Heaven Come Down
Directed by Michael Mees and Gabriel Wyre
One of the things that I like about life in general and America in particular is the variety, the strangeness, the deep weirdness that you can find in human behavior. It's found everywhere on Earth, but somehow the combination of America's size, its ideal of the pursuit of happiness, and its emphasis on the importance of individual beliefs creates a perfect environment for everyday craziness unlike anywhere else. Spending most of my time on an island of the coast of America, I feel safe to indulge my fascination with how others live, thankful that that is not my life.
So I was interested in Heaven Come Down, a documentary about the lives of those who handle snakes as part of their religious worship. The film offers a textbook lesson in why some people embrace religion: faced with suffering, often self-induced, they need to believe in something greater that gives meaning to their suffering. Their faith in God is so strong that God never disappoints them, no matter what happens. They handle deadly poisonous snakes: if they get bit and die, it's because God willed it. If they get bit and don't die, it's because God willed it. If they don't get bit, it's because God willed it. The idea of not picking up the snake in the first place, and taking responsibility for the consequences of your own actions never seems to occur to them.
It's almost a parody of fundamentalist religious thought: basing an entire belief system (and thus your entire life) on one quote from the Bible. While I find this subculture interesting (especially in scenes where they clandestinely sell snakes), and like the music in it*, on repeated viewings, it seemed too easy, too obvious. There's not much here that really surprises you. I don't think your opinion or knowledge about snake-handling will be much different after watching the film than it was before. I almost wish the filmmakers had found more ordinary people who were serpent handlers, instead of everyone in the film being...well...white trash. But I suppose ordinary people don't handle snakes as a way of communing with God.
The giveaway is the second half of the film, which introduces a snake handler who has been accused of sexually abusing children. This section stacks the deck by playing up to the audience's worst prejudices. But it also happens to be true, so what can you do?
*Recently I happened to watch loudQUIETloud, a documentary about the band The Pixies which featured scenes of the guitarist Joey Santiago recording the soundtrack music for Heaven Come Down.