“Everyone loves a good story now and then,” says narrator Mx Justin Vivian Bond at the start of the terrific non-fiction feature The Gospel of Eureka, co-directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher (October Country). And the city of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, being home to both a sizable Christian and a substantial queer population, has quite the tale to tell. It’s a comedy and a tragedy, though the people involved aren’t necessarily on rigid opposite sides. Better to say that everyone has some level of fluidity, not just in terms of personal belief, though they’ll speak their dogmatic minds if the occasion demands it.
Among Eureka Springs’ attractions is the Christ of the Ozarks statue, commissioned in 1966 by the far-right, anti-Semitic American clergyman Gerald L.K. Smith. It was to be the centerpiece of a religious theme park that was never fully developed, though an amphitheater was constructed where, to this day, a troupe of devout performers puts on The Great Passion Play, which tells — in big, boisterous style — of the persecution, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Another nearby loud and proud spot: Eureka Live Underground, a dance and drag bar owned by Lee Keating and Walter Burrell, who are both a devoted gay couple (the first in the area to be married by a Baptist preacher) and devout Christians.
That’s just one contradiction in a movie provocatively and poetically rife with them. It’s easy, at first, to think you have Palmieri and Mosher’s sympathies pinned, given the vocal presence of trans performance artist Bond and a prominent piece of the film focusing on the vote to pass Non-Discrimination Ordinance 2223, aimed at protecting LGBT citizens of and visitors to Eureka Springs. Yet the filmmakers are more interested in exploring the strange, often surreal affinities between the city’s disparate residents and the peace — tenuous though it may be — that’s been brokered between them. (Flagrant bigots like Smith and the literally pie-eyed Anita Bryant, who attempted a disastrous comeback in Eureka Springs after her anti-gay activities in the 1970s, are viewed, in this context, as anomalies rather than norms.)
Palmieri, who is credited as both primary cinematographer and sole editor, creates an electrifying sense of rhythm and flow throughout, especially in the sections that intercut scenes from the passion play with several Eureka Live drag performances. One form isn’t valued at the expense of the other, nor are they equated, exactly. Plenty of (fake) blood, sweat and tears go into all these displays, which, if they share anything, is an ineffable sense of exaltation (it could be in knees-bent praise of the Holy Father or in disco-ball-refracted thrall to soul singer Denise LaSalle). That’s the macro view. Take a closer look and you see all manner of subtle complications, be it the trans woman and her husband of many years sitting, loyally and lovingly, in the passion play audience, or the heavy rainstorm that interrupts a raucous pride celebration — an event that Palmieri and Mosher in no way invalidate as a possibly defiant act of God.
What is paramount, however, is the sense of a place where both terrible and beautiful things have happened and continue to. A peaceful montage of Eureka Springs landscapes is counterpointed by Bond’s musings about hate crimes that occurred in these very same spots. Elsewhere, a devoutly Christian father of three, whose own preacher parent came out as gay many years before, does his admirable best to explain love and tolerance to his children. Perhaps no image is more loaded, however, than the one in which the face of the Christ of the Ozarks statue is shown covered in wasps. Whose side is God on, we might wonder? The Gospel of Eureka doesn’t provide an answer, though it does suggest, in very lyrical, lasting ways, that each and every human being has the right to search for one.
Production company: Wishbone Films
Narrator: Mx Justin Vivian Bond
Narration written by: Donal Mosher
Directors: Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher
Executive producers: Rob Epstein, Jeff Hepper, Kellie Hepper
Producer: Charlotte Cook
Cinematographer: Michael Palmieri
Editor: Michael Palmieri
Sound designer: James LeBrecht
Music: Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher, Ben Braden, Danny Grody
Co-producer: Nathan Truesdell, Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher
Additional cinematography: Nathan Truesdell, Donal Mosher
Color correction: Robert Arnold
Poster design: Matt Taylor
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Jason Ishikawa