Film Review: Raw Faith

Part personal documentary and part doc-as-tribute, <i>Raw Faith</i> needed a true star to work at all. She&#8217;s found in Marilyn Sewell, a sixty-something Unitarian minister thrashing out some complicated feelings about maybe leaving her flock, the

In this homegrown documentary from Portland, Oregon, Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell contributes her own vérité-style video journal, letting a local director, Peter Wiedensmith, film her for two years in real time. Hers is a killer schedule of visiting her parishioners, writing sermons and having meetings with her spiritual advisor. And then there’s meditation, and a solitary domestic routine. You’ve got to be pretty together to let yourself be filmed doing leg exercises wearing house slippers, and quite brave to say that for the most part you like living alone.

Sewell is practiced at self-revelation. Much of her appeal as a minister is that she is famous (if at times controversial) for inserting herself in her sermons. Sample lead-in: “I am a divorced woman.” Her canon includes a good dose of pop Buddhism, with the aim of being “fully engaged in the moment,” “opening the heart,” and professing that “where love has been, love will remain.” Perfect for her progressive, New Age-ish Oregon church, where attendance nearly tripled under her stewardship. Should Oprah worry? Probably not, but Sewell truly connects with her parish. (In fact, she once had a television show and now writes books.)

A self-healer as well as healer, Sewell talks daily to the little girl, herself in a photo, who she feels was damaged. Her therapist and her spiritual advisor—she needs both as well as a massage therapist, she says—agree with Sewell that she may have been using her work as a substitute for love, which has failed her in the past. But now there’s a nice man on hand, and what to do? She wonders if God will be jealous.

Raw Faith is the first full-length documentary for Wiedensmith, who nevertheless displays a sure hand. Interviews with family members, parishioners and colleagues, plus “archival” family photos, balance out Sewell’s narrative voice. A high-speed edit of a typical Sunday service is a standout. And there is a graceful handling of some of the film’s trickier aspects, such as Sewell’s leaving her sons when they were young to pursue her goal of putting herself through seminary school thousands of miles away. Now adults, Kash and Madison Sewell make a charming, slightly disarming, appearance.
Most fun is the set-piece, seen in numerous performance docs, of behind-the-scenes action: Here it’s Sewell donning her robes, getting ready to “go onstage.” The church has its dressing rooms too. And what documentarian isn’t looking for a novel subject? There is still something exotic about a woman preacher, especially one of the admirable few who’ve had their own church.

Still, I winced at the de rigueur sequence of many “transformational” docs: a trip home to encounter the past, forgive (but does she?) and let go. Sewell’s dysfunctional childhood was in a small Louisiana town, and included the shame of alcoholism (father) and the breakup of her family (mom’s mental illness). But her sister Betty may have inherited the gene for wit: “How did you get to Unitarianism from that?” Betty wonders when Marilyn identifies the field where as a child she first got her faith from the Virgin Mary.

Self-mythologizing can make for great aphorisms, though. Sheryl Crow was inspired by Sewell’s sermons while undergoing cancer therapy, and wrote lyrics for the film’s song, “Love Will Remain.” Let’s hope so, for Raw Faith, which won a Humanitarian Award at the Nashville Film Festival, is also a romantic movie.