Toronto-born Billie Mintz wanted to see “what would happen if a Jewish filmmaker went looking for Jesus,” in America’s heartland.
Toronto StarEntertainment / Movies
Jesus Town USA: Buddhist paper boy has faith he can play JesusPortly 24-year-old Buddhist paper boy who is playing Jesus in a pageant undergoes a crisis of faith in Hot Docs documentary Jesus Town USA
Zack Little as Jesus in the Holy City of the Witchitas Passion Play from Jesus Town USA at Hot Docs.
By: Linda Barnard Staff Reporter, Published on Thu Apr 23 2015
Toronto-born Jewish filmmaker Billie Mintz went to the wilds of Oklahoma looking for Jesus. He found Zack Little, a portly 24-year-old Buddhist paper boy undergoing a crisis of faith.
Little is the central figure in the quirk documentary Jesus Town USA, about America’s longest-running Easter Passion Play, performed at an isolated spot called The Holy City of the Wichitas. Co-directed by Mintz and fellow Toronto-born Canadian Julian T. Pinder, it screens at Hot Docs April 24, 25 and May 3.
The doc takes an often dryly humorous approach to following the earnest volunteers behind an 88-year tradition of putting on an outdoor Easter pageant. But Mintz isn’t out to poke fun with the film he calls a “docu-narrative” for its almost-scripted feel.
“It presents it as this kind of comedy about these kind of kooky people playing Jesus but in fact they’re so wise,” said Mintz, who said the doc echoes Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Waiting For Guffman.
"We enter into the story laughing with them, or at them, and not sure. We’re not sure if we’re watching a documentary or a scripted movie because it plays like a scripted movie,” he added. “But they actually end up surprising you. It’s a very compassionate, endearing tale.”
“These are lovely people who accepted us wholeheartedly into their lives,” said Pinder from Los Angeles.
Toronto-born Canadian filmmaker Julian T. Pinder is co-director of Jesus Town USA, screening at the Hot Docs film festival.
Mintz’s original idea was to see “what would happen if a Jewish filmmaker went looking for Jesus,” in America’s heartland. “Would I be saved if I have Jesus 40 days?”
But he and Pinder found another story when they discovered the Holy City, a sprawling and strange version of ancient Jerusalem, built on 26 hectares in the 1930s with the aid of the U.S. government.
Hundreds of local residents mime the Biblical tale in full costume amid several building on a huge staging area, while voice actors broadcast their lines via loudspeakers to the audience watching the three-hour play on surrounding hills.
“We thought we’d just make a movie about the making of this pageant but things started revealing themselves to us,” said Mintz, who spent five months in the area. “The guy who plays Jesus retires on-camera in front of the (pageant) director, so now they’re scrambling to find a new Jesus.”
Little, a veteran of the pageant from childhood and a philosophical sort with a fondness for video games, burgers and samurai culture, agrees to play Jesus.
“I was suggested for Jesus after I had done a Satan role,” Little explained from his home in Lawton, Okla. before leaving for Toronto, where he’ll do post-screening Q&A sessions. Joining him will be Cason Troutman, who plays the apostle Peter and who helps Little deal with his dilemma.
“I have really good gestures,” Little said of what makes him a good Jesus. “They’re not slow and deliberate. My motions are more personal and unique instead of waving my arms and doing the same thing over and over again.”
Good gestures aside, Little felt mounting pressure to be honest but was understandably nervous to share his doubts about Christianity with pageant organizers, including his own family. Was being a believer a prerequisite for playing Jesus? Would he be letting people down with his revelation? Would he be kicked out?
Little’s confession at a community meeting has an unexpected result that helped restore his faith, at least in some respects.
He said he learned “that no matter what your personal beliefs are that it doesn’t matter in a community at large . . . the truth is that people always care.”
“I never in my life have met a more open group of people. In face the whole foundation of the Holy City is based on acceptance of people,” said Mintz.
As for Little, who has not played Jesus since the 2013 pageant seen onscreen, there have been some big changes in his life.
He’s now 26, single, has a new job as a supervisor at the local Goodwill Industries store and has lost a considerable amount of weight. He misses the pageant “occasionally” but perhaps he could continue acting — a historical drama would be perfect, he said.
But first, a trip to Toronto. “I’m going to try to go up the CN Tower,” said Little.