Director K. Ryan Jones' 2007 documentary Fall From Grace is a fascinating look into the life and horribly skewed theology of one Reverend Fred Phelps. Notorious in certain circles for his extreme hatred of homosexuals, Phelps, who worked as a lawyer before devoting his life to the church, leads a small congregation from his church in Topeka, Kansas. Without looking into it, you might think his Westboro Baptist Church was just like any other small congregation in the American mid-west... until you notice the banner hanging outside proudly advertising their website, 'godhatesfags.com.'
While it isn't unheard of for evangelical fundamentalists to preach against homosexuality (the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have both done it in the past), Phelps and his followers take it to an entirely new level, one of frighteningly hate filled heights. The film begins with a quick look at Phelps' background before delving into interviews with Phelps himself, members of his family, and some of his detractors including a police officer, a lawyer, and a couple of other (more tolerant) Christian ministers.
Running a website and preaching fire and brimstone sermons from a small wooden pulpit isn't all that Phelps is up to, however. His small group have become infamous over the last decade for their protests, all of which use colorful and garish signs using slogans like 'God Hates America,' 'Fags + AIDS = Death,' 'God Hates Fags' and other equally distasteful and offensive catch phrases. The group came to national attention a couple of years back for taking their protests on the road and picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in duty while serving in Iraq.
The most frightening parts of this film aren't the scenes where we see the aging Phelps and his clan picketing on streets and in fields or college campuses, but the scenes where they're living their day to day lives. An extended scene in which young members of his family regurgitate what they've heard the adults in their lives speak about is horrifying. Obviously depending on your moral stance on the issue of homosexuality, opinions are going to differ but for anyone to teach young children such extreme hatred, particularly when it's done in the name of a God who is supposed to love all of mankind , is quite literally a sickening sight to see.
Jones' film lets Phelps, his followers, and those who would speak out against him say their piece in their own words. There's no narration here, simply some fly on the wall footage interspersed with some revealing interview clips. This lets us make up our own mind on the issue while encouraging us to think about such issues as equal rights and free speech. It makes for some very interesting food for thought in that regard. The film, as interesting as it is, could have delved deeper into Phelps' motivations for his hatred, however. All we get out of him really is that he feels he's doing the Lord's work. He doesn't elaborate on it very much. That said, there's still plenty of meat to chew on here, both in terms of the theological and the political issues that are brought to the forefront of the movie.
Fall From Grace arrives on DVD courtesy of a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the quality of which varies a fair bit depending on the source material being used at any given time. The newly shoot interview footage is nice and clear and it looks pretty decent, but some of the archival clips, some of which are taken from older tape sources shot under less than ideal circumstances, look a little worse for wear. That said, the documentary is always completely watchable, even during the rougher moments. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement and the end result is a perfectly satisfactory transfer.
The only audio mix on this DVD is an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track that comes sans subtitles or closed captioning of any kind. Generally, the quality of this mix is fine, though as it is with the video, there are fluctuations in the quality of the sound depending on the source material. The interview footage is all nice and clear sounding but some of the footage of the demonstrations and the reactions to those demonstrations sounds a bit rough as it was shot out of doors under some rather dodgy circumstances. Overall, however, the audio here is fine.
There are two extra feature of interest included on this disc, the first of which is an on camera video interview with director K. Ryan Jones, who talks about how this project came to be, what it was like working on it and how he feels about the finished product. Also included is some footage of the film's premiere at the Westboro Baptist Church were members of Phelps' family sit in on a screening of the finished film and offer some interesting feedback on the picture. The levels are a little funky here but this is worth sitting through simply because it adds a little more insight into how these people really feel about the issues covered in the documentary.
Aside from that, look for the film's original theatrical trailer, some animated menus, chapter selection, and a thick insert booklet containing other available documentary releases available on DVD.
Equal parts fascinating and stomach churning, Fall From Grace is a very interesting and at times quite shocking look into the dangers of extreme fundamentalist thinking. The hatred spewed by Phelps and his 'flock' is mind boggling but the way in which the material has been handled here is fair and about as non-partisan as you can get, allowing viewers to make up their own minds about the issue. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.