Two documentaries premiering this week follow individuals struggling with the tension between their personal lives and the selfless work to which they’ve committed themselves.
In Raw Faith, director Peter Wiedensmith profiles Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell (pictured), the longtime minister at Portland’s First Unitarian Church, as she faces a personal and professional crossroads in 2008: considering retirement from parish ministry even as she contemplates a life spent largely without a partner. In some ways, it’s a sadly common story: an adult still struggling with the psychological fallout of a tumultuous childhood, in her case taken as a child from her mentally ill mother to live with her alcoholic father. But the emotional depth in the film comes from watching a flawed, wounded person deeply devoted to service, even as she tries to find room for herself as an individual in a job that requires nothing less than total investment. As such, it becomes a powerful portrait of trying to find a meaningful life that’s also a balanced life. Sewell’s idiosyncratically liberal spirituality is bound to rub some viewers the wrong way, and a sequence depicting Sewell’s visit to her Louisiana hometown starts to feel a bit staged and self-indulgent. Still, Raw Faith accomplishes the same goal Sewell herself describes as a goal for her sermons: Tell a personal story, but tell it in such a way that it becomes universal.
Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin taught the principles of passive civil disobedience to Martin Luther King Jr., and organized the 1963 March on Washington. So why don’t you know his name? According to Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer’s 2003 bio-profile Brother Outsider, probably because his sexual orientation—he was openly gay—forced him into the background. Those who remember the 1998 Sundance doc Out of the Past already know Rustin’s story, and this more detailed account takes a thoroughly straightforward approach, including plenty of general background about the segregated South. As history, it’s important in reviving Rustin’s legacy; as filmmaking, it’s still more of a textbook than a living, breathing portrait.