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Faith shackled and shouted aloud

26 February 2016

Stephen Brown sees two documentaries on current release


WHAT exactly constitutes “propaganda”? Originally, the word referred to foreign missions promoting Christian belief. Nowadays, it usually has sinister connotations that truth is being subordinated to whatever message a nation or movement wishes others to receive.

The Propaganda Game (Cert. 15), Álvaro Longoria’s documentary about North Korea, is fairly even-handed in what it tells us of that “hermit country”. How much of its monster-image, as relayed to us in the West, is accurate? For example, it was reported that the uncle of the leader, Kim Jong-un, was fed to 120 starving dogs as punishment for alleged treachery. Not so, says the film, enlisting trustworthy observers such as Andrei Lankov and Barbara Demick, who located the unreliable source (a blogger) of this rumour, enabling them to refute it.

On the other hand, that the country’s government will hold on to its power by fair means or foul is clear. Longoria, a Roman Catholic, in a rare unescorted moment, speaks to camera of the difficulties in being allowed to attend mass in a church that was opened at the request of Pope John Paul II. Even when granted permission, the director is sceptical of what he and we experience.

These worshippers are the only people among the many North Koreans he has seen who are not wearing the obligatory pin portrait of their Leader. A further source of scepticism is how well the congregation sings. This freedom to worship would appear to be something of a charade.

The film prominently features a fellow countryman of the director, Alejandro Cao de Benós, as the regime’s chief apologist. He tells us that all religions are tolerated so long as they are loyal to the state, but not “new” religions, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Importing Bibles can attract devastating punishments.

The film reminds its audience that we are all involved in the propaganda game. When the hwa (Korean shoe) is on the other foot, aren’t Western advertising and PR and media news management propaganda intent on persuading us of a position irrespective of the truth?

The philosophy of Juche is a North Korean variant on Stalinism, taking on many aspects of a religion. The Leader is treated as a god, personifying the doctrine of self-reliance expected of the country’s citizens amid hostile neighbouring states. We may consider as propaganda the scale of crying that greeted the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011, but, after allowing for cultural differences, could there be parallels with the massive outpouring of grief for Diana, Princess of Wales?

This is a documentary suggesting how evil propaganda can be, irrespective of who perpetrates it. As such, it is a rallying cry for truth to be proclaimed by everyone.


MAVIS! (Cert. PG) is the first documentary about the gospel-music legend and civil-rights icon Mavis Staples. Born in Chicago, her singing career has so far spanned six decades. She has taken on so many different musical flavours that a contemporary definition of gospel music becomes tricky.

This is nothing new. Black slaves’ spirituals quickly cross-fertilised with blues and country music. Before long, the City Revival movement created white gospel songs often based on popular music. In living memory, rhythm-and-blues artists such as Little Richard and Ray Charles belted out secular love songs in a manner drawn from their church-choir days. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and other rock stars borrowed heavily from the musical styles of Southern Baptist churches.

Mavis, lead singer with the Staples Sisters, assimilated all of these influences. There is a moment when her father, Pops, on tremolo guitar, plays some chords that could just as easily be from the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream”. It’s as much in the nature of gospel music as it is of Tin Pan Alley to embrace whatever music is current. Mavis’s soulful rendition of “Stand By Me” was secularised for Ben E. King’s big hit. Another of her religious songs, when recorded by the Rolling Stones, becameThe Last Time”.

As a quid pro quo, Mavis herself often Christianised lyrics that began as soul, folk, or even beat numbers. Whoopi Goldberg in the film Sister Act did something similar, “My Guy” becoming a hymn to God.

The documentary tracks down Mavis at various venues, giving us a taste of recent performances. These are divided up by interviews, plus comments from writers, record producers, and other singers. This is standard fare for documentaries about musicians; but this particular artist, unlike some, genuinely exudes joy. It doesn’t require many steps to attribute this to her Christian faith. “Shout and let it out!” she yells at the audience; and they do. The more she shouts, the more fervently does she give praise to the Lord.

Her influence on other artists has been phenomenal. The young Bob Dylan (who appears in the documentary) avidly consumed her music, even proposing to her. In turn, the folk tradition was pressed into service by the Stapleses. Pop’s reaction to meeting Martin Luther King was the realisation that salvation includes political freedom for black people. “If he can preach it [civil rights], we can sing it,” he declared. Out of this sprang hits like “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)?”, a moderate-enough message, but more radical than the other gospel groups.

From the freedom songs of the ’60s, Mavis — every so often as solo artist, at other times with her family — made several “message” discs, not always religious in content. But it was the Sisters’ rock ’n’ roll turn in a Martin Scorsese documentary, The Last Waltz, which proved the final straw for their scandalised church. The equivalent of excommunication clearly hasn’t shaken Mavis’s faith. “God ain’t through with me yet,” she says, on receiving a Grammy award.

Quoting her father, she says that gospel is nothing but the truth, and that, no matter what kind of music we employ, that is what we sing. Millions agree with her.

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