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Jesus, You Know (Ulrich Seidl, 2003)


    Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidlís documentary Jesus, You Know uses the filmed prayers of a half-dozen churchgoers to present an unusual, yet insightful, look at the role that religion plays in modern lives. Thanks to the approach used by Seidl in filming his subjects, the mundane, or at least familiar, problems that these people speak of become an informative, riveting and entertaining presentation of a collective pathos. For a documentary, the film is unusually formally controlled. As a result, one canít help but suspect that Seidl had his subjects stage their actions so that the symmetry of his compositions was not upset. He frequently photographs parishioners from head on, and when they pray, they speak directly into the camera, addressing the audience as if they were the recipients of the uttered prayers. The effect that this technique has is almost unsettling at first, as if Seidl is not only exhibiting their religious being, but also confronting us with it and forcing us to think of them primarily as spiritual entities. When his subjects begin speaking, and weíre suddenly made privy to their innermost passions and plights, this level of discomfort only rises higher.


    A few times during he movie Seidl cuts away from those praying, and shows the icon of Christ that the person is directing their speech at. Alternatively, these representations seem stern, compassionate and, in one case, almost mocking. It becomes apparent through Seidlís editing that these icons are blank slates that allow the person in prayer to project whatever meaning they need to onto them. Similarly, there seems to be a consistent feeling that the problems of at least some of these people are mostly self-inflicted. A troubled teenager complains that his family harasses him for attending church services in lieu of more productive activities. When he goes on to confess a compulsive tendency to turn television and even Bible stories into erotic fantasies, it seems that his voluntary involvement in the church is the sole reason for his guilt. Though we donít ever see his family, itís not very likely that they are the source of the pressures that he feels. Similarly, the other people we hear speaking seem to have their lifeís problems exacerbated by their involvement in the church. Even though each of them obviously draws strength from their prayers, their involvement in the church doesnít come without its own costs. When the actual content of his subjectsí prayers forms not only semi-melodramatic mini-narratives, but also a thematically consistent vibe of romantic frustration, it grows even more difficult not to question the veracity of the entire enterprise. Ultimately, though, it doesnít much matter if the people we see are expressing their own sentiments or scripted ones. Seidlís attitudes toward these people are whatís important here, and they are obvious.




Jeremy Heilman