In the end, She Who Must Burn works because it makes the provocative personal. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that digs past the headlines which make us shake our heads over coffee in the morning.
When describing how to best create suspense in film, Alfred Hitchcock revealed it was better to show the audience the bomb under the table rather than surprise them with an out of the blue explosion. It was the anticipation that kept crowds on the edge of their seats. This is the approach Canadian filmmaking stalwart Larry Kent takes with his latest film, She Who Must Burn, which premiered this past week at the Fantasia Film Festival. The ending is laid out right there in the title and title’s poster. It’s the knowing what is going to happen that creates so much tension in this field. Throughout the 90 minutes of running time Kent keeps you combing the film for moments where tragedy could be averted while still knowing they will never arrive. At 82 years old Kent created a film filled with the rage one might find in a #socialjusticewarrior but combined with the wizened resignation that comes from understanding that the world never quite works the way it should.
She Who Must Burn takes place in an impoverished coal mining town untouched by the advances of the 20th century. A rash of stillbirths have plagued the area, most likely caused by the runoff of coal residue into the town’s water supply. Workers cough up chunks of black phlegm only to strap their boots and helmets back on for fear that one of twenty more willing and men will take their place in the mines. When the subject of health care comes up, the only question raised is “Who’s going to pay for it?”
In the dank setting we have Angela and Mac, a young, unmarried couple living together.. Angela runs a women’s health consulting service out of their home. She helps consults the women of the area when it comes to making healthcare choices while also providing free birth control and advice regarding where one can obtain a safe and legal abortion. It’s the latter pair of services has the extreme religious element of the town screaming epitaphs and picketing outside the couple’s front lawn every morning. As the film plays out these crowds grow larger in number and bolder in their actions. Despite opportunities to pick up and move elsewhere Angela is determined to not be bullied by the religious yokels and wants to stay exactly where she is. Mac, a sheriff’s deputy, supports her choice despite his own reservations.
Standing in opposition to the couple is the leader of this fundamentalist sect, Reverend Jeremiah Baarker (Shane Twerdun, who also serves as a cowriter). Jeremiah preaches a message of fire and brimstone Old Testament judgement on all those he deems as sinners. The Reverend sees the world in purely good or evil, black-and-white terms. He wears the smug look of a man who believes all of his actions and deeds can be justified in the eyes of God. It’s a creepy sense of righteousness and duties that makes him such a compelling villain. These actions include physically assaulting his wife, played by Firefly’s Jewel Staite. When she expresses her reluctance and having children, he rapes her. When she flaunts the hereto unknown fact that his actions are for naught as she is on the pill, he beats her senseless. The next morning he heads out the door in order to fulfill his pastoral duties like nothing out of the ordinary he had occurred. When the woman turns up on Angela’s doorstep she helps relieve him which draws her further into the crossfire of Jeremiah and his ilk.
Kent delivers a scorching takedown of religious extremism along with the economic and social forces that conspires to keep the poor in their place. The townsfolk have no shot at lifting themselves from poverty, and Jeremiah’s message of austerity in this life for an eternity of happiness is compelling. At the outset of the film we learned that Angela must volunteer for services as the state has removed funding for her clinic. Another character seriously contemplating not going to have what might be a tumor checked out because she worries that her car will not make the half days trip to the nearest clinic and that she can’t afford to leave her daughter on her own.
Part of the fury She Who Must Burn inspires stems from the fact that the outcome could be avoided if good people just stepped aside and let the loonies do their thing. When the Sherrif warns his partner of the danger the flock represents, Zach is incredulous. He argues that they are the law and that they must be respected. The sheriff can simply shake his head because he understands how the time in the world really work. We see it all the time it’s easier just to hand over the reins to the crazies, to the loudest people in the room. The town is a microcosm for the world we live in where it is often easier to just give up, to handover the world to the crazies into those who would seek to defund essential health services and steer the country back to the stone ages. Jeremiah only holds his position because his father rots in a jail cell after executing a pair of doctors who provide abortions, doing so while delivering Ezekiel’s “The Lord Is My Shepherd sermon. More than that it’s the crazies in the fundamentalist that want to be the moral arbitrators for everybody whether or not they share the same point of view or beliefs or not. It’s an all or nothing mentality that is impossible to argue against when the opposing side is so committed to never hearing what anyone else has to say and will carry out dramatic acts violence in the name of religion.