Zack is an interesting guy who delivers papers in the morning and then hangs around the hamburger joint his girlfriend works at on most evenings. The directors do not look down their noses at these rural folk rather they portray them in a rather warm light. They also are benefitted here by some great shots of the town and high calibre cinematography.
This is all rather good and all, but there really is no conflict or drama to be found to move the film ahead. Then luck smiles upon Mintz and Pinder again when a plot twist occurs. Zack, Jesus Christ himself, reveals that he has a secret he has been hiding. He confesses that he has converted to Buddhism. The young man portraying Jesus in a passion play is not a Christian. Could that be? What would the town think? How will this wash in a town that has held this tradition up to be a rather important one?
Now the documentary almost becomes a comedy of sorts. And a small story becomes a lot bigger one. A story that you thought going in was going to be one of faith becomes one of tradition and community.