226: Two Documentaries with Spiritual Themes Collide on Television Tonight

“I’m going to charm you yet!”

Johnny Cash to a wounded crow he picks up while hunting

In recent years, the rising popularity of documentaries has brought us a rich bounty of films with spiritual themes. Tonight, viewers scanning their TV listings will find a pair of documentaries — back to back in most parts of the U.S. and both of them with considerable spiritual allure.
   From 9-10:30 p.m., The National Geographic Channel gives us “Inside the Koran,” which claims to be “A Window into the Volatile Paradox of Islam’s Most Sacred Text.”
   But, starting at 10 p.m. on the PBS network’s POV series, you can see “Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music.”

Here’s some help in sorting out your viewing choices.

   FIRST, I previewed the entire “Koran” documentary (and National Geographic seems to spell it both ways in the film, but primarily with a “K,” even though “Quran” is a more common spelling these days). And, I came away sorely disappointed in this film that seems to throw one reason after another at us for worrying about Muslims, the Islamic world and the message of the Quran.
   I really wanted to like this film, when I sat down to watch it. Ramadan is just around the corner, a month that celebrates the gift of the Quran. ReadTheSpirit is hosting a pioneering project, called “Sharing Ramadan,” designed to share everyday stories about the month-long observance with a broad audience of readers. AND — overall this year, National Geographic is pulling out all the stops to publish new books and air new films that bring a lot of helpful light to the complex realms of world religions, including Islam.
   But not in this film.

   Then, I began to dig deeper. I read the press materials that came with the screener disk and realized that this is the work of controversial filmmaker Antony Thomas. He’s not a household name like Spielberg, Hanks or Jolie right now, but back in 1980 Antony Thomas made headlines around the world with a documentary called, “Death of a Princess.” Thomas professed to have spent hundreds of hours investigating the execution of a princess in Saudi Arabia, a young woman accused of adultery, but the film he actually produced was reconstructed with actors to portray scenes of corruption and the abuse of Saudi women that he said were true, even though he couldn’t document them on film in Saudi Arabia.
   When the film was released, TIME magazine among other publications expressed great skepticism about his fictionalized recreations in the 1980 film. TIME pointed to one especially salacious scene that Thomas created for his 1980 film and said the details portrayed simply seemed “unimaginable” to TIME’s own reporter in the region.
   This explains one of the great puzzles in this new National Geographic film: Why does a documentary that claims to explore the sacred text begin with half an hour on the abuse of women in the Muslim world, including a segment on genital mutilation? Certainly these are urgent issues of social justice around the world — but it’s strange to find almost nothing about the Quran as a whole and, instead, a diatribe on the treatment of women.

There are other major problems with this film. Here are just a few of them:

   First, there’s very little here about the long history and traditions associated with Islam’s sacred text. The film is all about debates concerning a handful of controversial verses. If we’re not sufficiently anxious about the topics covered by Thomas, the ominous, throbbing soundtrack underlines how deeply worried we should be about these billion-plus Muslims.
   Second, for a film about the Muslim world, there’s a glaring omission here of scenes showing us typical family life. Islam revolves around families and the only extended family scenes we see here are one family arguing over dinner about women’s rights — and another family where a somber-looking woman shovels breakfast onto a table for her children. After decades of reporting on Islam, I can tell you this: You’ll never understand Islam unless you enjoy an evening of food, hospitality and conversation with a Muslim family.
   Third, for all the terrible things this film depicts — including the same pools of human blood that we are shown on several occasions throughout the documentary — we are never shown any examples of great Muslim humanitarians. After all, this is the culture that produced 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the prophetic promoter of microfinance to help the world’s most impoverished men and women pull themselves out of poverty.

So, ReadTheSpirit’s verdict tonight is obvious: Watch Cash!

   The Cash documentary was assembled in 1969 from both new and older film footage of Cash by documentary filmmaker Robert Elfstrom. If you’re familiar with classics of filmmaking from this era, like Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back” from 1967, then you’ll “get” what Elfstrom was doing here even before the film starts. This movie was made early in Elfstrom’s eclectic, 40-year career. He went on to work on films ranging from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” for which he operated one of the cameras, to the primary work in creating dozens of films about art, music, movies, science and American culture.
   However, his Cash film is so raw that it disappointed a lot of consumers, when it briefly was brought back on DVD in 2000.
   I laughed out loud when I ran across this review of the film on Amazon: “What a low-down-egg-suckin’-dog-shame. I was SO looking forward to
getting this disk. Imagine, a man who is in the Country Music Hall of
Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Song Writers Hall of
Fame. Can’t say ANYTHING good about the disk. The sound quality is not
there at all. The picture quality is not there either. I think the
general idea of the presentation might be OK, they just missed the
mark. In years to come, I hope someone doesn’t come across THIS disk
and wonder how the guy depicted could have received so many awards.”

   I understand perfectly what this reviewer was saying. This is not a great performance film, nor is it a ponderous look at the overall impact of Cash’s amazing life. Line this documentary up next to Antony Thomas’ slickly produced film on Islam and the production values are in different solar systems.

   But so are the two different missions of these films. Thomas obviously has scores to settle with Islam and has used a lot of moviemaking resources here to swing this cinematic axe. Elfstrom simply wants to let us sit a while with this amazing musician and his friends — and reach our own conclusions about Cash’s life.
   To be sure, it’s a wildly uneven slice of footage pulled together 40 years ago showing us everything from Cash performing on stage to hunting in the woods, chilling out in a tour bus to talking with other musicians about their profession. Yes, there’s performance footage, including a scene with Bob Dylan. But, it’s really a multi-media scrapbook of a spiritual mystery man.
   Cash is an endlessly fascinating American icon — both as plain-and-true-blue as the lyrics of his hit songs and as inscrutably mysterious as his trademark black garb. I don’t think people will tire of exploring this man’s life and music for many, many years. Especially since Cash’s death in 2003 and the biographical movie “Walk the Line” in 2005, people have been reviving all kinds of earlier Cash material. In fact, a version of this 1969 documentary aired on PBS around the time of “Walk the Line.”
   We seem to be so eager for a taste of Johnny’s life that there are even several Johnny Cash Christmas specials on DVD that pop up in stores each autumn. I bought one of those Cash Christmas DVDs off a rack in Starbucks, a sure sign of his trendy appeal.
   What I like about this 1969 film is the vivid slices of his personality that emerge in this collage of clips. Yes, it’s raw and messy and some footage is grainy — but it’s got the ring of truth.
   Tonight — tune in Cash and leave Mr. Thomas’ anxieties about Muslims to the obscurity of cable TV.

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