Good People Go to Hell, Saved People Go to Heaven – Holly Hardman’s documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the End Times
Producer / Director – Holly Hardman
Executive Producers – Nicolas Rossier, Holly Hardman
Editor – Cameron Clendaniel
Cinematography – Petr Cikhart, Samuel Henriques, Scott Shelley
Gobbo Films in association with Baraka Productions
Holly Hardman begins her important film, Good People Go to Hell Saved People Go to Heaven, with words in white lettering against a black background—words in a basic, analytical form, first the word “rapture” followed by a series of common synonyms—euphoria, elation, bliss, etc.—then a dictionary definition of the expression, “the Rapture,” Theology; aspect of Apocalyptic Millennialism. In Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian belief, the act of being lifted by Jesus into heavenly skies upon the Second Coming, either before, during, or after the Tribulation (a time of great suffering for those left behind on earth).” Before any moving image appears, we hear a strange, incoherent hissing sound, which becomes clearer as we observe a strapping middle-aged man. The man, who wears biblical robes and flowing hair and beard, is muttering the name of Jesus, as he carries a large cross along a highway. Then he half-chants, “Jesus have mercy, Lawd.” The cross has a small wheel or caster at its base to facilitate the bearing of it. This practical touch hints that the man is not carrying out some fanatical penance, but working.
Opening the film with written words from a common type of reference work immediately evokes one of its central themes. The Evangelicals we meet over its ninety minutes are especially conscious of Christianity as a religion of the book—the Word—and they use words skillfully to advance their cause, often enough with underpinnings in Scripture. We can see it and hear it as much in the addled biblical exegesis of a pedantic sermon as in a catchy sign attracting people to a barbecue with preaching: “We’re smokin’ so you don’t.”
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6:23.
The concern of these Rapturites for the Word appears especially vividly in the comments of a very young church volunteer, Jillian Funk, who not only states her purposes clearly and purposefully, but resorts to etymology to interpret the quality of the times, which another more mature and more emotional woman—Mitsi Taylor, whom we get to know rather well in the film—called the birth pains of the end times—and she herself became haunted by a Word from the Bible: I Peter, 2, 4, and 7. The name Jillian etymologized is Katrina, the hurricane that devastated New Orleans, which was followed by another terrible storm, Rita, a month later. (What Ms. Hardman has recorded in her film is the response of the fundamentalists to these enormous disasters, as well as its effect on their lives, since some of them, notably the Taylors, lost their homes in them.) With a beatific smile, Jillian tells us that the meaning of Katrina is cleansing, and that New Orleans will he purified and born again through destruction. Minutes earlier, her the pastor of the church recited the different names New Orleans has been called, including “hell on Earth.” The Book itself has magical powers, as we learn when Lance Rowe, the cross-bearer, recounts an occasion when he confronted an abortionist, urging him to repent and desist. The abortionist tried to escape in his car, but Lance prevented the car from starting by holding up his Bible. Only when Lance lowered the Book, did the car start. A belief in the power of the Word permeates virtually every scene in the film. Lance’s cross is covered with words, and a cramped space in the trailer he and his family live in is crammed with machines of the word: computers, hard drives, and printers.
Singing, as an extension of the Word, looms large as well. Mitsi’s favorite son, Aaron, received the calling at a very early age, and, as a teenager, he has devoted his life to spreading the Word through his singing. From Lance’s first, brief lapse into song in the first frames of the film, through the singing of others, and Mitsi’s musical ministry with small children, including Aaron’s youngest brother, Trey, we grasp the power of song for these people who are indeed strange to educated East or West Coast dwellers. As Ms. Hardman and I agreed in a forthcoming interview, we both consider ourselves Christians, though Hardman qualifies this by saying that she is a lapsed Episcopalian, but we have little in common with Lance, and Mitsi, and Aaron, and the others. She was frank about this to her subjects and gained their trust, so that she gathered a wealth of material, enough to tell a powerful human story as well as to document an American religious tradition that is more central than the average Upper East Side Episcopalian or Presbyterian can comprehend.
Hardman has bravely taken on one of the great American themes, religious “enthusiasm,” or fanaticism, as some of us might say. Mark Twain’s hilarious depiction of a revival meeting in Huckleberry Finn is hardly the earliest in American literature. For all the rationalism of the founding fathers and the Constitution, there is an equally powerful countercurrent of fundamentalism and religious ecstasy.1 Now that the separation of church and state, along with other structural elements of American government established by the Constitution, has weakened and grown porous, the religious right, or Evangelical Christians, have assumed a direct political role, putting people in office who share and promote their faith and their wishes for the country. Another powerful—and essential—non-fiction film, Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares, traces this transformation, which would have been so abhorrent to the founding fathers, yet makes a claim to representing all that is American. The message of Lance’s cross concerns America, not religion: “One nation under God”
The most important of Good People’s many virtues comes from Holly Hardman’s sense of fairness and decency. She focuses on her subjects with an open mind and lets them take the stage, speak their feelings, and convey their message. There is none of the sarcastic posing one finds in some of Errol Morris’ films, above all Vernon, Florida. Good People unfolds at a leisurely pace, leaving us plenty of time to observe the people and take them in. This also whets one’s appetite for repeated viewings. Part of our experience, as we see the film, is anthropological, and part of it is simply human. Whether we can accept their world picture or not, Holly Hardman scrupulously avoids undercutting their best qualities. Both Lance and Mitsi are intelligent and articulate. They are sincerely dedicated. Mitsi’s fanaticism is wilder than Lance’s, but, in her way, Mitsi is an excellent mother, although not exactly a harmless one. The film opens up to a rather disturbing family story.
Both Lance and Mitsi, who do not know each other, came to Jesus after years of drug and alcohol abuse—in itself a potent fertilizer for intense religious devotion. Mitsi, before her conversion, had been a teenage bride. A son, Ryan Ardoin, now grown up and married with his own children, was born in that marriage. His wife, Julia, is entirely in harmony with the family religion, but earlier, when she and Ryan met and married, she was more secular-minded. She and Ryan met in the course of the party scene in the Marine Corps, in which Ryan is still in active service. Only later was she born again. He has not followed her.
The figure of Ryan is an affecting portrait of an outsider in his marriage and in his family. First of all, he has been marginalized by his half-brother Aaron, who has embarked on a career as an Evangelical singer and preacher, and by the youngest, Trey, who is already headed in that direction. Ryan seems depressed and alienated, above all from his wife. He avoids attending church, and consoles himself playing golf and fishing near the wreck of an old school bus, while he drinks lite beer—all of this much to Julia’s displeasure. Julia has explained that their marriage is problematic, but she is determined to stick with it, because “Jesus hates divorce.” On the other hand, he makes kindly attempts to keep on good terms with his mother and his half-siblings. For example, he arranged and paid for an elaborate seafood boil in celebration of Aaron’s graduation.
At one point he must leave his family for a stint in Iraq. Julia manages to persuade him to accompany them to church, but she has concealed the plan to lead him up in front of the congregation for a laying-on of hands ritual by the menfolk, giving him their blessing for his months in combat. His controlled rage in church and afterwards is palpable. While she and the rest of the family are concerned about the danger Ryan faces in Iraq, and she is distressed about the separation, she feels that God is leading him into the desert, away from golf and away from his relationships, to bring him closer to Him. When Ryan returns, he is even more alienated from the family and from his society. Back on the golf course, Ryan tells us about the agoraphobia he suffers following his return. He can’t take crowds and just about flipped out at the mall. Julia confesses that family life has become very strange. They are living in a trailer on land Ryan has bought next to Mitsi’s. The family’s house, built farther inland with FEMA funds after their previous house was destroyed by Hurricane Rita, survives the equally-devastating Hurricane Ike. Ryan has been transferred to a Marine base in Lafayette, and spends most of his time there, as a tearful Julia informs us. She sees very little of him.
Hardman relates this family tragedy through a sequence of interviews with Julia, Ryan, and Mitsi. Each speaks frankly, even intimately to the camera. This narrative method, like the entire film, is powerful in its simplicity. The subtlety is in what the camera captured, as well as in the interrelationships of the sequences joined together by montage. The long takes invite us to observe what the subjects say and do in a detached, objective spirit, and it is only after a moment of reflection that we feel sympathy with Mitsi’s repeated losses, Julia’s quandary, and Ryan’s constant, throbbing pain. There is never a hint of judgment or propaganda. Ms. Hardman is well aware that this movement, powered by a crowd who are absolutely certain that they have the correct opinion, is neither innocent nor innocuous. Lance graces it in the irony of his view of himself: “You’re talkin’ to a narrow-minded biblical…[laughs]…biblical advocate, and so I say that with Christianity there’s no grey matter in between. Y’know it’s either Jesus or not.” The film neither praises nor decries Evangelical Christianity, but, even after a first screening one feels warned.
The film closes with Lance blowing a shofar and leading prayer in a 44-day tent campaign for souls. A former drug addict testifies: “God has delivered me from so many addictions…pray for me, lay hands on a drug addict…” There follows a laying on of hands and much hugging. The film moves to a close with a scene of two women hugging, photographed from below the shot includes a girl, Lance’s youngest daughter, climbing the pole of the tent as an escapade. The film concludes with a distant view of the tent, engulfed by the night.
See this film, see it twice and more. It is a fascinating and disquieting picture of an aspect of American life few of us will see in any other way. And Holly Hardman is as honest, perceptive, and eloquent a guide as you will find.
See this page of the film’s website for screenings.
- See Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason, New York, Pantheon Books, 2008 ↩