Outrage. I was prepared to be outraged by this film … seeing LDS and LGBTQ in the same sentence enough to cause fear and a presentment of horrors. Yes, there is plenty to be outraged by here if that’s what you need, but a calm analysis will give a much more reflective, intellectual response. For BELIEVER is not just about us but about our allies and the choice they can make to walk beside us.
The film follows Dan Reynolds, front man of band ‘Imagine Dragons’, a Mormon on a different kind of mission. With his consciousness raised by life events he sets out to ally with LGBTQ people by making this documentary about his journey and specifically by producing a music festival called LOVELOUD, in Utah in 2018. His focus is the alarming rate of suicide in the Mormon community and the responsibility of the church, his church, toward LGBTQ youth.
There are confronting attitudes here. Opening the film is a church elder using the phrase ‘a serious and significant sin’. Later, concepts like ‘mixed orientation marriages’ and ‘acquired addiction’ are hard to encounter. Generally, however, these early grabs from participants tell us nothing more than we already know. This is a general release film, and the realities expressed should be seen in an audience specific context. What comes next, though, is vitally important and the reason I stayed with the film, the first interview with Reynolds which asks the questions I wanted to know. The Why?
Directed by Don Argott, the film uses some charming homey footage and Reynolds and his wife, artist and performer Aja Volkman, have a relaxed attitude to the camera in their lives. They speak directly to the person behind the camera, to each other and their daughter and newborn twins. Breast pumping, dirty nappies and an explaining of the troubling requirement for Aja to convert before marriage is authentic and endearing. A google search indicates that the pair have recently announced a “rebuilding” of the marriage after a split last year.
Reynolds shares his background as a man of faith from a family of believers and how he has come to a place where he will respectfully speak out against what is ‘hurting people‘. There is an honesty in this approach which is very watchable and the technique is extremely effective, especially towards the end of the film when he directly addresses why he remains resolutely Mormon. The film looks at his musical rise to be a ‘famous Mormon‘ and his reaching out to a fellow singer, Tyler Glenn from the rock band ‘Neon Trees’. Glenn came out and remained a church member for several years afterward and while his screentime tends towards the positive, his disenchantment is available to the viewer. He will perform at Loveloud.
Despite being a film focussed around a straight man, there are many LGBTQ voices through the film, none more affecting than Savannah, a 13 year old who speaks at the Festival. For me, tissues were required several times over the film’s 100 minutes … not for the witness and testimony, there are community filmmakers who do that well, but for the successes and moments of gain that BELIEVER foregrounds with a genuine inclusiveness. Seeing one of their own struggle with the patriarchal structures of the church he loves is very telling. Seeing Reynolds use his money, fame and resultant power for a humanist cause not generally overtly adopted is definitely uplifting.
Though the film won Documentary of the Year at the 2018 Hollywood Film Awards, there has been backlash, some considered and, expectedly, some more emotional. Yes, there are outrages, terrible doctrine and horrible misuses of love and family and faith, but at its heart this film gave me hope. It also engendered a fresh political appreciation about the place of allies in the struggle for LGBTQ rights and I would recommend it on this basis. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints is not the only organization which has taken time to accept new tenets and unambiguous declarations from within any institution are essential to provoke that change.
About the film as one of those voices? There are discussions to be had over a beer after viewing. Is that not what we want from a documentary? Especially one playing during Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival.