Those documentaries stretch from the Jewish ghettos of Poland to the amber waves of grain blowing in Zenith, Kansas, with a stop along a stripper's runway. The common denominator is each movie's testament of faith.
In Kirsten Tretbar's Zenith, a dying town stages the Great Plains Passion Play (the story of Jesus up to and just after the crucifixion) seemingly as a way to purge its rage about agricultural subsidies that keep incomes at 1948 levels "with 1999 expenses." Tretbar grew up in Kansas but has worked as a documentary producer for the BBC; she went to Zenith, eighty miles northwest of Wichita, to see assorted aunts, uncles and cousins in the play, then returned three years later with a camera.
"There's divinity in all of us, and it must be fed," says one of the town's sweet residents (who could have inspired Dana Carvey's Church Lady character) as she and her husband go about recruiting a congregation for their woefully underpopulated church. Many of the men have been feeding themselves with something else, namely alcohol. Once the pews are peopled again (helped by a few residents who attend a Promise Keepers rally in Kansas City), a theatrical spectacle seems the natural by-product.
Tretbar gains the trust of Zenith's residents, procuring honest testimonies about how the play has changed their lives. Many of the men cry when they talk about their spiritual evolution, but nature provides the most wrenching scene -- a hailstorm that families watch helplessly, knowing the damage it will do to their crops. On the flip side, these good ol' boys get made up for the show with lipstick and eye shadow; the guy playing Pontius Pilate dyes his hair at his bathroom sink.
At the beginning of My Knees Were Jumping, Melissa Hacker speaks about her mother, saying "Her childhood memories became my own." Hacker follows her mother to a reunion of Holocaust escapees who, as children, rode the Kindertransport out from under the noses of the Nazis. The film makes a convincing case for the painful connection between the children and their American-raised progeny. "I didn't get it until I was in my thirties," says the daughter of a seventysomething woman who was sent by rail to England and never saw her parents again. That her mother became extremely overprotective was the result of her intense fear of abandonment.
England welcomed the child refugees, but the U.S. Congress killed the idea in committee. (So much for the home of the brave.) Most of the children were Jewish, yet they lived with Catholic or Protestant families -- if they found families at all. "Nobody wanted me," says one survivor, "because I was a teen-ager." Though there's not one clip of emaciated bodies, the recollections of these adults -- many of whom only later considered themselves Holocaust survivors -- preserve the idea that many stories from the war have yet to be told.
For Stripped, Jill Morley immersed herself in the world of exotic dancing to tear the lid off of a career that is either degrading or empowering, depending on which feminist scholar you talk to. Morley's subjects cite evidence of both. One dancer talks about the value of natural beauty; another lifts her bra to proudly show the lack of scarring after her second breast augmentation. Like any good drama, Stripped closes with a crisis of conscience. Morley's roommate, sick of seeing all the cash her friend hauls in, accompanies her to a club that has offered her a spot in the show. A lot of cheerleading from the other ladies -- and a lot of drinks -- pushes her to a decision that seems irrevocable.