'No Greater Law': Film Review | Tribeca 2018
Tom Dumican's doc introduces a religious sect fighting for the right to withhold medical treatment from their children.
A riveting dive into a case that tests Americans' commitment to — or at least our understanding of — religious tolerance, Tom Dumican's No Greater Law asks if Idaho should keep allowing children to die of easily treatable illnesses because their parents believe medicine is the work of Satan. Generous even with interviewees many art house patrons will condemn reflexively, the doc is the tip of an iceberg of questions regarding church and state; yet it satisfies as a self-contained unit, and deserves theatrical exposure before a wider airing on TV.
The Followers of Christ are one of innumerable subsets of Protestant Christianity built around unconventional understandings of what the Bible commands and forbids. (Despite their exotic reputation, some of these breakaway groups are mild in the quirks of their scriptural interpretation: The one in which I was raised was notable mostly for forbidding musical instruments inside the church, believing the Bible only authorized a cappella singing as part of worship.) Though the sect traces its origins back to Oklahoma, some members have settled in Idaho, where they now benefit from an exemption to state laws on neglect: A parent can't be prosecuted for refusing to give a child medical aid if his religion deems prayer the only acceptable means of treatment.
(The film doesn't explore this exemption's origins or explain exactly what it says. A post-film Q&A and a bit of research suggests it's narrowly targeted to protect the withholding of conventional medicine, not, say, the use of controversial religious rituals like female circumcision.)
We meet Dan Sevy, an old cowboy Follower of Christ who describes this land (not far from Boise) as a Garden of Eden, albeit one that is threatened "all the time by some sort of government entity." To Linda Martin, though, this region contains "one of the most vile places on Earth": Peaceful Valley cemetery, where the Followers have buried hundreds of their children; many, Martin and others say, could easily have been saved by a visit to a doctor.
Spending time with Sevy and other Followers, Dumican establishes early on that these families don't fit easy definitions of neglect. They love their kids, and believe that unless they rely on prayer alone during an illness, they'll jeopardize a child's prospects of entering Heaven. One man, Nathan Kangas (only men of the congregation speak to the filmmakers), explains the origins of this belief: In a Biblical passage forbidding witchcraft, the original Greek text used a word, "pharmakeia," that had a range of meanings, including "witchcraft," "poison" and "medicine." Unlike most Christians who study such things, The Followers understand this passage to condemn everything under that umbrella of meaning. "I think it's all from the dark side, from Satan," Kangas says.
A whole film could be made about this line of reasoning, but Dumican is more concerned with the legal difficulties arising from it. We meet Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue (himself a Christian), who struggles with how state law constrains his investigation of local deaths, and a Followers-friendly coroner who tries to serve as liaison between the sect and law enforcement. Idaho state senators like Patti Ann Lodge stand behind the faith-healing exception, defending it when another senator introduces a bill that would allow the state to intervene when a child's life was threatened by non-treatment.
While the doc follows this debate in the statehouse and in smaller community forums, we get more personal anecdotes of faith-healing's impact: One man who grew up in the Followers but left the sect recalls how elders treated his broken bones by anointing them with olive oil, then beat him when his faith didn't heal the injury. Meanwhile, ominous bits of interviews and cutaways observing Followers at gun ranges back up Sheriff Donahue's concern that Sevy will treat any legal interference as "his Wounded Knee," triggering an armed standoff with police.
Dumican's approach here, speaking only to those who are part of this community, works well for a tense, narrowly focused narrative. But inevitably, audience members will find their attention wandering to bigger instances in which one version or another of Christian doctrine has come into conflict with the law. Plenty of politicians on the national stage would seem happy to go the Patti Ann Lodge route, pandering to fringe believers when they think it will win them the votes of fundamentalists more broadly. No Greater Law reminds us how that kind of cynicism can have life-and-death consequences.
Production company: Pulse Films
Director: Tom Dumican
Screenwriters: Tom Dumican, Jesse Lichtenstein
Producer: Jesse Lichtenstein
Executive producers: Molly Thompson, Elaine Frontain Bryant, Robert Sharenow, Emma Cooper, Thomas Benski
Director of photography: Arthur Mulhern
Editor: Mags Arnold, Colin Monie
Composer: Stuart Miller
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: Isabel Davis, UK Film Council