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Bad Religion: 'The Education of Shelby Knox' and 'Twist of Faith'

By Kathy McDonald

Shelby Knox with her parents, Paula and Danny Knox, outside their home in Lubbock, Texas. From 'The Education of Shelby Knox,' which airs in June on PBS' P.O.V.

The respective filmmaking teams of Kirby Dick and Eddie Schmidt, along with Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt, have made two distinctly topical and prescient documentaries--Twist of Faith and The Education of Shelby Knox--whose heartland stories grapple with religious faith in America's secular society.

This year, headlines and airwaves have been full of religious issues--from the passing of Pope John Paul II and his legacy, to the legal and public fight over the Terri Schiavo case, to the conflicts and struggles in the Middle East, where religion dominates all matters.

The hot-button topic plays out differently in both of these skillfully constructed documentaries. In Twist of Faith, a man works to overcome the trauma of his childhood sexual abuse by a priest. The Education of Shelby Knox follows a Lubbock, Texas high school student as she comes to question her own conservative values.

There are striking parallels between the films: Both deal with faith, sex and sexuality, and both have strong characters of almost heroic proportions who take on the existing system--and lose in the short run, but win in the context of the film. And both characters examine their faith and question their church. Both also premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and both are scheduled to air in June on HBO and PBS' POV series, respectively.

HBO's Shelia Nevins commissioned Twist of Faith. She envisioned a final product that avoided Catholic bashing. "My idea was to do something about the emotional shock and trauma of abuse, something about post-traumatic stress and someone struggling with his faith and with abuse," explains Nevins. Director Dick and producer Schmidt delivered that and more, as the film earned an Academy Award nomination.

The filmmakers found a charismatic and searching subject in Toledo, Ohio firefighter Tony Comes. The former altar boy alleges repeated sexual abuse by his Catholic high school teacher, the former Father Dennis Gray. In 2002, Comes was forced to face his long-suppressed ordeal as allegations became public, as reported in The Boston Globe, revealing serial sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. Adding to his psychological torment, after moving into a new neighborhood, he discovers that his abuser lives only a few houses down the street.

Twist of Faith clearly addresses the question of why those who were abused by priests as children deal with an emotionally scarred adulthood; the violation is not easily overcome. The shame and the guilt of survivors and the position of power of abusers, protected by the Catholic hierarchy, often preclude meaningful closure.

As the filmmakers sought a title, faith was something to which they returned. Dick explains, "The fact that the subjects, even after everything had happened to them, were still a part of their faith, and so strongly Catholic, the film became about the struggle with their faith and the horrific thing that their faith did to them. Their faith had been twisted, actually, and they were still trying to live it." Criminal behavior was sanctioned and covered up by church leaders, making the twist even sharper.

According to Schmidt, Comes was very clear that it wasn't the Catholic religion that had let him down; rather, it was the priest and the diocese that had protected him. During the course of filming, Comes splits with his church, and the division shatters his family. "The family was his only source of solace," says Schmidt. "He was forced to accept his faith, however painful it might be, because that was one of his sources of strength. Tony even explains that it was a source of indignation for him; he wouldn't let these people take away his spiritual life because of this."

The Education of Shelby Knox's filmmakers also took a very personal, first-person story and used it to explore a larger issue--in this case, comprehensive sex education in public schools. But almost immediately, they found that sex ed in conservative, Christian Texas is more than a public health or education question. Despite the inordinately high numbers of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), the only approved public school materials on the topic promote abstinence.

"It wasn't a surprise to find a sex education story because that's what we were looking for," notes co-director/co-producer Rosenblatt. "What was the big surprise was the role of religion and Shelby's religious transformation, that we really did not expect to see. Nor did we expect the film to have the extraordinary reception it's had, and that's because of who's in the White House." Since the presidential election, faith and the role of faith in relationships and politics have moved center stage.

Although there are many stories about religion on the forefront today, the filmmakers found themselves decidedly ahead of the curve when they began fundraising five years ago; one grant-maker even informed them that the culture wars were over.

The film follows Shelby as she participates in the city-sponsored Lubbock Youth Commission. Soon the group finds official resistance to its push for more comprehensive sex education. Shelby is forced to ask fundamental questions of her pastor and her parents' beliefs. "She started off deeply religious," admits co-director/co-producer Lipschutz. "She had a missionary zeal and a very deep sense of right and wrong. Early on, that moral sense was fused with religion and as she matured, that sense of right and wrong became uncoupled from religion."

As Shelby tries to make sense of the ongoing fight, a conflict over human decency emerges that pits her own moral compass--her own tolerance--against the rigidity and intolerance of Christian church-dominated Lubbock. Advocating for abstinence until marriage, via a program called "True Love Waits," is Shelby's pastor, Ed Ainsworth. The filmmakers made a conscious decision to let Ainsworth articulate the conservative view. "He's a better character because he can voice his opinion," says Rosenblatt. He appears as a valid adversary because he's more than a "stick figure," adds Rosenblatt. What also makes him compelling is the fact that he actually argues with Shelby on camera, unlike others in the community who opposed her advocacy but refused to participate in the film.

Ainsworth helps puts Shelby in context, clarifying her reactions to the status quo. The filmmakers also make clear that with a controversial topic, they worked hard to convince participants that they would not take a partisan approach. Additionally, with the broadcast in mind, the filmmakers needed to avoid pure advocacy. "By making the story from Shelby's point of view, we tipped the balance," notes Lipschutz. With input from the co-directors, Shelby recorded voiceover narration during the editing process in addition to several on-camera interviews made during the four years of shooting. "When you have an intimate personal voice it makes for more captivating filmmaking," Rosenblatt contends.

Twist of Faith also involved its subjects in the filmmaking process. Dick and Schmidt gave mini-DV cameras to Comes and his wife, Wendy, to tell their stories. The filmmakers first employed this technique with Chain Camera (scheduled for a DVD release via Zeitgeist in July), achieving a striking degree of intimacy. "We found from Chain Camera that you get an intimacy from a subject you just don't get when we shoot them," says Dick. "They decide to talk to the camera on their own schedule, when it rises up in them, instead of when we show up as filmmakers."

In some ways the most intimate and intense moments in the film are those recorded by Tony and Wendy alone. Tony went so far as to make a rig on his dashboard to record his thoughts while driving, coming up with an angle no cameraperson could get. "Wendy said that the camera was the best therapist Tony could have had," notes Schmidt. "It was non-judgmental and a safe outlet for venting."

Dick describes Wendy's hour-long, to-the-camera confessional as an incredible document of living-with-survivor trauma. Her perspective of her husband's despair and the impact on their marriage and family life is profoundly real. Tony and Wendy had actually shot some scenes themselves before the filmmakers got involved--one scene in which the Comeses tell their daughter about "the monster down the street"--as a means of capturing the truth.

"Tony was so stunned to find that his abuser was living five doors away, the abuse rushed back into his life and he really started thinking about a lawsuit," explains Dick. Comes shot the footage to document what he and his family had to endure--how, for his daughter's protection, he had to reveal his past abuse. "He was shooting the film before he was contacted," adds Dick. "That's how good a subject he was."

By mixing subject- and filmmaker-made footage, Twist of Faith effectively captures Comes' struggle with his deep psychological wounds, as well as his confrontation with the Toledo Diocese's duplicity and deception in covering up criminal and moral improprieties. As the filmmakers explain, one of the major challenges was finding subjects who were willing to open up and trust their story of violation to outsiders. "Among the greatest praise that we got from our subject was during a post-screening Q&A when Tony was asked about his faith," notes Schmidt. "Tony said, 'I realized that for 20 years I hadn't trusted anyone because of all these issues, and I put my trust in two people I didn't know from Los Angeles to tell my story. They effectively and truthfully told my story and from that, I have regained my faith in people.'"


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to Variety and Daily Variety's special reports.