Follow Whose Voice? Jesus, Hedwig, and The Path of the Righteous

Young Levi tells the camera that he doesn't write his sermon, Jesus does -- he can even feel Jesus controlling the pen. (Well, how do you think I got this blog done so quickly, Levi?)
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Huffington Post Blogs the Tribeca Film FestivalEarlier this week I caught a fascinating and highly ironic double header: in the afternoon I sat, tightly clenched and mildly horrified through a showing of Heidi Ewing's, Jesus Camp and in the evening I attended Katherin Linton's glorious, Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig.

Now, being a Jewish girl from the Tri-State area, I am no stranger to the concept of camp, even religious camp at that. I spent a few summers at theatre camp and pulled a very brief, embarrassing stint at circus camp (not a typo) before settling on...Yiddish Camp, which I believe if you look it up on Wikepedia is literally the defined opposite of Jesus Camp. As the proud Yiddish camper I was (Kindering Avelte Naya!) I thought perhaps it was beshert (last yiddish ref, I promise) that I was to see Jesus Camp.

Yiddish camp aside, the film was a truly shocking portrayal of evangelical religious fanatics in our country, many of whom apparently, are under the age of thirteen. One of the earlier scenes in the documentary shows an evangelical children's prayer conference. Hundreds of young, fresh-faces kids chanting in unison, their arms outstretched, many convulsing and speaking in tongues while crying hysterically. Their leader (at least in this particular instance) is evangelical children's minister, Becky Fischer, a woman whose two most memorable lines in the film are; 'President Bush has brought credibility to Christianity' and (my personal fave) 'Had it been in the old testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!' (Finally, someone said it).

The film just produced one mouth gaping moment after another; the highlights being:

  • Minister Becky cleansing the children of their sins, crying out 'Father we have just washed them with the water of your word'. Interesting to know that the 'water of God's word' is...Evian! I will immediately switch from Fiji...
  • On the first day of camp, the children sing and dance to a rap worthy of Milli Vanilli, that goes a little something like, 'You take him high, you take him low, you take JC wherever you go! Whose in the house? JC! We're Kickin' it with Christ!
  • While home-schooling her young son, Levi (who will later on in the film serve up a kick-ass sermon at camp) a mother lectures about the impossibility of evolution noting repeatedly, 'Science doesn't prove anything!', all the while a large photo of GW grinning at us (presumably on vacation) in the background on the fridge.
  • A large highway billboard boasting: 'Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game" - God
  • Lastly. when young Levi tells the camera that he doesn't write his sermon, Jesus does...he can even feel Jesus controlling the pen, guiding his hand. (Well, how do you think I got this blog done so quickly, Levi?)

In epic contrast - and yet compellingly linked - Follow My Voice tells the story of the amazing students at The Hetrick-Martin institute's 'Harvey Milk School', (a high school that provides a safe education for gay teenagers) set against the making of 'Wig In a Box', a record on which artists of the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Polyphonic Spree, Ben Kweller, Cyndi Lauper, Jonathan Richman, Rufus Wainright and many more covered the songs of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, all of the proceeds of which went to the Hetrick-Martin institute. The film focuses mainly on four Harvey Milk students; there's Mey, an exquisite Cambodian Lesbian who was raised in Brooklyn, Angel a young transvestite whose stepfather threw away all of her 'girl clothes', Tenaja, whose Jehovah's Witness church committee decided she was not 'worth saving' after she informed her mother that she had sex with a girl on the Dobbs ferry, and finally Ralphie an actor/dancer from the Dominican Republic.

Now,I have been strangely tickled by the gender-confused since my childhood discovery of David Bowie frolicking around in shiny leggings and eye-liner singing 'Jump, magic, jump! in my favorite movie ever, 'Labyrinth'. So I suppose it goes without saying that I am a huge Hedwig fan, and the music was in fact the perfect soundtrack for this story. However, it was without a doubt the kids of Harvey Milk who stole the show. I know I was not alone when I did the hiccupy, watching-beaches-in-the-privacy-of-my-home cry when Angel was made prom queen and for the first time in her life, 'felt beautiful'. And then again when Tenaja spoke about her siblings that she doesn't see, saying 'My sister got taller without me, my brother's voice got deeper without me', banished from her family simply because she is a lesbian.

Musically, the high-point of the film is the 'three Bens', (Ben Kweller, Ben Folds and Ben Lee) and then of course, just getting to hear Stephen Trask's brilliant score is a pleasure beyond words. This film is raucous and celebratory and triumphant and above all, inspirational; I felt honored and privileged just to be sitting in the theatre. Witty puns aside: this is a film everyone should see.

It concludes with a segment from the first day of the Harvey Milk school after it's official accreditation as a high school in 2003. As the students walk proudly into a building where they will not be harassed, threatened or hurt for just being themselves, people line the sidewalk with encouraging home-made signs. Among these people are other people; protesters with signs that read 'GOD HATES FAGS' and 'TIRED OF SIN? JESUS IS THE ANSWER'. Watching this, I was suddenly brought back to earlier in the day, back before dinner with my mother, before an hour of revisions for another story, back to young Levi and Minister Becky and the camp filled with mini-republicans speaking in tongues, condemning Brittany Spears and preparing themselves for the celestial kingdom they are so sure awaits. I got really sad for a minute and then, as I turned my face back to the screen in time to see Mey, Tenaja and Angel graduating high school and heading off into a world they never thought would accept them, I wondered to myself, 'Really, what would Jesus do?'

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