Monday, July 09, 2012

Film review: David Petersen's 'Let the Church Say Amen,' a cinematic work about a Store Front Church in Washington, D.C.

The movie directed by David Petersen is a moving and extraordinary documentary in sometimes verite style both in color and black and white. Message gets through to the audience in this film, as does action, attitude, and scenery of places in Washington, D.C. that are known for store front churches–like Pastor Perkin’s in the neighborhood where his is on a corner.
Film review by Peter Menkin


Brother C by the Church

They dance. They sing. They speak in tongues and shout—so the Reverend Bobby Perkins elicits.  Dauntless, a stand-up Christian, Reverend Bobby Perkins preaches in the subways of Washington, D.C. where he has a heart for the drug addicts.  His church members preach on the streets and speak to the lowly; real conversation goes on in this documentary. These are real people, and you may not have met them before.

Can one call what is done in his church, “Performance Preaching,” as in “Performance Poetry?” In any event, his work is a performance of being filled with the Holy Spirit, as are those in the pews moved and moving to the Holy Spirit. This is certainly a life of following the dictum, minister where you are, where they are.  The movie directed by David Petersen is a moving and extraordinary documentary in sometimes verite style both in color and black and white. Message gets through to the audience in this film, as does action, attitude, and scenery of places in Washington, D.C. that are known for store front churches–like Pastor Perkin’s in the neighborhood where his is on a corner. There are other churches like his in their neighborhood. 

Not solely a religion film about a Church, the movie, “Let the Church say Amen,” is David Petersen and friends vision of a life in the poor, Black, neighborhood of forgotten people and streets with crime, drugs, and just ugly nastiness. There is more than the message of church, religion, and community alone here. There is cinematic depiction of what is in the genre of dramatic and artful reality show. .

Pastor Perkin’s message in the movie goes this way: Thank God for the Holy Ghost! His is a church of promise—that is what one sees in the film, “Let the Church say Amen.” No doubt this reviewer and religion writer was drawn in to look a little deeper at this Black church in the documentary. Produced for release in 2004, I viewed the show on the computer in streaming media from the website Netflix. Just ran across the film while browsing Netflix’s inventory, and decided to watch the film at home one night. It was worth it, and the price was right.

There is a lot of shouting! in this movie. Adults shout a lot in the film. Darlene Duncan raised eight children. This was her job. And she had a job at a nursing home, too. 

Darlene Sleeps

Hers was a tale of grit, struggle, overcoming enormous odds to get that job. As one of the downtrodden in life, this Black woman is in the character sketch shown as someone with a sixth grade education. She is a woman of strength—strength garnered from her Church community. She says so. The film plays the documentary to tell her story as she states it, and her story is both real, and true about her life. Can one ask for more than that in a documentary film?

Character is part of what the film is about, and by that I mean taking a look at someone in a more detailed sketch than not. This is a fulfilling achievement by the film makers of the work.
David is another whose character sketch of a poor, Black Christian in a downtrodden neighborhood shows aspirations and dreams. His is a human life of a humanity that holds hope—a particular version of hope coming from the neighborhood of downtrodden and poor Blacks that holds violence as everyday activity. Though David has nothing, for as he says, “I’m homeless,” he has a home in that neighborhood, store front church. If you as a potential viewer don’t know this world, and not so many make films of it, and not ones that are as poignant and genuine as you’ll find this one, rent the movie. It is not only on Netflix, but also available in Video rental stores. As a small budget film costing $250,000, the very strength of its work and credibility introduces it to distribution and thereby availability. It even remains for sale as a DVD. And that’s eight years after release for a small budget documentary shot in real life, on the scene, in the neighborhood and in the Church itself. See the real worship action itself in this film and learn something of the Christian experience while being introduced to the scene in  entertaining if not fascinating ways.

This church on the corner in the neighborhood of poor and some misbegotten Blacks and others has a mission for the outcast, the marginalized, the sick, and the addict. All are called “Brother” or “Sister” during their compelling and hard-to-believe if you didn’t see it on film depiction. Christ-is-there and the-Spirit-is-at-work: Remarkable! Maybe, but you judge their ministry and mission. For this Religion Writer, the primary theme is the Church is a bulwark against evil, a home of worship, and a place giving hope. This documentary, “Let the Church Say Amen,” shows reality in experience that is a kind of come-as-you-are of Black people, White people, and people of Color. No this isn’t a kaleidoscope but a streaming media depiction of skilled documentary work, and that kind of strong camera work that allows the lens to tell a story. Faces alone tell much in this documentary.
This Church is one of many in the various neighborhoods of the dark places that can be Urban America in big city living. In this case for a jumping off point about people, life, and hardship met with compassion and resilience, the place is Washington, D.C. and the people are the Church. Does Christ shrink back, does Christ exist here? Is there Christian hope among the evil, the grief, and death? Yes! 

Let the Church Say Amen!

This interview by phone and Skype from this Religion Writer’s home office in Mill Valley, California (north of San Francisco) to David Petersen’s home in Brooklyn, New York.

Film Maker David Petersen

The interview took two hours in two one hour segments. David Petersen had an opportunity to add to his remarks and clarify some statements from the manuscript transcript.

  1. 1.      Peter Menkin: At the age of 45, your career as director and filmmaker has been engaged with films that make a social statement. So it is with the 2004 release of “Let the Church Say Amen,” which was short listed for an Academy Award. What brought you to make these kinds of films, a film like the one in case of discussion in particular? How did such a film about faith, God, and Church capture your imagination initially, was it because you are a religious man?
”Let the Church Say Amen” was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as “one of the best films of 2004,” and I was invited to screen the film at the Academy with the other films nominated for that year. The films was not an official nominee for the Academy Awards, but was short listed. I was officially nominated for an Academy Award for my documentary “Fine Food, Fine Pastries, Open 6 to 9” which was about a coffee shop in Washington, D.C … not very far from the church featured in “Let the Church Say Amen.”. I have said many times, I make films about small, outsider communities, communities that are self containing that I find beautiful and compelling as a result. The communities in my documentaries include: a diner, a small town, an opera company, a small church congregation. In the church film, I looked at community through faith, through the bones of faith that came to bear in a community that faced many challenges. 

These challenges required a lot of faith…It was a fascinating world like so many of the worlds that have fascinated me in my work. The small diner was called Sherrill’s Restaurant and Bakery and hadn’t changed since the 20s (1924), but sadly closed in 2001 when the owners retired.
I make movies about people who search for home, which is very moving to me. Maybe because I grew up in a fairly volatile home, and my brother — who is mentally handicapped — lived in an institution part of his life, I’m drawn to this idea. 

So for the people in my films, they find home in a place where they establish a community, and this community usually exists outside of traditional society. They find a community in a church, a diner, they find community in an opera company.

Most importantly, I’m interested in people. I’ve always said, “people are more interesting than ideas.”  As an artist, I feel my most important responsibility to the people I film is to pay attention, and this responsibility seems inseparable from a spiritual or religious discipline. The spiritual philosopher Simon Weil wrote, Paying attention is prayer, and that idea governs all my films, especially “Let the Church Say Amen.” My friend Julia just made a film about Simon Weil: “An Encounter with Simone Weil” by Julia Haslett .
It’s a very powerful film, that ruminates extensively on Simone Wiel’s statement that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” While Julia Haslett’s documentary differs in style from mine about the storefront church, it shares many of the principles that governed my film. Here is the link to “An Encounter with Simone Weil” by Julia Haslett:

An Encounter with Simone Weil: trailer (documentary feature)
David Petersen told this Religion Writer this film is important to him because it depicts Simon Weil telling readers something of the Film Maker Petersen’s worldview
Another work by a Film Maker from David Petersen’s same school of friends

My grandfather was an Episcopalian Minister, so I grew up with a certain level of religious education and thought. But my mid-western background, and the staid formality of my grandfather’s church in Stillwater, MN, was a very different kind of  experience than the evangelical, Pentecostal faith you see in ”Let the Church Say Amen.” No one fell down in rapture, danced in the aisles, or spoke in tongues at Ascension Episcopal Church where my grandfather preached.
My mother was a Buddhist, but now has turned back to Christianity. My mother encouraged much of my reading in theology and spiritual philosophy, so at the age of 16 I was reading I and Thou,  by Martin Buber, and reading a lot theological essays and poetry by people like Thomas Merton and Jiddu Krishnamurti. In undergraduate school at the University of Maryland, I got very interested in philosophy and theology, fascinated by how much of the last 2500 years of philosophical thought dwelled on metaphysics.

  1. 2.      Peter Menkin: I remember your saying to me over the phone that the Church in the film is still in business. That is the business of God, the business of Christian work, and the business of helping others. Have you been back to the Church? Tell us a little of how you found this Church in Washington, D.C. and how long it took you to make the film in actual filming time. Who is the star, or what is the star?
I’ve been back to the church (World Missions for Christ) a number of times, and I’ve also stayed in touch with members of the church…As with many of these store front churches…some members are not with the church any more or have moved on to do their own missionary work. I think Pastor Perkins and his sister (Dr. Joann Perkins), are connected with the church, but I’m not sure the pastor is a regular preacher at the church, because his sister runs most of the activities and outreach of the church, and has returned to preaching there. She got her PhD in Education, grew up in a deeply religious home, and her mother raised her family purely on faith with very little money. I know she had around 11 children to raise as a single mother, and they lived in a farm in North Carolina before moving up to Washington, D.C in the 1970’s. 

Pastor Bobby Perkins continually calls upon his past, growing up with these kinds of challenges, and this is what compelled me about this church. It seemed to me that when filming them street preaching – handing out tracts, delivering people salvation — they tried to reach the most indigent, what they call “the lost sheep.” They would search the streets for those who were forgotten: the crippled, the addicted, those who had given up hope…

As we filmed with our cameras, I realized this was a fundamental precept of Christianity, to reach those society has thrown away. As members were handing out tracts, shouting to people on the street, they called on their own backgrounds, they talked about being saved, literally saved from death (by drug abuse or crime) , so the notion on being saved was a question of survival for each member, and in this way they could relate to those same people on the street. That was for me as fundamental as Christ going to Galilee to heal the sick, to help his own group of lost sheep.. 

The core of “Let the Church say Amen” is the bones of that kind of faith. 

In our research for the documentary, my producer (Mridu Chandra) and I looked at over 200 churches both in Washington, DC where I used to live, and in Brooklyn where I moved years later, I probably went to more churches and heard more preaching in one year than most people experience in a lifetime. I went to services nearly every day of the week. Some services lasted 2, 4 hours. On Sundays, some lasted over 8 hours. I’d try to go to 2 every Sunday. Then I would go to day and evening services during the week. 

In New York I went to the poorest neighborhoods where few whites ever would go., and not once in these black or latino churches was I ever discriminated against. In fact, these churches almost universally welcomed me, as well as my producer Mridu Chandra

As with all my films, it takes a long time to form a trusting  relationship, which is absolutely necessary before I bring a camera into a community, and this was especially true with World Missions for Christ Church, whose members were very wary of how an outsider filmmaker would portray their faith.

Generally PBS or other filmmakers who make films about deeply religious people end up being critical of the faith and it’s followers. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to show their world through their own eyes, without judgment, so that. The community could be better understood. During the filming, we used hand held cameras, and set up small lights in the church, doing our best to stay unobtrusive, but that was difficult, since it’s a very small church. 

You can’t really hide. There are about 30 members and it’s the size of a shoe store, because it’s a store front church. These kinds of churches usually get formed when a business district becomes impoverished, almost abandoned. …Small churches can then rent a store front very cheap. That store front church in the film was actually once a shoe store… 

We wanted to film almost constantly throughout the service since they were so riviting, about three or four hours. sometimes we’d film two services back to back, for 8 hours non-stop. There would be other public programs sponsored by the church that we also filmed, including a health drive, food giveaway, all day programs for the community. There was a lot we’d film,  and a lot never ended up in the final documentary. …We filmed events in other churches…we filmed in members’ homes, public housing communities, in the police station…We put a tremendous amount of work into making this film, and I can easily say that it was the hardest, most demanding documentary I’ve ever made. 
The film budget was about $250,000, which included money for a mentorship program. This program, sponsored by ITVS, allowed us to mentor two young people from the community to teach them filmmaking. One was a young graduate, Mario Lathan, was a graduate student at Howard University, who grew up in a religious household, strongly tied to the kind of church we featured in the film. He was actually the one who first found World Missions for Christ, the church we featured in the film. He keeps in touch with me all the time. Another mentee, Kandis Jamison came from the Anacostia church community in Southeast Washington, a very violent neighborhood. Her brother was killed by street violence so working on “Let the Church Say Amen” had special significance for her. She was involved in research, production, and helped quite a bit with the editing. Living in that part of D.C. was a huge challenge for everyday and we did out best to help her through many struggles she faced, ranging from housing to family, and she developed as a filmmaker as a result, even making a documentary about her brother which I helped her shoot.

I think storefront churches like World Missions serve as a bulwark against the violence in these urban communities, but more importantly these churches serve as an anchor of strength and hope for families who want the same things for their families that any American dreams about. They want their children to go to school, get a good education, have a home, be able to provide for their families. They join a church to strengthen that sense of community, and faith is central to empowerment.
In these communities, faith is central to people lives..Empowerment doesn’t come as easily to communities that face the extraordinary challenges of unemployment, low income, crime, substance abuse, and so on.  Faith is a very strong force against these challenges, especially against the allure of drugs. Drugs help make people feel better in a very bad situation.  But faith can offer stronger, more potent relief from hardship. So empowerment is one reason why many people join an evangelical church, but they also join for love. Simple, human love. Speaking in a religious context, love has transformative power.

  1. 3.      Peter Menkin: This writer has heard this film, “Let the Church Say Amen,” was done in cinema verite style. Talk to us a little bit about the style of film making you offer in your work. A criticism of the film has been that as a result of its style, the film drags in parts. What do you say to that, and in retrospect after all these more than five, now 8 years, do you think so and if not what do you think of the film in retrospect?
Every time I see “Let the Church Say Amen” with a different audience, I see the film in a new light. I’ve seen it scores of times in dozens of settings with audiences that vary from  a few filmmakers to thousands of people from other countries. I can’t speak to the length at his point, since I believe once you’re done with a piece of work, as much as you’d like to change it, it isn’t advisable to do that. The moment the film was created and finally completed, that’s the length it should be. I did shorten it for PBS by three and half minutes, but Netflix shows it at the original length that premiered at Sundance and received accolades in festivals all over the world. Let the critics decide. What do artists really know about their own work anyway?

In terms of the verite style of the film it doesn’t strictly adhere to the traditional notion of verite, as made famous by filmmakers like Ricky Lecock or D.A. Pennebaker, since there are some black and white sequences, that are a bit more stylized than what comes out of that tradition.
This was my first film using a DV, so I used a series of small video cameras in a verite style, but I also shot in 16 mm film, often in slow motion. I still clung to the thought that I would do at least part of the movie in film. Do you remember the black and white parts of the film? [Peter Menkin replies:Yes, I do. In fact, I did so when first noticing the opening, I thought the movie was a black and white documentary.] 

Those black and white sequences were shot in Super 16, which is a wider format than the standard definition video I was using. I thought those Super 16 sections allowed me, as a filmmaker, to include my own voice in the film. It wasn’t verite. It was done in a style that was very impressionistic: Elegiac. In other words, the sequences were created so the viewer could step back from the verite narrative, reflect on it, maybe, and watch the city through its beauty, subtlety, even irony.. I wasn’t trying to distance myself from the scene, but get closer to the lyric beauty of a place and its people.
I’m glad people have strong feelings about the film. I would never part from those black and white sequences. They were central to my vision for the film. Many people countered the criticism that the black and white sequences slowed the film down, by saying they remembered those sequences most.
The scene with the child on the carousal with his father riding behind him…that image of a father playing with his son appears very rarely in the media’s portrayal of urban life, but we saw it, filmed it, and it became very meaningful for many people from that community.

The black and white sequence of Brother C, the character who pursues a musical ministry, is also very important. It shows him walking out his house and staring with a fixed gaze down street, which he did countless times. This time, though he looks at an ambulance as it races up Georgia Avenue, symbolic of the same ambulance that carried his son who was stabbed and killed by street violence.
The woman looking out of the bus looking at the dignified figure of a  man on a steam grate, the kid running to church in slow motion, the man carrying party balloons across a vacant lot: all are  images that you don’t often see in films about the inner city. 

I just hate to say ghetto. I don’t like the term because it feels derogatory, because it isolates the community with a term. … That’s not respectful of the people or their community, and it doesn’t reflect its strength or similarity to every American’s daily life.
It was important to me to show children going to school, the  quality of people living their daily lives. In Washington, D.C., this daily life is full of contrast, contradiction, and humor: on the one hand you will see a guy walking his pit bull and on the same block as a woman jogging with her white leopard hounds. Or a government bureaucrat crossing paths with an inner city hip hop artist exiting the subway. These black and white sequences show the daily lives of Washington, D.C. that people don’t see. And I’m happy that they step away from the verite narrative.

  1. 4.     Peter Menkin: To a degree it is unmistakably so you are an artist, maybe more than “to a degree” the artist. Tell readers a little of your own life and faith, how you live your life and what projects if any you have going that are similar in their statement of faith and works as this film—even if not about a Church? When you were 24 or 25 you made a conscious decision about your work. Do you think your own style and form as a director remains similar today to the work made then in the film at question?

My decision to become an artist was a very conscious one. At the age of 25, I knew that if I were to become an artist of integrity, I would have to organize my job, my income, my expenses all in service to my artwork.  I could have become a journeyman filmmaker, one who works for hire, directs for television and so on, but that’s very different from governing my entire life toward artistic work and that sort of vision requires  a level of discipline, intensity, and commitment not unlike that of the priesthood. In fact, I’ve often compared the calling of an artist to the religious calling of a priest. To me, both require a devotion to something greater than one’s self, and, in turn, a relinquishing of the ego. In my work, I try to remain in service to a deeper, spiritual realm, rather than any glorification of talent or craft. I suppose you could call it a secular or humanistic mode of inquiry, the kind of faith that comes from paying attention, of becoming a mindful observer.

I’ve had numerous artist fellowships at the MacDowell Colony, a place where artists can work in solitude and quiet, not unlike a monastery.  The staff quietly drops off a lunch basket to your cabin in the woods. All day you work without any disturbance from the outside world. You hear crows, the wind through the pines. The discipline of working like that for five or six weeks feels like as though you are in service to a creative power  beyond the self. In the best of times, an artist can feel like a vessel receiving message from a creative force. The muse becomes the savior, I guess.  And you’d better have faith in her, otherwise she’ll fly out of your cabin and leave you stuck with a black canvas and white sheet of paper.

Since my work focuses on communities that are separated from larger society, I’m now working on a documentary set in a favela community in Brazil. called Vila Aliança. ABrazilian favela is often referred to in American terms as a slum, but it is so much more than that. It’s a self-sustaining community filled with music, dance, neighborhoods, and a character unique to Brazilian life. the documentary is  about an art school in Vila Aliança and in the same manner as the church film, I follow on four characters in pursuit of their goals; in this case four children. As a filmmaker, I can show the beauty of their community through each child’s art. I’m also working on another film about a group of homeless and low income children in New York who learn classical dance at a ballet company in Manhattan.

So all these films share a story in which I follow people on a kind of quest for fulfillment, similar to the quest by members of the church in “Let the Church Say Amen.”

Money for my documentaries is always a problem. Money for any non-commercial filmmaker is a problem. I don’t have a trust fund or any private source of income. I go to the same trough as any filmmaker and one competitive source of funding that has been very generous to me is ITVS (The Independent Television Service). ITVS serves as a vital source of funding for many filmmakers and receives its support from the congressionally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting or CPB, which also funds PBS.

ITVS has a mandate to reach underserved audiences with the documentaries they support and program on PBS. ”Let the Church Say Amen” fulfilled this mission, because normally public television doesn’t reach a deeply religious, evangelical audience like the members of  a storefront church.  When I approached World Missions for Christ about participating in the documentary, I made it clear that wouldn’t promote a specific faith, but would honor, with dignity and honesty, how their expression of faith serves as an anchor for their community. That faith expression, it seems to me, is fundamental to the human condition, whether it be through Christianity, the Islamic faith, Hinduism, or honoring the spirit world of nature in the tradition of Native American Indians.  For this reason, PBS broadcast the film which reached more varied and diverse set of viewers than I could have imagined, including, no doubt, some arch conservative evangelical viewers which the network would love to reach.

My first documentary, ”Fine Food, Fine Pastries, Open 6 to 9” I finished in 1989 and made for about $45,000 mostly through a grant from the DC Humanities Council and numerous piecemeal contributions from the community who ate at Sherrill’s where the film was set. Other documentaries of mine include: “If You Lived Here You Would Be Home Now” (1994) about an artist and his community in small Delaware town; I scraped together about $60,000 for that one largely through a Delaware Humanities Council grant and the generosity of Russ and Nancy Suniwick who own a film lab in Washington, D.C. That documentary took five years to make. I wasn’t paid and everyone volunteered their services. My most recent documentary, Journey of the Bonesetter’s Daughter, premiered on PBS last year on Mother Day and cost about the same as the church film [$250,000].

 [The director David Petersen can be reached through his email: ].

  1. 5.     Peter Menkin: My pleasure has been to get to see your film, “Let All the Church Say Amen.” As you know, I found it on Netflix. Tell us where else this film can be found, and also as we come to the end of our interview, is there something I’ve missed or something you want to add?

“Let the Church Say Amen” is distributed primarily by Film Movement for DVD purchase, and you can find it in many video stores, such s Blockbuster. It’s actually my most accessible film. You can also find it on Netflix through both streaming and DVD rental. Before it went to video, the film also had a brief theatrical release, which qualified it for Academy Award consideration. No doubt that may have helped get the attention of the Academy when they honored the film by screening it in Los Angeles in 2005.

Many people have asked me what was the one thing I learned from making this film. I always explain it this way. In the documentary, Brother C, the singer in the film, loses his son to street violence when his son is stabbed two blocks from where the family lives.  Tragically, after we finished filming, Brother C lost a second child to street violence, his older daughter who was shot in her apartment. It’s hard to imagine how a father could endure such loss and still retain his faith, but every time I talk to Brother C and ask him how he’s doing, he answers the same way: I’m blessed. With his measure of gratitude, every day for me is paradise, and I thank him for teaching me such joy.

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