Greetings from the Toronto film festival, where comedian Bill Maher and director Larry Charles (Borat) yesterday wrapped up an appearance at the Ryerson Theatre to preview footage from their documentary in progress, Religulous. If you're familiar with Maher or his HBO talk show, Real Time, you know that organized religion is one of his favorite whipping boys, though as he admitted during the presentation, people are constantly telling him things like, "My grandmother loves you, but when you start talking about religion she fucking hates it."
The program began with something obnoxiously called a "sizzle reel," ten minutes of clips so short I couldn't begin to take notes on them. But for the most part they consisted of Maher touring various holy sites and interviewing diehard followers of the "Big Three"--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. After a short onstage interview the filmmakers showed a series of longer clips that gave a better idea of their scorched-earth policy. Maher was quick to distinguish the project from mainstream movies like Evan Almighty that lightly spoof the Bible while leaving its bedrock assumptions unchallenged. As Charles put it, "Most movies tend to poke gentle fun" at religion, whereas "we want to stab it to death."
As far as I could tell from the clips, that mercilessness seems to be the project's chief asset. Real comedy requires a point of view, and whereas most MSM debates about religious matters try to manufacture a facade of fairness by respecting irrationality, the funniest segments screened tended to be the most unfair. In one scene Maher is interviewing an imam about the concept of the fatwa when the imam interrupts the interview to answer his cell phone. As he's reading a text message, Charles and Maher superimpose their version on-screen. "What r my orders?" asks the sender. The imam replies, "Death 2 Bill Maher. LOL. :)."
Most of the other clips featured similar gags, with the sort of quick cuts to stock footage that we've all seen in Michael Moore's movies. (One particularly choice sequence tells the story of Adam and Eve through a cheaply animated kiddie flick; whenever God appears, he does so in the person of the title character from the camp horror flick Leprechaun.)
Later, when the moderator opened the program to questions from the audience, one participant called Maher and Charles on their tactics, saying that it was one thing to let the interviewees hang themselves with their own words but another thing to take "cheap shots." The difference in their responses was illuminating: Charles hotly advised the audience member to "make your own movie," but Maher pointed out that it was a work in progress and said that, in keeping with the spirit of openness, they would keep his criticism in mind. Maintaining a certain amount of respect for the other side has made Real Time the fairest debate show on TV, but Maher's unwillingness to suffer fools gladly has made it one of the most productive as well. We'll see whether his movie can walk the same fine line.