The tiny town of Zenith, Kansas, in the heart of the state’s farmland, has seen more than its fair share of woes. The family-owned farms have either gone broke or are edging towards insolvency, thanks to the competition from the supersized corporate farming interests and the plummeting prices for the crops being grown. The community members responded to these economic hardships with various forms of self-abuse: alcoholism, drug addiction, failed marriages and relationships, and endless self-pity.
So how can the folks of Zenith rouse themselves from their misery? In the grand tradition of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, they’ve exclaimed: hey, let’s put on a show! But rather than stage a musical revue, the people of Zenith created their own passion play.
This is the focus of “Zenith,” Kirsten Tretbar’s friendly documentary on the very unlikely happenings in one agricultural community. The passion play itself is not a community theater-style event staged in a high school auditorium or VFW hall, but rather it is an elaborate affair complete with horse-drawn chariots, elaborate costumes, and three men (a banker, a farmer, and an oil driller) alternating in the role of Jesus.
“Zenith” is at its own zenith by documenting the struggles of today’s family-owned farms. This issue, which only seems to gain national attention during Willie Nelson’s annual Farm Aid concerts, is genuinely heartbreaking and Tretbar documents the subject with maturity and sensitivity. In the film’s most dramatic moment, a calamitous thunderstorm rolls into town and deluges the land with such excessive rains that it would seem the Passion Play should be substituted with the story of Noah. Tretbar’s camera catches the storm from the safety of farm family’s home, where the lights have been turned off and the only illumination comes from the lightning flashes beyond the window. Once the rain has gone, one person glumly acknowledges the need to rent a special harvesting machine to get the rain-drenched wheat to stand and grow straight again.
The film is also deserving of praise for offering a balanced and sympathetic vision of devout Christians. While the presentation of faith has long created problems for filmmakers, who either opt for presenting the born-again as Jesus freaks or pretend that religion does not exist, “Zenith” provides a balanced view of people who have put their trust in their church and (from outward appearances) have grown in their emotional strength by concentrating on the Bible rather than succumbing to drugs or alcohol or self-pity. At one point, a participant in the Passion Play production wryly observes the true audience for the play’s message. “The ministry is not for the people who see it,” he says. “It is for the people who are in it.” The church may have also brought back humor to this glum region. Elsewhere in the film, one of the actors playing Jesus exclaims that he hoped the Lord would “touch my checkbook two or three times (since) that could use some healing!”
As for the Passion Play itself: the production is staged in an open field at night and is conducted entirely in mime while a sonorous taped narration explains what is happening. The acting is often like an extreme game of charades, complete with florid arm movements and eyebrow twitching, and the actors wear the most excessive and ill-considered make-up hues this side of the drag queen regiment at a Gay Pride Parade. Nobody is expecting great theater here, of course, and there is one unintentionally funny moment when Jesus, praying at Gethsemane, is visited by the chubbiest lady angel this side of Jerusalem (proving that there is a place in Heaven for the plus-sized). Though perhaps the camera is the cruelest observer at this type of an event, magnifying its flaws while ignoring the sense of immediacy and rapport that would be experienced from those viewing the production in the audience.
“Zenith” never presents the Zenith community with anything less than respect, though it is hard to comprehend why the film does not address one very obvious question: for all of the time, money, energy and enthusiasm that is poured into the Passion Play, wouldn’t it have been wiser to concentrate (in some way or another) on improving the current state of the local economy rather than spending so much on this elaborate diversion? The film presents no evidence that anything has been done to leverage political muscle at a state or federal level, nor does it show any signs of trying to attract new businesses to the area, nor does it offer the possibility of job training or educational realignment to help people move into other careers. While the Passion Play is very well-intentioned and clearly fills a void in the lives of many people, there is a nagging doubt that it is not the right solution for this particular town at this particular time.
Yet, filmmaker Tretbar clearly did not take the Michael Moore approach and visit this subject with a pre-conceived political frame. Instead, she allows the people of Zenith to be themselves and the visit to their world is a compelling and memorable experience.