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In God we trust? Two documentaries probe the clashing realities of God, AIDS, and religion.

The Smith Family * Directed by Tasha Oldham * Premiering June 25 on PBS (check local listings)

Questioning Faith * Directed by Macky Alston * Premieres June 27 on Cinemax

We all know what it's like to love someone and not be loved back. Worse, to love someone and be treated like crap in return. Often, we walk away. But what if the one who rejects or hurts us is God? This dilemma informs two affecting documentaries this summer--The Smith Family and Questioning Faith: Confessions of a Seminarian.

Born and raised Mormon in Salt Lake City, filmmaker Tasha Oldham left home at 18 to attend the University of California, Los Angeles. Once there she was exposed to just how diverse fellow Mormons could be (gay, for instance). In 1997 she began soliciting subjects for a documentary that would confront the Mormon Church with the many true faces of its women, tentatively titled Sisters of Zion.

Enter Kim Smith, whose story clearly required its own film. Two years later Oldham began shooting The Smith Family, which raises the curtain on an American nightmare in full swing. Steve Smith and his family--wife Kim, sons Tony and Parker--are close-knit, loving Mormons. But their seeming serenity was shattered nine years into the marriage: Steve confessed to having secretly had sex with men. Three years later Kim tested HIV-positive. Then Steve developed full-blown AIDS.

Oldham's film charts the family over three heartbreaking years, 1999 to 2001. Steve, once healthy and vibrant, is now devastated by AIDS--the sort of hard-to-look-at patient who's been invisible in HIV-related pharmaceutical ads for years. As they struggle to cope with their dad's illness, the Smith kids agonize over their faith. Elder teen sibling Tony is going off on his two-year youth mission soon, and Parker associates the church with joy. Yet according to Mormon doctrine, families are awarded with empyreal togetherness only if every member "behaves." Queerness, of course, isn't behaving, and Steve's admission that he's gay, after claims to the contrary and struggles to change, could divide the afterlife for the Smiths.

Although the Smiths' negotiation with the inflexible Mormon Church--a source of strength as much as tension--is frequently touched on, Kim is Oldham's focus. Her devoted tasking, from navigating health insurance red tape to stuffing an infected catheter hole in Steve's chest with gauze, is captured unflinchingly on often gritty, unpolished video. Yet by focusing so strictly on Kim, Oldham leaves many nagging details out, including Steve's gay affairs (Oldham says he had anonymous gay encounters, often arranged on the Internet). But as a whole, The Smith Family packs a potent, compelling lesson in taking responsibility for--and control of--our own actions and belief systems.

In Questioning Faith, minister-in-training Macky Alston is moved by the AIDS-related death of Alan, a seminary classmate, to question his own beliefs. Why would a loving God strike down a young man with so much potential--and how can a person minister on behalf of that God? In an effort to reconcile these issues, Alston hits the road. In Memphis he visits Hazel, Alan's Baptist mother, whose belief in God faltered when her son died. Jamilla and Latifah, a Muslim mother and daughter, trust God even as one undergoes brain surgery and the other miscarries twins. Liza, the grandmother of Alston's boyfriend, espouses staunchly atheist views. And Annie Ruth Powell, a charismatic African-American pastor fighting cancer, gives God a piece of her mind about the way he's treating her--just one aspect of a love whose ups and downs add to its richness.

The truth Alston reveals isn't always pretty--like the fact that he never visited his friend Alan before he died. But a s both these films remind us, it's truth, not just faith, that sets us free.

Ferber writes for Time Out New York.
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Article Details
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Author:Ferber, Lawrence
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 25, 2002
Words:626
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