Ralf Buecheler's Atheist America (2015) is a feature-length documentary that promises "an intimate, concentrated, and entertaining insight into the culture war" between two competitors: Austin, Texas' long-running call-in TV series The Atheist Experience and its home state's dominant religious community. Guess which camp the film sides with?
For newcomers, The Atheist Experience---or AXP, as it's commonly known---fields callers from religious and non-religious backgrounds for the purpose of debate, civil discussion, the occasional outburst, and plenty of laughs...depending on which side of the fence you're on, of course. (In the interest of fairness, I'll cop to being a long-time subscriber of their YouTube channel and a former church-goer for over three decades, so I'm fluent in both sides of the argument.) As such, the bulk of Atheist America affords viewers a glimpse behind-the-scenes on the AXP set: dialogue between current hosts (Matt Dillahunty, Russell Glasser, Jeff Dee, Martin Wagner, and a half-dozen others) and callers, interactions with audience members, a peek inside the control room, and casual moments at post-show restaurant gatherings.
The remainder of Atheist America shows different religious gatherings around Texas, like those at the peculiar Llano Cowboy Church (below) or Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church (further down), which has room for 17,000 people who aren't flood victims. Perhaps the saddest moment, though, is a young girl's public commitment to her aunt's Lord at a small unnamed church, where friends and family members weep openly as she "gives her heart to Christ" years before reaching the age of consent. Atheist America also drops in on a handful of "unofficial" religious functions including a small-town rodeo, an election meeting, and a NASCAR race, all of which lead off with prayer before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. More than anything else, these scenes are designed to show how much Christianity has permeated all aspects of life in certain areas, whether it actually belongs there (church) or not (law enforcement, politics, school, etc.).
No matter which side of the fence you're on, Atheist America is bound to provoke a response from first-time viewers. The problem, though, is that it doesn't say all that much in the process: more often than not, it's just a peppered back-and-forth between AXP footage and the religious events, with absolutely no context given along the way. What's worse is that there aren't even any on-screen identifiers for all of the people and places, so those interested in learning more have to do all the legwork themselves. There also aren't any talking-head interviews, photos, history lessons, or much of anything here that couldn't be seen through simple YouTube searches for "AXP" and "crazy church people".
Don't get me wrong: Atheist America had enough entertainment value to keep my ears perked from start to finish (and I do appreciate the occasional "fly-on-the-wall" documentary), but a topic like this needs more than basic back-and-forth to be a successful effort. Maybe throw in a short history of AXP (now celebrating its 20th year on the air)...or maybe even, you know, sit down and talk with the people directly? As it stands, Buecheler's film won't change minds: like most hot-button documentaries, it obviously favors one side and thus "preaches to the choir" (pardon the pun), yet still comes across as lazy with a pace that quickly feels tiresome and predictable. Perhaps the one highlight that can be taken from all this---aside from the inarguable entertainment value of its subject matter, obviously---is its behind-the-scenes footage at AXP, although I'd imagine that most die-hard fans will likely be familiar with that already.
I haven't been overly impressed with many of Film Movement's other home video releases, and their DVD presentation of Atheist America follows suit: it's a meager package that's definitely overpriced, especially considering the bulk of AXP is readily available on YouTube and their official archive. Bottom line: this is a less-than-impressive documentary about a worthy subject, but Atheist America is at least worth a rental for interested parties on either side of the fence.
Video & Audio Quality
From start to finish (and despite the lack of a Blu-ray option, especially since still images and an official trailer are offered in 1080p on Film Movement's website), this DVD serves up pleasing visuals for a low-budget documentary. Compositions are framed nicely at 1.85:1, and only the most dimly-lit indoor scenes represent less than a rock-solid presentation. Image detail is strong on many occasions, color saturation isn't prone to bleeding, and shadow detail is rarely hampered by technical or format limitations. As this is one of the rare documentaries that doesn't include vintage clips, still photographs, or a glut of TV-quality broadcast footage, Atheist America looks more consistent than most in the genre. A handful of shots are definitely on the soft side and several moments display trace amounts of compression artifacts, banding, and other typical source material issues, but overall this is a perfectly fine effort.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
Audio is presented in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Stereo, and both were sampled during my first viewing. As expected, there's little difference here: the rear channels are largely reserved for sporadic music clips and occasional background ambiance, but the bulk of Atheist America shows people in their natural habitats---again, there are no "talking head" interviews here. From that perspective, this is a decent enough effort: dialogue is easy to understand, save for some of the regional accents and speaker-phone conversations; luckily, optional English subtitles are included.
Menu Design, Presentation, & Packaging
There's not much to the menu here, other than a static interface that replicates the title card (seen above); it's paired with rather ominous music for some reason, which gives Atheist America a much more threatening vibe than necessary. Only chapter selection and audio/subtitle setup options are included, as we get no bonus features. This one-disc package arrives a standard keepcase and includes a promotional booklet for other Film Movement titles.
The Atheist Experience is a thoughtful, entertaining Austin-based series that's been pumping out quality content for two decades, and half of Ralf Buecheler's Atheist America affords us a brief look at the hosts and crew in action (the other half is a bunch of random Texas churches and Christian-tinted social events). My issue with Buecheler's film is the lack of context: people and places are rarely if ever identified, and the absence of background information, acknowledgement, or other such details gives it a surface-level atmosphere that gets old quickly. Don't get me wrong: the call-in segments are great and the church scenes are fascinating from a "car wreck" perspective, but there's little here you couldn't get from a few searches on YouTube. Film Movement's overpriced DVD follows suit: the A/V quality is good (despite the lack of a Blu-ray option) but there's no bonus content, which makes this feel more like a cheap cash-grab than a disc worth getting excited about. Rent It at the very most, or just subscribe to The Atheist Experience instead.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.