Documentarian Adele Horne travels to the Solomon Islands, Mexico and India to profile missionaries from Gospel Recordings, an organization dedicated to translating biblical stories into every language on Earth, including some disappearing tongues. Examining the missionaries’ impact on targeted cultures, provocative “Tailenders” posits a close connection between evangelical Protestantism and global capitalism. Ranging from straightforward sociopolitical analysis to wry appreciation of cross-cultural absurdities and poetic musings, Horne’s always challenging docu should be a welcome entry at a wide array of fests and specialized venues.
In a clear, crisp voiceover, Horne describes American Protestantism as a synchronism of Christianity and modern technology. Indeed, Gospel Records has not only translated the Bible into the languages of Third World peoples, but has spearheaded and manufactured many forms of ingenious machinery to help spread the Word in areas with no electricity. For the “tailenders,” or last peoples to be reached by global evangelism, the disembodied voice issuing from a “magic” box and speaking to them in their own language resonates powerfully.
Arriving on the Solomon Islands, Australian missionaries (Global Recording Network includes branches in 30 countries) are met by a troupe of native dancers, clad only in beads and loin cloths, who were hired, a dry narration informs us, to encourage tourism. The assorted looks on the faces of the missionaries is alone worth the price of admission.
But the Australians are not the only visitors to the islands. Large logging companies are cutting down trees at twice the sustainable rate, five percent of the profits going to the people in exchange for the total devastation of their ecology and economy. While some villages actively oppose the international corporations, the missionaries encourage compromise.
The political ramifications of evangelism are most fully explored among the migrant laborers in Mexico. Thousands of miles from home, in extreme poverty and yearning for a recognizable voice, they are the preferred subjects of missionaries who admit that people outside of their familiar environment are more open to prerecorded preachments.
The conversion-rate is less spectacular in India, where competition proves overwhelming. There are 330 million gods in India, according to Horne’s voiceover, and Jesus only serves to make it 330 million and one.
Audio recordings of Bible stories often qualify as the only surviving remnants of disappeared or disappearing languages. Yet, Horne points out, since the missionaries themselves have not mastered the exotic tongues involved and cannot be sure of their speakers’ command of the languages, much may be lost or distorted in translation.
With a visual clarity equal to her intellectual discourse, Horne explores the myriad contrasts offered by her subject, alive to many epiphanies and ironies along the way.