Embattled hope
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Date: 12 August, 2003

Picture: Metro Tartan

'A helicopter with camera aboard hovers above to give an Almighty-eye view of the chequerboard urban sprawl'

Hoover Street Revival (15)
Directed by Sophie Fiennes

Reviewed by Catherine von Ruhland

Documentary filmmaker Sophie Fiennes plus charismatic pastor Noel Jones are a potentially winning combination.

One sister of acclaimed actors Ralph and Joseph, and the brother of the famous and feisty Grace adds up to the meeting of some mighty talented genes.

But get that out of the way (it's not mentioned in the film), and Hoover Street Revival presents an intriguing view of Christianity giving some sort of hope to the embattled community of Watts, Los Angeles.

Interestingly too, it acts as a companion piece to the acclaimed Kurt Russell actioner Dark Blue set around the L.A riots of 1992 and released in the same month.

Grainy digital visuals emphasise how the rundown black neighbourhood is at the fagend of the American Dream. Gun crime and drug dealing are rife, and those with their mind's eye on a better life struggle to maintain their faith and dignity.

But Fiennes seems to be saying (minus any narrated comment) that God sees, and acts through His people. A helicopter with camera aboard hovers above to give an Almighty-eye view of the chequerboard urban sprawl. A neon crucifix atop Bethany Community Church's revolving tower beckons worshippers from across the grid.

The church has grown from 3,300 strong when Pastor Jones took over leadership in 1994 to over 10,000 today. Jones also has a burgeoning international ministry.

But Fiennes' obvious appreciation of the impressive Gospel singing ('Go tell it on the mountain' is a highlight), which initially drew her to a service, and her respect for Jones and the work of his church (there is a wide ranging network of community support including drug rehabilitation, shelter, free medical tersting and cancer screening, and college scholarships - none of which are inexplicably referred to here), seems to prevent her from casting any critical eye whatsoever.

How much, one wants to ask, are such high attendance figures down to a personality cult around the handsome and clearly gifted Jones rather than the Christian message? We learn nothing of what makes him tick, and see nothing of his family - or even whether he has one.

The only personal footage is of him backstage having his blood pressure taken and his shoelaces tied (!) before he's on. It's hard not to wonder if he is beginning to believe the hype. His teaching is a strident combination of Bible plus a heavy dose of self-help and soundbites: 'Stop seeing yourself as a victim, and see yourself as a victor.', 'Something has to die for something to live,' he proclaims in a dramatic whisper. Some of what he has to say is all but incomprehensible, but still garners a hearty 'Amen' from the congregation.

But by dropping in at the homes of members of the congregation, Fiennes shows how inspiring it is belonging to Bethany Community Church.

For when bullets are flying (one of the most telling moments of the entire film comes when Jones refers to Jesus crying 'like telling a mother that her son's dead' as if everyone knows what it means), drugs are tempting the ex-junkie, and poverty and joblessness bite, they really only have God with them, and each other in the daily struggle.

Hoover Street Revival is a somewhat traditional depiction of Christian faith in action, taking as read the Church's world view. To those who might carp that its approach is too one-sided, the question surely remains as to how local people might cope with tough, inner city living were it not for churches like Bethany Community.