Home Arts and Entertainment Unveiling Religion’s Extreme Perspective: A Maine Filmmaker’s Captivating Documentary

Unveiling Religion’s Extreme Perspective: A Maine Filmmaker’s Captivating Documentary

Unveiling Religion’s Extreme Perspective: A Maine Filmmaker’s Captivating Documentary

Dwayne Tomah at St. Ann’s in “The Religion Move.” Photos courtesy of Alan Kryszak

The last time I spoke with Maine filmmaker Alan Kryszak, he was working on his 2022 documentary about homelessness in Maine, the typically thought-provoking “Hungry Now.” It was there, speaking to people experiencing homelessness on the cold streets of Bangor, that Kryszak spotted a juxtaposition that became the spark kindling his next film, “The Religion Move.”

“I was driving by 20 different churches, all empty, on my way to interview people,” said Kryszak, “and found myself thinking, ‘What are these buildings for?’” It’s a provocative question, and one that underlies “The Religion Move’s” often scathing examination of the role of organized religion in American life, especially these fraught and contentious days. “A year ago, I asked my wife if I was wandering off too much making this movie. She emphatically told me, ‘No.’ Just look at the news now – attacks on the LGBTQ community, book banning, gun rights, abortion rights, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It’s like every single topic I was addressing is coming up right now, and the common denominator in all of them is religion.”

Filmmaker Alan Kryszak

Kryszak, also adjunct faculty teaching media at the University of Maine at Machias, Unity College and Southern New Hampshire University, is clear that “The Religion Move” represents only his own views and not anyone else’s. “I’ve never needed to say that more,” half-jokes Kryszak, as he prepares for the film’s premiere at UMaine’s Collins Center for the Arts in Orono at 3 p.m. Sunday. And yet, as the filmmaker is also quick to point out, “The Religion Move” is hardly a one-sided or one-person broadside aimed at its subject.

The film will be followed by a multi-faith talkback panel, featuring several of the people interviewed for the “The Religion Move.” Some are clergy from various faiths, including a cultural representative from the Passamaquoddy people, whose long and ugly history of being repressed by Maine’s Catholic Church plays a pivotal role late in the film. Other voices in “The Religion Move” are even less equivocal, including the unseen man heard kicking off the film with the simple statement, “I hate religion,” and the obscured woman who tells a wrenching story of being disowned by her religious family because of her lesbianism. “She just likes to talk about how the devil has my soul,” the woman says of her mother, lamenting how religion has split her family.

And then there are those who attribute tangible personal victories to God, like the aging clammer who credits a visitation from God with curing him of both his life-long addictions to alcohol and nicotine. Kryszak, while unsparing in his own views on how organized religion’s malign influence on American politics and individual freedoms, yet promises that “The Religion Move” is fundamentally about listening to people with all points of view.

Still, Kryszak has some things to say about the current infiltration of religious extremists into the highest positions of power. “When you have Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, third in line to the presidency, telling a reporter to just read your bible when asked about his policies, that’s the wrong answer,” said Kryszak. “When you have the head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, saying God wants him to have high-powered rifles, that’s alarming.”

For documentarian and teacher Kryszak, the impression that documentary filmmakers must be unbiased is a false one. “That’s the biggest, silliest lie,” said Kryszak, “and I teach documentary filmmaking. It’s the interviewing technique that has to be objective. As a filmmaker, you have to be aware of your biases and approach people honestly. In the film, I speak to pastors, a rabbi, the coordinator of the Islamic Center of Maine. As long as they trust you to represent their words honestly and don’t change their meaning, that’s documentary filmmaking.”

That said, there is no shortage of dissenting voices in the film, Mainers who’s experiences with organized religion have left indelible emotional – and physical – scars. “One of the pivotal figures in my film is Dwayne Tomah, who acts as a Passamaquoddy cultural representative. We interview Dwayne’s sister, Annette, who’s since passed, about the abuse she received in one of the Catholic-run so-called ‘residential schools’ for Native Americans, where physical and emotional abuse were used to try to stamp out the native culture. Annette shows us her hands, which are all busted up.”

Indeed, it’s this dark and still-recent chapter in Maine history that forms a climactic and powerful sequence late in “The Religion Move,” as Tomah leads the filmmaker on a tour of the abandoned St. Ann’s church and former residential school in Sipayik, before it was torn down last month.

As Kryszak learned throughout making “The Religion Move,” however, people’s reactions aren’t so easy to predict. “Dwayne, with this impromptu goodbye, was not as anger-filled as I thought. As we explored the basement afterward, Dwayne showed me something that was really chilling, that stuck with me for days. I don’t want to say what it was, but we show just a bit of it, glowing in the darkness.”

“The Religion Move” is that kind of experience. Kryszak’s prankish visual juxtapositions coexist alongside earnest pleas from people – religious and decidedly not – for understanding and peace. Said Kryszak, “The general through-line is that if more people listened, there would be less sadness and violence in the world. The people I talk to, they’re all ones who, if you slid off the road in the snow, they’d work to pull you out. I work to seriously respect what they’re saying – as much of a smart ass as I can be in the interludes.”

Alan Kryszak’s latest documentary “The Religion Move” will premiere at 3 p.m. Sunday at UMaine Orono’s Collins Center for the Arts. The screening is free and will be followed by a multi-faith talkback session featuring various subjects featured in the film. There will be a second screening at UMaine Machias’ Performing Arts Center on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m., with many of the panelists returning.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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