When Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri were confronted with attempting to capture “The Great Passion Play,” a grand restating of the crucifixion of Christ in elaborate fashion in Eureka Springs that attracts thousands to the small Arkansas town annually, they knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially when they had such a limited crew to cover the production that spans every corner of an outdoor amphitheater.
“It’s a huge, huge production, [almost] three-and-a-half hours long and the size of the stage is so big that it takes a long time getting the right angles,” says Palmieri, who worked with the show’s producers to figure out a novel solution. “We said, ‘Could we get shots from the actual stage because the stage itself is such a set-piece?’ And it’s actually this total space that you can shoot on, so they said, “Sure, you just have to wear the typical garb during the show and you can hide the cameras underneath the outfits.’”
Over the course of a few productions, the directing duo dutifully donned humble robes to get a view of the show had never been seen before by anybody but the actors performing it, and would gradually find nooks and crannies where the light was dim to become even more incognito, which became just one way in which Mosher and Palmieri find a unique perspective in “The Gospel of Eureka,” a lovely portrait of a place where Christianity is observed by a majority of the community yet interpreted quite differently in different parts of town. While “The Great Passion Play” reflects how the Evangelical side would like to see themselves, Mosher and Palmieri wander a few miles down the road to Eureka Live Underground, a club where drag performers sing their heart out when belting out tunes such as “You Can’t Pray the Gay Away” to charm the tourists for whom the passion play might feel a little too tame.
The proposal of a local ordinance enforcing “bathroom privacy,” discriminating against the transgendered, has inflamed both sides, but Mosher and Palmieri observe how Eureka Springs has largely been able to keep the peace when faith has taken so many forms of expression and as with their stirring 2009 debut “October Country,” in which Mosher turned the camera on his own family to tell a multi-generational story of the pain endured in the overlooked corners of rural America, the raw power emerges in their gentle study by giving the space to locals, ranging from Eureka Live’s owners Gregory Lee Keating and Walter Burrell and “The Great Passion Play”’s CEO Randall Christy, to be seen in full. With the trans-genre artist Mx Justin Vivian Bond onhand to narrate, giving a folksy spin to proceedings that brings out the magic in Eureka Springs, “The Gospel of Eureka” also delivers a reality of life that far too few have seen, making the sign welcoming visitors to town, “You Found Us, Now Stay for a While,” especially apt. Nearly a year after it first premiered to raves at SXSW, “The Gospel of Eureka” is beginning a nation wide rollout into theaters and Mosher and Palmieri spoke about how they can put their verite films into a larger context, what first brought them to Eureka Springs and the surprises the town held in store for them.
Michael Palmieri: Field of Vision asked us to go down to Eureka Springs to cover a civil rights ordinance in 2015 and make a short film about what’s going on and when we got down there, we started to realize it was more richer material than just a short film. [We did make a short] called “Peace in the Valley,” but after we did that, we continued for the next two or three years filming in the region and exploring what we thought was interesting, which was this dialogue happening in this town which was predominantly Christian [where] half of them were LGBTQ Christians and the other half were Evangelical Christians [because] that was a really interesting dynamic that had not been explored before.
Did you have that duality in mind from the start as far as how you might structure this film?
Michael Palmieri: Yeah, it was hard. It was really hard. [laughs] Because you’re following a primary mystical narrative, which is the story of the last days of Christ and the teachings of Christ in general, so we were hoping to find certain ways of working elements of those stories in to the people we were following and that’s hard to do [where] that doesn’t feel like you’re just going back and forth, like here we are at the drag bar, here we are at the passion play. It’s a very hard thing to cut together and make it feel exciting — there has to be something else going on.
Donal Mosher: Yeah, we used the drag bar in the short film and began to make a comparison between the Passion Play performing its identity for its audience and the gay community for its audience. And after the short film was out in public, we got to know the owners of the bar, who became our central gay characters and access to the bar and performers, so we knew that was really where we wanted to take the story.
Michael Palmieri: And being queer filmmakers, we always felt we could maximize was the fact that the passion play is done to a precorded soundtrack and drag performances are all lip-sync, so we thought it was awesome that not only these people are negotiating the faith in this town, they’re negotiating their faith onstage in this town and they’re all doing drag, to which then lots of other things can then be attached to it because drag has a way of transitioning from one [place] to another, where what starts off as profane or silly becomes suddenly very sacred. We thought it was happening in both places and we wanted to try and highlight that.
Michael Palmieri: It’s a weird concept to talk about, but when we’re telling a story, we always think it’s just one of many stories that exist in the world and we just happen to be carrying our camera in this direction. Around us is a much larger world and that world exists outside of religious and political [parameters] — the natural world – it’s there and it’s surrounding us and it’s important always to try and put back in perspective that you’re looking at something that two filmmakers are really narrowly focusing on.
Donal Mosher: And one thing we’ve always tried to do is build up an emotional moment and then when the tension is very high, you can transfer that emotion to the environment. In “October Country,” we turned it to Halloween in Arkansas because it’s the story of a town [where] we tried to use natural imagery in the way poetry, metaphor and simile work, but the hard part is finding these images that actually make that work.
Michael Palmieri: We always think the environment plays such a huge role in any story that we’re telling, so from the very beginning, we’re always looking for things that illustrate a sense and feel for a place. But it’s not just the scenics because we always try to push it towards a metaphorical space if we can. The natural world, the insect world…you can utilize the elements in a way editorially that’s something richer than just showing a landscape, so it’s in the way we film things, but it’s constant and as much as I’m always paying attention to a person [we’re speaking to at any given moment], my eye is constantly scanning the environment to give a sense of perspective and place. It’s just that there’s much larger perspectives happening that we often don’t look at that can be really helpful towards orienting an audience in a film.
Donal Mosher: Yeah, that came up pretty early. It went through a lot of different forms before landing on this Mark Twain storytelling type of voice, but we knew to get backstory on the town, we’d have to have some sort of narration or intertitles, and we were absolutely against having that, and we couldn’t have a dry narration for this film, so we needed a storyteller.
Michael Palmieri: Then we’d always thought Justin Vivian Bond would be perfect and we got up the nerve to just ask finally. They saw some of the material that we had been assembling for the film and it just worked out beautifully. I think that their reading is so special and so rich. It still blows my mind every time I hear it.
Was there anything that happened in Eureka Springs where you may have had one idea of what this would be and it turned into something else?
Michael Palmieri: There’s a million things that changed. I was surprised by was the openness by everyone in the town, but [specifically] Randall [Christy, the pastor and CEO of the “The Great Passion Play”], who I would I guess, on a most basic level, we share an ideological or a political difference, but I really enjoyed getting to know him a little bit and getting to understand more about how he perceives how people look at him. Media companies would come in there and interview him and treat him like a cheap, backwoods yokel and I don’t think he appreciated it. At the same time, this is a trained actor, right? So he knows when somebody jumps in and they’re looking for an enemy or a villain, he knows they just want the villain, so [he’ll say] “I’m going to play the villain,” which is actually a richer perspective on that person than just I’m an intolerant person because you see intolerance. So I was constantly challenged by the evangelicals in ways that helped me to get a better understanding of the ways in which we all look at one another from these bubbles and assume we know things. Still, it’s tricky because I still have my feelings about things, but I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with the people of the Passion Play as much as the people in the queer community of Eureka Springs.
“The Gospel of Eureka” opens on February 8th in New York at the Quad Cinema, March 1st in Seattle at the Northwest Film Forum and March 8th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale. A full list of theaters and dates is here.