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"What Would Jesus Buy?" (review)

by R. Plesset Saturday, Dec. 08, 2007 at 12:06 AM

What Would Jesus Buy not only documents Reverend Billy’s street theater activism as he crosses the country, but it also features interviews with shoppers, retail employees, Christmas historians, and authorities on human rights. Additionally, there is footage of sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh--making a compelling call, even for people already aware of the evils of consumerism, to at least cut down on buying for the holidays. And “if we were able to change Christmas, we would change the whole year,” says the Reverend.

"What Would Jes...
200px-what_would_jesus_buy_ver2.jpg, image/jpeg, 200x297

Since the late 1990s, activist Reverend Billy has been using his “surreal inventiveness”(1) to raise awareness about the consequences of modern consumerism—including, among other things, the destruction of communities and products made with sweatshop labor.

The Reverend was created shortly after actor Billy witnessed his home, Time Square, being “turned into a mall”(2). “Disney was signing this amazing Manifest Destiny deal to evict small vendors, and police were picking up anybody who didn’t look as if they were in possession of a credit card,” he recalls(3). “And that was happening before my eyes. . . . I had to ask myself: ‘Who’s shouting here? Who’s really getting out there raising their voice a little bit?’ It was the sidewalk preachers”(4).

Thus, Reverend Billy and his followers began entering the flagship Disney Store, holding up plush Disney characters (sometimes affixed to crucifixes) shouting “MICKEY MOUSE IS THE ANTI-CHRIST!” “GOOFY’S COME TO STEAL THE IMAGINATION OF YOUR CHILDREN! HALLELUJAH!!” as well as imparting information about sweatshops. The Reverend also “exorcised” “customers” of their shopping habits—before getting arrested (sometimes). This is documented in What Would Jesus Buy? and to a greater extent in Culture Jam (website: http://www.culturejamthefilm.com/).

The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir began with six people and one musician and eventually expanded to 35 singers and seven musicians. The Reverend’s wife, Savitri D, became the group’s director. Choir members include high school teachers, “recovering executives,” and scientists.

As is demonstrated in the movie, the Church of Stop Shopping’s street theater has increased in scope and ambition. We see them travel from New York to “The Promised Land” (Disneyland) in California in biodiesel buses.

Not only does the film document the Church’s performance activism across the U.S. (which would have been enough to satisfy me), but it also features interviews with shoppers, retail employees, Christmas historians, and human rights experts. Additionally, there is footage of sweatshop conditions in Bangladesh--making a compelling call, even for people already aware of the evils of consumerism, to at least cut down on buying for the holidays. And “if we were able to change Christmas, we would change the whole year,” the Reverend says.

The ruthlessness of holiday shoppers is described by a lady who sells computer games. “I’ve had my life threatened,” she says. “I‘ve had people follow me out to the parking lot and try to beat me up as if I have all the systems in my car, I’ve had people cuss me out, I’ve had people actually spit at me, I had a woman who was about 60 years old cuss me out and spit on me for not having a Ps3 for her six-year-old grandson. That’s just me, too—we’ve had a lot worse in some of the other stores.”

A narrator tells us that “American stores could already fit every man, woman, and child in North America, South America, and Europe inside them at one time. It is also mentioned that our Christmas shopping habits “create five million tons of extra waste.”

As the Church of Stop Shopping travels west toward the Promised Land, stops are made at the Mall of America, Starbucks, and Las Vegas. At Starbucks, Reverend Billy likens the chain to invading extraterrestrials as he jumps over the counter. One customer yells, “WOULD YOU PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!”

At another point in the trip, Reverend Billy must go to a gas station to buy fossil fuel as the supply of biodiesel has frozen. As he pumps the dinodiesel into the bus, the Reverend drops to his knees and pleads to the “Fabulous Unknown” for forgiveness--all the while, a truck driver is at an adjacent pump.

The Church of Stop Shopping also visits people’s homes and sings carols, one of which goes: “Joy to the world in the form of goods! Consume! Consume! Consume! Buy plastic this-and-thats for screaming little brats! Take the SUV to the mall! Take the SUV to the mall! And buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, buy it all. . . .“ (Some of the Choir’s music is available at Reverend Billy’s website (http://www.revbilly.com/), and hopefully more of it will become available. At the very least, Pacifica radio stations should start playing the film’s songs and music during the holiday season. Personally, it puts me into the holiday spirit despite (or perhaps because of) its subversiveness.)

While at a Victoria’s Secrets, the Reverend exorcizes a cash register: “Oh, Victoria! We know your secret. We don’t need a million catalogs a day to have our sexual fantasies.”

As the film reaches its climax, the Church of Stop Shopping nears The Promised Land (Disneyland). Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, describes Disney products, including “Dress-Up: A Sticker-Activity Storybook.” “I don’t think many people in the United States would associate this Disney book with crushed and broken fingers, lacerated hands, broken bones, even deaths of young women in China,” He says. He then produces a Minnie Mouse statuette. “And the workers in the factory that made this in Sri Lanka tried to organize a union. They took the union leader out of the factory and broke his knee caps.”

On Christmas Day, the church members enter Disneyland (and seeing them disguised as tourists adds to the fun). At a designated time, they change into their Church of Stop Shopping garb and perform in front of a crowd awaiting a parade on Main Street. “STOP SHOPPING HERE!” exclaims Reverend Billy. “WE HAVE THE REAL MAGIC!” The choir sings behind him. Many tourists seem amused and/or intrigued, but Disneyland’s security is not. The Reverend is handcuffed and sent to the Anaheim Jail. The others are threatened. (Clips of this segment were played on Democracy Now! and can be viewed/heard here:
http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2007/11/20/what_would_jesus_buy.)

What Would Jesus Buy? is directed by Rob VanAlkemade, who previously collaborated with Reverend Billy on the short Preacher with an Unknown God (whose preview can be watched here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=KzVWqbtEViA. Also, see: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0484879/). VanAlkemade became aware of the Reverend in 2004 and says the performer-activist “somewhat assuaged” his “growing suspicions towards politics, protests, and even the filmmaking process.”

During the making of What Would Jesus Buy? VanAlkemade claims that 900 hours of interviews were recorded. Considering this, and the unused street theater which presumably exists, as well as countless other actions by Stop Shopping over the years, this author hopes the DVD will be very comprehensive.

In the mean time, What Would Jesus Buy? is worth seeing in a theater. The photography is often beautiful, even though the decadence of the season is strongly imparted, and the music is beautiful, fun, and meaningful.

Further coverage of the movie and clips can be found at:
http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2007/11/20/what_would_jesus_buy and http://uprisingradio.org/home/?p=2116





-----

(1)Director Rob VanAlkemade’s description of the Reverend in the presskit for the film.

(2)Quote from Culture Jam.

(3)From Culture Jam.

(4)From What Would Jesus Buy?
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