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Larry Charles and ‘Religulous’ @ BRITDOC

Larry Charles and 'Religulous' @ BRITDOC


(Larry Charles, right, chats with Jamie Campbell in front of a capacity crowd at BRITDOC in Oxford.)

On Friday evening, TV and film comedy hero Larry Charles helped close the third annual BRITDOC with a Conversation masterclass at the O’Reilly Theatre in Keble College. Popular British TV satirist Jamie Campbell moderated the discussion, which also included clips from Charles’ upcoming documentary with Bill Maher, Religulous. The feature will screen at the Toronto Film Festival in September (after a sneak preview at Charles friend Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival next week) and come to US theaters courtesy of Lionsgate in October, but attendees were treated to selections from the film as well as the director’s thoughts on its very controversial subject: international religion.

The film, which follows comedian Bill Maher’s travels around the globe as he explores and investigates the people and places behind some of the biggest religions, is Charles’ first feature since the massively popular doc/fiction hybrid, Borat. Prior to that film, Charles made his name as a TV writer and producer for shows like Seinfeld, The Tick, Mad About You, Dilbert, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. As he discussed on the panel, it was all this work in TV comedy that finally forced him to experiment with documentary style elements.

“I think doing Seinfeld, as great as it was and as much fun as it was, the artifice of a sitcom started feeling too contrived,” he told the audience at BRITDOC. “I got very tired of that. I started seeking out things that would help me find a deeper truth.”

Enter shows like HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm or adapting Sacha Baron Cohen’s popular TV character, Borat, to the big screen. For Curb, there is no script and the episodes are largely based on whatever series creator/star Larry David wants to do at the last minute. However, it’s very different than the spontaneous real-world moments that came from placing Cohen’s fictional character in front of real people.

He wants to put Larry David in real life situations with real people, but “[Curb is] a very controlled environment and even though the scenes aren’t written [beforehand] there is a structure. With Borat, we were in constant danger and there were constant threats. There were probably over 50 police incidents. It is the documentary experience, but with a fictional element.”


(Larry Charles describes some particularly hairy moments while shooting his film Religulous.)

Now, Religulous on the other hand, is the first true documentary feature in the filmography of Larry Charles. Both he and Bill Maher found they were dealing with many of the same questions about spirituality and the institution of religion. Two like-minded trouble-makers, Charles and Maher set out to make a very funny film about some very serious realities. Among the clips previewed at BRITDOC, we saw the opening title sequence (set to The Who’s “The Seeker”) which includes clips of vintage religion epics. We also saw a funny look at the Holy Land Experience, a Christianity “amusement park” in Florida that features song-and-dance productions as well as a tourist-friendly crucifixion every day (as if it was the nightly Disneyland parade of lights). And, while it is a documentary and it is Bill Maher’s show, the clips we saw prove that Charles has done a good job of keeping the pace brisk and using comedic editing to sustain the laughs.

On the subject of editing, one audience member asked how much we can believe the truth in his films if he’s trying to go for a laugh from an unknowing subject. “I won’t violate the tenor of the conversation, to get a laugh,” he responded, noting that in the case of Borat and its many lawsuits by interviewees from the film, they never misrepresented anyone’s views or statements for the sake of comedy. Plus, as he noted, they’re working with hundreds of hours of footage which allows for the chance to stumble upon something very raw and funny.

Asked if he would ever allow himself to be in front of someone else’s camera in that way, Charles dryly responded, “I would never sign a release form. Or, at least I would read it.”

More on Larry Charles and BRITDOC, and a proper wrap-up in indieWIRE, coming soon.

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I just saw this film for its debut at the Traverse City Film Festival. Larry Charles, the director, was in the house and answered questions afterwords. I was very excited to get a ticket to see this film as I’m a big fan of Bill Maher’s show and love Charle’s effort in Borat. The show was sold out in minutes.

Sadly, the film comes nowhere close to Charles last effort, Borat. It’s only sporadically funny and relies mostly on cuts to archival footage and old campy movies about religion for its gags. Meanwhile, the effort feels very much cobbled together, lazily constructed(boom mikes and second cameras can be spotted in many of the shots), and riddled with all kinds of biases and stereotypes that cynically defeats the film’s essential call for a more rational approach to faith-based thought.

Charles and Bill Maher travel all over the world to try to come to terms with the power, prevalence, and irrationality of religion. They manage to locate a seemingly infinite number of freaks, extremists, and closeted homosexuals and proceed to make them look stupid, not so difficult. Yet, if these people don’t sufficiently embarrass themselves, then Charles mocks them with text that appears below their comments, sound effects that ridicules them(a mean lady gets a a witch’s cackle), and cuts that reduce them to the moronic. There isn’t much space here, ironically, for a personal response, or a moment to let something sink in; the cuts come at furious, demanding, and pejorative pace and sequence.

This is done not just for comic effect, where it often fails save in the purely sophomoric dimension, but has a polemical intent that favors Charles’ overt biases and facile, but semi-racist, connections. For example, at one point, a man in charge of a religious theme park where they reenact scenes of the crucifiction, says many visitors come from far away, even the Gaza Strip. As soon as the words come out of the man’s mouth, Charles cuts to a gun-wielding Arab in a mask. In fact, Charles projects dozens of images violent Arabs(welcome to Hollywood!) using archival footage to further the claim, however unexplored in the film, that Islam is an inherently violent religion, a claim often made by right-wing idealogues. Charles and Maher ignore the political dimension as an explanatory variable in violence, blame it on religion, and take a decidly simplistic view of terrorism in the process, ignoring class and social justice and imperial humiliations as possible causes for violence. There is no mention of state-based violence by Christian and Jewish armies that use religion as their moral justification. While I realize that such a scope may be difficult in such a forum, Charles and Maher appear to want us to take their arguments seriously and question our assumptions about religion, while neither has bothered to do the same by shamelessly taking the low road and falling in line to the media’s ignoble history of projecting violent images of Arabs and Muslims when they bother to show them at all(Read Shaheen’s “Reel Arabs”). If this had some comic purpose, it might be understood, but here, it comes off like propaganda of a nasty and ignorant order. (They even roll out Yassir Arafat, an avowed Arab secularist, in a montage of religious extremists who encourage violence)

It’s a shame that Charles relied so heavily on archival footage and sound effects for comic effect. In Borat, he plays it closer to the vest and allows Sascha Cohen to carry the film. Perhaps his cinematic sleights of hand were a necessity in the editing room since there wasn’t enough quality footage. Still, Charles stated after the film that he wants to release 15 hours of film on t.v. that ended up on the cutting room floor in thirty minute increments. I would recommend the same for this shoddy and half-ass effort, which would be much better suited to television, preferably the higher numbers in the cable universe. It’s a shame because this is a film a really wanted to like. The hallelujeuh chorus on the left has lately gotten so loud and uniform, I really wish we could sing a new tune or two, a little less cynically perhaps.

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