At once thematically ambitious and highly personal, filmmaker-cum-seminary student Macky Alston’s “Questioning Faith” refines further the first-person docu inquiry style he first presented in 1997’s well-traveled “Family Name.” Admirable, timely address of religious differences (and doubt) in contempo U.S. culture reps an intelligent, broadly accessible forum on theological issues as well as a moving mosaic of individual human-interest stories. Feature is a natural for upmarket broadcast slots (it preems as part of Cinemax’s Reel Life series later this year), with an outside chance of select theatrical dates.
Alston is a Presbyterian seminary dropout newly re-enrolled, yet still facing considerable internal resistance to his future vocation. His faith is strong; but intellectually, how can he justify belief given the violence and chaos in the world? A particular nagging point is the death from AIDS of 34-year-old Alan Smith, a beloved fellow student who’d shown great ministerial promise.
Seeking succor, or at least diverse viewpoints, helmer solicits input from a raft of intimates — among them Smith’s evangelical uncle and faith-shaken, yet still devout, mother, plus his own boyfriend’s secular Jewish grandma, who hasn’t believed in God since she lost her entire family in the Holocaust.
Alston’s school mentor is an African-American female pastor who must confront her own cancer diagnoses while continuing to alleviate the suffering of others. Helmer also becomes enmeshed in the struggles of a Muslim single mother facing possibly fatal brain surgery, whose eldest daughter delivers stillborn twins. Other important figures include a young woman who found solace in Buddhism after her father’s murder; an elderly Russian-born atheist who considers all religion a dangerous historical addiction; and Smith’s surviving gay partner.
Range of beliefs, philosophies and life experiences expressed here is widely encompassing, each granted a respectful equal weight. Questions from the frequently on-camera Alston may seem simplistic (e.g. “Does God punish?”, “Does everything have a purpose?”), but they elicit articulate and unselfconscious responses from people whose trust in their interviewer/friend is palpable. At once verite-loose and brisk, superbly edited (by Christopher White) docu conveys such compassionate intimacy with its protags that traumatic events in their lives carry considerable impact for the viewer as well. Climactic healing ritual bringing them all together in NYC before Alston’s graduation ceremony may strike some as a bit too much, but pic has earned its right to a slight line-crossing between verite and somewhat “staged” reality.
Shot in myriad locations over several years’ time, feature is above the docu average in all tech departments.