Tomorrow, New York City voters will head to the polls to cast a vote for mayor. While current mayor Mike Bloomberg has been facing controversy for extending term limits against popular support, his Democrat opponent, Comptroller Bill Thompson, is a virtual unknown across the city. Amongst the crowd of third-party candidates in the election, one notch above the Rent is Too Damn High Party nominee, is a face familiar to the indie film community. Reverend Billy Talen, performance artist and Stop Shopping Gospel Choir leader, is the Green Party candidate for New York City mayor. The star of Rob VanAlkemade’s 2007 film “What Would Jesus Buy?” (now available to view for free on SnagFilms), Rev Billy is an activist with a serious sense of humor, best known for his anti-consumerist choir. Talen is running on the platform “Keep our Neighborhoods Livable and Vibrant, Healthy and Safe.” Talen’s biggest break in the race so far came when he interrupted Mayor Bloomberg’s introduction to a debate, in which he yelled out that Bloomberg should not be on stage because the people of New York voted for term limits. I spoke with the man who brought Talen to the big screen. Rob VanAlkemade told me what makes Talen such an attractive figure.
How did you find out about Rev Billy? How did “What Would Jesus Buy” come about?
I was compelled to make some sort of short project revolving around the presidential campaign of ’04. I had no budget at all so figured I’d stay local, centering on activism and protest in New York City, as schedule permitted. On a whim I also applied for credentials for both political conventions. They called me from DC to ask me more about my project. Having no idea at all of what my project was about yet, I naively mentioned the word “documentary,” and they seemed to quickly lose interest, schooling me on how the conventions were for journalists. I replied in a random ramble about how the definitions for “journalism” and “documentary” were actually still inter-changeable, and to my astonishment it worked. So, I’m wandering around Boston and New York searching for a story that resonated for me and instead I generally just started getting more depressed and alienated by another polarizing sound bite campaign…
But occasionally I’d come across Rev Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir singing and preaching about the God Goddess Mystery Thing, and embracing the unknown, and the need to be surreal just to understand. And this absurd spectacle of emotional sincerity and intentional intellectual bafflement made perfect sense to me. So I followed the Church more often and eventually was invited to join them on a “Stop Big Boxes” tour across California. My producer friend Mike Wilson invested $600. and I eventually ended up with [the short film] “Preacher With an Unknown God”. By the time “Preacher” won a Sundance award we were making “What Would Jesus Buy” with Morgan Spurlock. WWJB became a feature doc following the Church of Stop Shopping’s cross-country crusade to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse.
How have people been responding to the film in the years in which it’s been out?
Reaction has been exuberant and somewhat intense, so even certain harsh initial reviews were flattering in their level of commitment and conviction. I attended screenings around the country and the world and we almost always had great times celebrating, commiserating or arguing though our Q&A’s. Religious communities also embraced the film more consistently than we’d expected. Though “What Would Jesus Buy” is not a Christian film, we hoped all sorts of believers would embrace the message of personal connection over compulsive consumerism. One of the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds we ever had for the film was at the Cornerstone evangelical Christian festival in Illinois. We also had a terrific time at the Windrider forum in Colorado Springs and the City of the Angels festival in Los Angeles…though Catholic priests did turn out to be fairly tough customers regarding our satirical interpretation of certain icons. (Chapter headings included Jesus leading a flock of Hummers across a mall parking lot, and an iPod-wearing Mary holding a baby Jesus enchanted by his new Tickle Me Elmo Extreme).
The feedback continues to come in from individuals, groups and families far and wide. Rev Billy Church manager [and wife] Savitri are still forwarding me notes like these all the time from their website:
Aug 29, 2009 – California
“I am a conservative Christian and believe the Bible word for word. I agree with Rev. Billy’s statement in the film that you guys don’t have the answers, you’re just asking one hell of a big question. I just wanted to let you know that you guys are likely to be counted as an intellectual gateway drug to change for me further on down the road.”
Dec 15, 2008 – Norway
“I must say I was thrilled to see you and your wonderful team working hard spreading the word against commercialism…I never thought such a thing would ever happen and in such an original way. Well done Rev Billy and your team, you have made my Christmas and restored my faith of which I had all but given up.”
Nov. 8, 2008 – Oklahoma
“I just finished watching the film ‘What Would Jesus Buy?’ and I loved the message you and your followers are spreading. I am not a Christian although I was raised as one and have no problem with any religion that preaches tolerance and love. As an adult living in this society of mass consumption I find it hard to disconnect myself from material wealth as we all do…Thank you for your work. Thank you and your followers for their time and patience. May blessings be upon you.”
What do you think of Rev Billy’s campaign in New York? How do you think Rev Billy has handled his latest high-profile endeavor?
I think it was a brave and terrific idea, but I haven’t followed the campaign closely enough to comment further with any intelligence. When I speak with Bill or Savitri lately it’s usually about the film or our mutual friends, not current campaigns. The only time I saw Rev Billy this year was when he officiated my wedding here in LA (which was great).
Do you think your film is a good political ad for his campaign?
Well…”What Would Jesus Buy” was not meant to be an ambitiously political film. We tried that at first and gradually opted for a more personal story with what we hoped would be a more basic and perhaps tangible immediate message. But then again if all politics is personal, then maybe all documentaries are campaign ads?
What are you working on currently?
I’m shooting, producing and/or editing with various colleagues including the incredible houses of Breakthru, Loki, Althea and Deutsch, and am directing something very strange, fun, terrifying and fantastic at the moment that I’d love to tell you more about later.