The modern documentary seems to have divided itself into two camps: The Op-Ed (think Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock) and the Feature (think March of the Penguins). The former wants the audience to take action, whether it be protest or boycott. The latter wants the audience to understand, to see something in a new light. It seeks to simply tell a story from beginning to end.
Let the Church Say Amen, a documentary released by indie kings Film Movement, falls squarely into the latter category. It does not argue any point at all or make any statement. Rather, filmmaker David Petersen seems perfectly content to turn on the camera and get out of the way; it is a style that is beneficial to the audience's understanding, but certainly means there is not a tidy ending – or even a feeling of ending – to be found.
World Missions for Christ Church is the homefront for an entire community of Washington, DC residents. These are not senators or Capital Hill staffers. These are natives – mostly poor, mostly African-American – and all looking for the intervention of God in their lives.
But time and time again, the best and most helpful intervention comes from each other. A collection is taken to help a woman with her car trouble. They volunteer to be references for each other. And when a family member is violently struck down, the church members are there to comfort and console.
Some of the best shots are the views of the streets outside the church. Small, rundown corner stores, boarded up buildings, trash on the streets – all seemingly with the imposing Capital Dome visible in the distance. This is one of the few ways Petersen makes a statement; in the seat of government of the free world, how can we allow such poverty?
As the film draws to a conclusion, though, we get an ending based more on running time than on anything on screen. There is no real resolution to anything here. One or two of the parishioners see a sort of closure to their trials, but for the most part it is back to church, back to praying for help, back to their lives. Maybe that's a good thing, that the ending felt so rushed. It's so rare to get an honest portrayal of both faith and poverty in America that maybe that rushed feeling comes from not wanting it to end.
Clearly shot on digital video, Let the Church Say Amen looks fine thanks to an excellent transfer from Film Movement. The fullscreen presentation is sharp, though the material is clearly not the most challenging to adapt for the home theater. The best element is the deep black level. However, the source material does show some faults, including lens flare.
A stereo 2.0 track is all that is necessary for a documentary such as this, and the Film Movement transfer gives exactly that. It is clean and dialogue is well-separated – often a tricky proposition for an on-the-run shoot like a documentary.
The Film Movement short film de jour is A Stolen Moment, a 16-minute peek at the future from director Audrey Cummings. Everyone wears medical scrubs, evidentially, and walks in single-file lines – no interaction is allowed. It's a pretty good idea for a full-length film, really, even if the short version feels too long. Again, Film Movement goes cheap on the short film, presenting it in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Otherwise, brief bios for the filmmakers are the only included extras.
Flawed but, ultimately, satisfying, Let the Church Say Amen is an interesting exploration of the role of the church – not in faith, but in community. And in a poor neighborhood like so many of the neighborhoods in our nation's capital, community is often all the residents have. For those interested in documentaries, it is an easy title to recommend.