Of God and Camera
Sunday, January 21, 2007
A documentary filmmaker from a prominent Democratic family -- a card-carrying San Francisco Democratic family at that -- sets out for deepest Red State America to document the culture and politics of conservative evangelical Christians. Her benefactor is HBO, a network known in some evangelical circles as "Hell's Box Office."
Sound like a recipe for a TV documentary that can be fair and balanced about its subject?
As it happens, anyone expecting smug condescension and glib lib superiority from Alexandra Pelosi -- yes, of that Pelosi family -- might find something surprising in her new film. With a hand-held camera as constant companion, Pelosi spent the better part of a year bouncing around such places as Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to capture glimpses of the 50 million-(or so)-strong evangelical movement.
What Pelosi found was both mundane and familiar (Jerry Falwell, mega-churches, antiabortion rallies) but also something uniquely, wackily American. "Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi" (airing Thursday night on HBO) rambles through a kaleidoscopic landscape of drive-through churches, truck-stop ministries and a Christian-themed miniature golf course with its own tomb of Jesus. For good measure, there are also skateboarding Christian punk kids and an evangelical pro-wrestling circuit with a character named "Jesus Freak."
Pelosi even befriended the Rev. Ted Haggard, a leading evangelical who was disgraced in November after a male prostitute accused him of paying for sex and buying illegal drugs. In Colorado, Haggard took Pelosi camping on Pikes Peak (and taught her how to shoot a rifle); she showed him around Times Square. Pelosi includes extensive pre-scandal footage of her encounters with Haggard (including a flesh-crawling passage in which he asks two of his congregants about their sex lives), all of which gives "Friends of God" an unexpectedly ironic, even poignant twist.
There's another big back-story here, too, of course: Alexandra, 36, is the youngest of Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi's five children. Just as Alexandra was finishing her film, her mom became the first woman to be elected speaker of the House. Some of the evangelicals Alexandra encountered while filming "Friends of God," in fact, protested at the California congresswoman's church on the day she was sworn in.
Having a powerful and famous mother never was a factor in her reporting, says the younger Pelosi, because few of her subjects knew, or perhaps cared, who Nancy Pelosi is (even Falwell never made the connection until he was told during the filming). What's more, Alexandra contends, her mother wasn't all that famous or powerful at the time; her elevation to speaker occurred after the midterm elections, and long after the completion of filming.
"It was a lot harder walking up to the front door and saying to people, 'I'm from HBO' than saying my last name," she says. "Most of the people couldn't get over the fact that I was from New York. Plus, you know, I talk fast and look like someone who belongs in New York. I don't think anyone even heard my last name."
Instead, she says, people were more eager to hear her talk about her relationship with Christ.
"It was almost like a hazing ritual," Pelosi says, talking -- yes -- fast. "I was saved several times a day. They would ask me what I thought about this or that aspect of Jesus. It was a very uncomfortable conversation. In my family, growing up, it was okay to talk about politics, obviously, but we weren't that casual about religion."
Pelosi is a lifelong Catholic, educated at the ritzy Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco and Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. Neither evangelism nor conservative politics figured much in her upbringing. "In my family, we have a hundred years of Catholic school experience, and none of us ever heard that homosexuality was a sin," she says. "At my school, the nuns taught us about evolution."
Pelosi got more politics than she ever asked for after signing on as a producer at NBC News. In 1999, a few years after she received a master's degree from the University of Southern California, the network sent her to Austin to follow the budding presidential campaign of then-Gov. George W. Bush. During frequent lulls on the campaign trail, Pelosi whipped out a digital mini-camera and shot 100 hours of the man who would be president.