In a day and age when documentary filmmaking is defined for many by Michael Moore's sharply edited images and his wise-guy narrator persona, K. Ryan Jones goes looking for truth the old-fashioned way in Fall From Grace, premiering tonight on Showtime.
Like CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow in his famous 1954 See It Now expose of hate-mongering Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Jones comes face to face with his subject and doesn't back down.
Eye-to-eye, Jones and his camera never blink as Fred Phelps, pastor of Kansas' cultlike Westboro Baptist Church, spews bizarre interpretations of current events -- seeing the war in Iraq and Sept. 11 as God's punishment of America for tolerating homosexuality.
There is a notable difference between Murrow and Jones: Murrow was a celebrated veteran newsman at the top of his game working for the richest network in television. Ryan was a 21-year-old University of Kansas student enrolled in his first class in documentary filmmaking when he started his study of Phelps. He funded the two-year, $10,000 effort out of his own pocket -- filming weddings on weekends and managing a Web site during the week.
Now a 23-year-old film school graduate about to relocate to New York, Jones admits to some anxious moments, especially as he found himself moving deeper and deeper into the dark world of the fiery patriarch and the 75 members -- most of them family -- who make up Phelps' church.
"There were one or two times where I felt like I almost had an anxiety or panic attack, because it was strange getting so close to them and becoming so familiar," Jones says. "I wondered if there was something wrong with me, because these people who hate everyone were so welcoming to me."
But Jones came to quickly understand that his relationship with the family wasn't personal.
"From their viewpoint, I am just a tool for them to get their message out there. They don't see that what they're doing is just lunacy. So to them, it doesn't matter how it's spun or anything. If their words are heard, they're doing their job -- as they see it."
The words in the film are harsh. It seems as if neither Phelps nor his family members can complete a sentence without slurring homosexuals. Even more disturbing is the way Phelps and his two oldest children repeatedly look straight into Jones' camera and talk about homosexuals in language intended to dehumanize and demonize them.
The church's Web site is www.godhatesfags.com. Picketing members carry placards bearing the same message, as well as stick figures engaged in sodomy and gays caricatured as rats. Such signs and epithets at the Westminster funeral of a local Marine resulted recently in a Baltimore jury rendering a $10.9 million verdict against Phelps and his church.
Jones gives full play to the church's hateful speech and imagery, but he also outlines the similarities between Westboro's depictions of gays and the portrayal of Jews in the propaganda of Nazi Germany.
"I think it's important for us to be informed on groups like this," he says. "There are going to be other groups like them. And to know how they tick, and how they work and how they think -- it's just going to better equip us as to how to deal with them."
For all the insight into the Westboro mindset that Fall From Grace offers, its greatest triumph is in making viewers feel the hurt of hate speech.
Jones films a Kansas Marine's funeral that the Phelps family picketed. He then follows up by interviewing the young widow about what she felt as her husband was laid to rest with the chants of the Westboro congregation ringing in her ears. He says it was the last interview he did -- and his "most difficult" moment in two years of filming.
"It's one thing to sit across from Fred Phelps, and you can just write it off as this insane venom that he's spewing," Jones says. "But to sit across from a young woman who is probably only a year older than me and just lost her husband -- and not only that, but she had to endure the pain of being picketed by the Phelpses. It was just a really, really hard day."
But Jones says that he knew the film could not succeed without such "testimony" from one of Westboro's victims.
"So much of what the Phelpses do is broad. It's 'God hates homosexuals.' It's 'God hates Americans and America because of homosexuals,'" Jones says.
"So, I wanted to bring the film back down to the micro-level. ... After the interview with the young widow, I'm hoping that now you have a face to put with the victims of what Westboro does -- along with the face of Fred Phelps."