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October 5, 1999 2:00 AM
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NYFF '99: Smith Unveils "Dogma" and Discusses Exploration of Faith; Hundreds Protest

NYFF '99 ON THE SCENE: Smith Unveils "Dogma" and Discusses Exploration of Faith; Hundreds Protest

by Eugene Hernandez




Kevin Smith's self-described comedic fantasy, "Dogma," had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival last night drawing a large crowd that spilled over to an additional simultaneous screening at an Upper West Side movie theater. Also on hand were hundreds of vocal protestors who closed down the left-hand lane of 65th St. demonstrating their opposition to Smith's new movie. Situated only a few yards away from the arrivals area for the Avery Fisher Hall Festival screening at Lincoln Center, the protestors sang and chanted as stars and guests arrived to a long red carpet line of attending media. One industry observer estimated the rally size at about 1,000 protestors.

"I am with them," Kevin Smith explained, referencing the demonstrators as he made his way through a sea of TV crews, photographers and press. Calling his movie a "really devout -- pro-faith -- flick," Smith told the media his message to the demonstrators, "Its not what you've been told, see it and judge for yourself." Arriving with his wife Jennifer and their toddler daughter Harley (who was preciously adorned with a pair of angel wings), Smith continued addressing the controversy as the chorus of chants grew louder, "These people just don't understand that this movie is devout."

When told of Smith's comments, C. Preston Noell III of The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property -- an organizer of the protest -- told indieWIRE flatly, "He's wrong." Noell vowed that he would mobilize his groups 200,000 members outside of all 1,500 theaters when the film opens nationwide next month. When asked about the basis for his objection to the movie, Noell responded that he had read part of the script, but has no plans to see the movie.

At the podium nearby, a speaker implored, "This movie is made by sad, silly people who, in effect, are puppets manipulated by the devil." While over on the red carpet, underscoring Smith's comments, "Dogma" star Ben Affleck said, "Its odd to object to something you don't know anything about," adding that the detractors would ultimately be "embarassed" for objecting to the film, given its message of redemption and faith.

After the screenings, guests headed to Ernie's, an Upper West Side restaurant on Broadway. Lion's Gate's Mark Urman and Tom Ortenberg were joined by the Kevin, Jennifer and Harley Smith, producer Scott Mosier, film stars Ben Affleck and Salma Hayek, View Askew attorneys John Sloss and Paul Brennan from Sloss Law, John and Janet Pierson, Bob Hawk, along with filmmakers Bill Plympton, Darren Aronofsky and Mary Harron, producers Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente, and actors Janeane Garofolo, Kate Hudson, and Kyle Maclachlan. Buzz on the film, based on an informal poll of party attendees, was almost entirely positive with one indie insider praising Smith's determination to make such a personal film in a time when so few indie filmmakers seem so inclined.

"Dogma" screened for industry and press on Friday at the Festival, with Smith participating in a Q & A session after the showing alongside producer Scott Mosier. "Confidentially," Smith told the crowd, early in the chat, "I am really glad that we cut the scene with the elephant dung Madonna," invoking the recent New York City controversy surrounding the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Sensation" exhibit. He continued, "It's one thing to have the Catholic League mad at you, but it's another thing to have the Mayor mad at you." (Coincidentally, the controversial exhibit opened this weekend in NYC amidst continued attacks from Mayor Guiliani, the Catholic League and others.)

Audience reaction from the typically subdued New York Film Fest press corp was strong -- the film garnered laughs throughout and applause at the conclusion. Having spent months documenting the growing controversy following Disney and Miramax' decision to drop the movie, as well as the acid attacks from William Donahue of the Catholic League, I was
surprised at the overall tenderness and reverence at the heart of Smith's exploration of his own faith. While often hilarious, the film will undoubtedly strike an especially strong chord with viewers who, raised Catholic, have since struggled with the often perplexing dogmatic
interpretations upon which the church is based.

The most surprising, and distressing, aspect of the ensuing controversy has been the threats from the film's detractors. Smith soberly related the details of hate mail from Catholics condemning the movie and warning of violent actions against it. While nervous about such threats, Smith admitted that he is no longer taking the attacks personally. He
commented, "I am trying to be a Christian and turn the other cheek."

New York Times critic Janet Maslin praised the film, essentially discounting its foes, calling it "an obviously devout, enlightened parable." In her Monday morning review she continued, "With 'Dogma,' Smith makes a big, gutsy leap into questions of faith and religion. He miraculously emerges with his humor intact and his wings unsinged."

Smith credits his eighth grade teacher, Sister Theresa, with making religion "come alive" for him, creating a fascination and interest in the church. Admitting that this was the first movie he ever wanted to make, he explained that he ultimately realized it would take time to prepare it.

"Dogma's" road to the big screen began at the Toronto Film Festival in 1994 when Smith deliver the lengthy script to Harvey Weinstein. Ben Affleck read the script after signing on for "Chasing Amy" and jumped on board along with pal Matt Damon -- the two portray fallen angels on a collision course with the film's would-be messiah, Linda Fiorentino. Originally written as a younger character, Fiorentino's "Bethany" was later aged a bit to give the character's struggles with faith a bit more depth.

While church leaders and others are proclaiming that movies like "Dogma," and art exhibits like "Sensation," are part of a growing campaign to bash Catholics, the reality is that Catholic artists are in fact increasingly using their own creativity to provocatively explore
their own issues of faith and devotion.

As I lingered at Lincoln Center last night before the party, with the protesters packing up their signs, one priest approached me to pursue a conversation on the issue. When told that I saw the film, and as someone who was raised Catholic and attended 6 years of parochial school I didn't find it offensive but rather a validating story of redemption, he became instantly frustrated and confrontational. Unwilling to listen to my polite encouragement that he consider seeing the movie himself, he shot back, "I don't need to put my head in a sewer to know its a sewer." As I quietly tried to end the conversation he then warned me, "Beware of the deception of evil."

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