Set in a corner of the American South where devout Christians mix easily with the LGBTQ community, this skilfully assembled documentary wisely opts to simply observe the strange juxtaposition, rather than drawing any conclusions. Although the way it is edited together makes some very strong points. Narrated knowingly by drag icon Justin Vivian Bond, The Gospel of Eureka is an involving, beautifully made film, cleverly written by Donal Mosher, who directs alongside Michael Palmieri. It premiered at the 2018 South by Southwest Festival, and travelled via Frameline and Outfest to the 2019 BFI Flare in London.
As the film depicts life in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Mosher and Palmieri quietly draw out some deeper themes. Located in the heart of the Ozarks, the town is the home of The Great Passion Play, which re-enacts the gospel narrative on a vast life-sized set with a cast of 170 for an audience of 4,000 each night. That’s double the town’s population. This is also the home of Christ of the Ozarks, the largest statue of Jesus in North America, rising through the trees. But just as integral to the community is the spirited Eureka Live Underground bar down the road, where a range of snappy drag artists entertain a diverse, appreciative audience.
It’s difficult to imagine these two scenes existing side by side, so deeply personal interviews with locals are revelatory. One resident says that being a Christian is about who you love, not who you sleep with. And the local pastor preaches sermons about how the Bible has been abused by fundamentalist bigots who use it to terrorise segments of society. This isn’t to say that the town is always peaceful: there are still people who believe that being gay is a sin, and continually wage war against the LGBTQ community. The film traces one of these battles, as a group of activists sets out to pass a law that would make it illegal to discriminate against gay people. The cameras also dive straight into The Great Passion Play, roaming backstage and even right between the performers during the massive show itself, intercut with raucously hilarious religious-themed drag acts.
Along the way, the filmmakers explore the history of homophobia in the area, tracing recent events back through decades of hate crimes as well as singer Anita Bryant’s high-profile campaign against gay rights in the 1970s. But the best thing about this documentary is the way it lets people tell their stories in such intimate ways, including gay couples and trans women. It’s refreshing to see such a vivid depiction of how very different people can live happily alongside each other, and to hear them speak of other communities with plenty of earthy humour.
The Gospel of Eureka is notable for its striking honesty and hopefulness, depicting a place where religion and sexuality aren’t mutually exclusive. In addition to documenting this unusual place, it also explores the value of acknowledging the past, from race crimes to the Aids epidemic. The way the filmmakers juxtapose these themes is engaging, moving and, perhaps more importantly, pointedly provocative.