Powerhouse for God
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by Barry Dornfeld, Tom Rankin, and Jeff Titon
color, 58 min, 1989
Powerhouse for God is a stunning portrait of an old-fashioned Baptist preacher, his family, and their church in Virginia's northern Blue Ridge Mountains. Audiences who were born and raised among old-time southern Baptists say this film captures the fierce preaching, determined singing, autobiographical witnessing, and stern doctrine that characterizes these religious communities.
The filmmakers offer the portrait with an intimacy seldom achieved in documentary films. The church members reveal themselves in the film as complex human beings, not as stereotypes. That they do reveal themselves is perhaps the result of their ten-year friendship with one of the filmmakers, and the production procedure itself. The small crew of three filmmakers spent three months on location and came to understand the church members' feelings and beliefs; the church members came to trust the filmmakers' purposes and allowed them into their lives. Rejecting the convention of narrator-less documentaries that present the illusion of reality, the film uses a first person narrator (one of the filmmakers) and makes it clear that the audience is viewing the church members through the filmmakers' eyes.
Powerhouse for God shows the church members articulating and practicing their religious beliefs, but as a documentary film, its object is understanding - not endorsement or proselytizing. Careful representation is its method, and the portrait of the pastor is particularly complete and moving, as the audience comes to understand why he believes as he does.
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