Title: Raw Faith
Director: Peter Wiedensmith
Featuring: Marilyn Sewell
Religious faith is often difficult to discuss openly, let alone capture and sensitively address in something like film, owing not only to the diversity of religious affiliations and denominations, but to the problems many people have with what they view as either hypocrisy or cloying piety when it comes to how people of faith interact with those of opposite beliefs, or no particular religious convictions at all. Raw Faith, a stirring new documentary from director Peter Wiedensmith, is as holistic a portrait of religious devotion and engagement as exists in recent memory, and an achingly, profoundly moving snapshot of how the human experience is meant to be shared.
The center at the figure of Raw Faith is Marilyn Sewell, the socially progressive senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, one of the largest and most esteemed Unitarian groups in the nation. As one of the few women to lead a large congregation of any faith in the United States, Sewell — a divorced, single mother of two adult sons — also brings a unique perspective to various local and national issues, making her an irreplaceable figure in liberal Christian debate. After 17 years of service, though, she’s wearing down a bit, and — even though she once said “I want to be all used up” in her seminary interview — beginning to wonder, at least, if she might be able to retire and have any sort of separate and fulfilling life apart from her community service.
Sweet, well-mannered and reflective, Sewell is an enormously engaging subject. She is smart, savvy about the nature of her own feelings, and also exceedingly articulate, both in snippets from her sermons (“All fundamentalism puts God in a box — some are in, and others are by definition out”) and direct-address confessional segments. Most of what makes her such a compelling character, however, is her complete openness and candor. She speaks frankly in the film about sexual desire (and a bit less directly in the pulpit, shading it more in terms of romantic companionship), as well as depression and her own past hurts. (The only topics off-limits, really, are matters presently bothering her, because she says she feels some in her congregation would then feel the need to try to help her solve those problems, and that’s not the dynamic of their relationship.) Sewell rejects the agony of bearing an untold story within, and the result of this shared soul-baring is a movie so suffused with honesty as to almost take one’s breath away.
Like Cindy Meehl’s recent excellent documentary Buck, Raw Faith captures, sketches and imparts macro life lessons from sharing some of the obstacles overcome by their respective protagonists. And like that film, it makes the case that grief and despair are often times our best teachers. The movie delves back into a less than ideal childhood, and connects the dots — as part of Sewell’s inexorable journey toward self-betterment — between those early traumas and her desire to find herself, so that she doesn’t act out of unconscious motives. All that said, as heartrending as it is at times, Raw Faith is a film of utterly sincere, not phony uplift. Where love has once been, love will remain, it argues, making one believe — and deeply feel — the need to put a little more love out into the world.
Written by: Brent Simon