The premiere of "United 93" seems to have gotten most of the press from this year's Tribeca Film Festival. But Sept. 11 was not the only serious topic addressed in the just-wrapped fifth anniversary installment of the festival--started by Robert DeNiro in the wake of the terrorist attacks to help revitalize Lower Manhattan, economically and emotionally. Films addressing matters of faith abounded, and what follows are reviews of just a few of them:

Flock of Dodos
Randy Olson's "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus" is akin to Morgan Spurlock's wildly successful "Super Size Me" in terms of its audience appeal and the use of its personality-filled director as star, but the praise-laden similarities end with a film that both fails to offer a truly fresh take on its subject matter and falls short of serving up any original insight concerning an intense controversy and its attempt to blur the line separating church and state.


Sure we learn all about the ins and outs of the great intelligent design debate. Sure we get to watch and hear a group of the filmmaker's anti-ID scientist cronies react to the outrageous prospect of teaching creationism in schools. But where's the beef?
The slight creative bent of the film is solely reliant on the fact that the filmmaker's mother, Muffy "Moose" Olson, lives across the street from one of intelligent design's biggest proponents, John Calvert, a lawyer presumably consumed by the task of spreading the legitimacy of teaching intelligent design in public schools. Despite his being intimidated, Olson takes the opportunity to meet with Calvert, and finds the proverbial "don't judge a book by its cover" to be as applicable as ever.
Olson visits with other creationists, as well as evolutionists, scientists, members of the now infamous Kansas School Board (both those for and against the teaching of intelligent design), and two former members of the Dover, Penn., School Board. A list of this nature may represent the illusion of balance, but the film refrains from staging a façade of even-handedness and digs its claws deep into the assumingly weak skin of the intelligent design platform. That's not to say that the pro-ID contingent are subject to mockery, but they are unflinchingly and openly contradicted at each and every opportunity.
Entertaining at best, "Flock of Dodos" is not the kind of film one would consider an eye-opening experience. The production lacks the complimentary mix of underlying sincerity and directorial self-effacement one expects from documentaries concerning controversial topics. In making light of the debate, Olson eschews a solid rationale in favor of cartoons, caricatures, and a penchant for in-your-face contradiction. -- By Tim Hayne
The Saint of 9/11
Mychal Judge"The Saint of 9/11," a documentary about Father Mychal Judge, presents eerily prescient video clips of this New York City fire department chaplain, who died in the terrorist attacks. In one, Father Mychal is seen leading a Fire Department Mass--on Sept. 10, 2001. In his homily, he says that responding to emergency calls is a form of doing God's work: "When you get on a rig, you have no idea what God is calling you to... But he needs you." In a another clip, he wonders what his own last half-hour on Earth will be like, and whether he will spend those waning minutes of life saving others' lives.
That Judge died doing just that--saving others, even after Mayor Giuliani offered him an escape from the carnage--lends the priest something of a prophetic aura, but Father Mychal's saintliness, the film makes clear, doesn't come from anything so mystical as prophecy. It comes from generosity of heart, a true sense of selflessness and service to others. Relying on interviews with friends, colleagues, and people helped by Judge, the film depicts a life truly worthy of that much-overused term, saint.
But the strength of "The Saint of 9/11" is in the humanity--the vulnerability and fallibility--of its portrayal of Mychal Judge. He was a recovering alcoholic who forged a lifelong commitment to AA. He was a gay man in a church that rejected his lifestyle. He could be vain, and loved to have fun. And in the end, these human qualities served to help him better connect with people, to serve them better.
The film presents countless anecdotes about Judge's generosity. Two stand out for me. A friend gives him a much-needed winter coat, but on the way home from his friend's house, Father Mychal sees a homeless man and drapes the coat around him. And as the AIDS crisis raged and patients were treated as pariahs, even by doctors and nurses who wouldn't go near them, Father Mychal strode confidently into the room of one dying man and kissed him on the lips.
"The Saint of 9/11" was inspiring in the truest sense of the word: It made me want to be more like Mychal Judge--which is to say, a better person. At the end of the film, one friend sums up Father Mychal's life with the statement, "He put his own needs second." It's a simple statement that's almost impossible to live up to. What a wonderful epitaph to an incredible human being.  -- By Michael Kress

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