Eureka Springs, Arkansas is a city that is a little hard to believe. In fact, the opening scenes when the local Pastor is describing the small Christian theme-park which is the home to their celebrated Passion Play seems awfully reminiscent of a Christopher Guest mockumentary.
This, however, is the story of two very different communities that seem to exist comfortably side by side connected by their common bond of a love for Jesus. They are both overlooked by the giant Christ of the Ozark’s statue that since 1966 has dominated the city skyline. It was the idea of far-right, fiercely anti-Semitic clergyman called Gerald L.K.Smith who was also the one who had grand ideas for the religious theme park too.
Nowadays the vast amphitheater struggles to fill a small proportion of its seats when it still regularly mounts their epic Great Passion Play with a huge amateur cast that seems to comprise of almost half of the city’s inhabitants. It’s like a very low-budget version of how Disney would interpret the persecution, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, in another part of the city, there is another performance space also run by a devoted Christian couple, where the acts are over-dressed blousy drag queens lip-synching to gospel songs. The is Eureka Live Underground a gay dance bar run by the very affable Lee Keating and Walter Burrell who were the first same-sex couple in the area to be married. Whilst at the Passion Play the mild-mannered audience discreetly fill envelopes with donations, but in the Bar the excited crowd enthusiastically stuff dollar bills down the drag queen’s cleavage.
This wee gem of a film, co-directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, treads carefully to be as bipartisan as possible when presenting this story, although the fact that the narration is purred by Mx Justin Vivian Bond would indicate where their sympathies lie. However, they focus not only on the mutual respect that these two disparate groups have for each other but how actually some of their members came together to successfully fight an obnoxious a local Ordinance ‘bathroom bill’
They cleverly edit the whole film intermingling scenes of the Passion Play with clips of the drag queens strutting their stuff with great effect. There are also other very touching scenes of an older trans couple intently watching a performance of the Passion Play, and the sense of determination when there is a sudden downpour of rain on the local Gay Pride Parade.
Eureka Springs is hardly a perfect paradise as Bond reminds us that some of its more scenic places also witnessed hate crimes too, but the overall feeling that this compelling doc leaves us with is of hope. No better epitomized than the father of three (whose own preacher father had come out as gay) explaining about love and tolerance to his own children.
Whilst a trip to visit Eureka Springs may never be on the cards, this unmissable movie should definitely be.