Friday, November 24, 2006
We've all seen them.
They are members of the Westboro Baptist Church, led by pastor Fred Phelps. They turn up to picket concerts, speeches and, most notably, military funerals, holding explicit signs that denounce homosexuality.
They're among the most internationally prominent figures in the state - and arguably the most reviled. Yet what does anybody really know about the motivations and background of the Phelps clan?
A new documentary directed by Kansas University film student K. Ryan Jones seeks to shed some light on this murky subject.
"One of the things I had to do as a defense mechanism was to shut down emotionally," Jones says. "People see the group and it ruins their day. Even a brief passing by them will ruin a person's day. I spent a full year with them, and I wouldn't have been able to do it if I didn't close myself off."
His film, "Fall From Grace," showcases the expected to the startling, as Jones is granted unfettered access to the Phelps family. He witnesses sermons at Phelps' Topeka-based church, goes along to protests and conducts interviews with multiple family members.
- Wednesday, November 29, 2006, 7 p.m.
- Woodruff Auditorium, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence
- All ages / Free
The most outrageous of these comes during a pool party in which the Phelps grandchildren discuss their favorite anti-gay slogans that they display on signs held during their pickets.
"I submitted it to Sundance and a variety of (other film festivals), and I was just thinking this morning that if it gets in it will probably be in large part because of those kids," Jones admits.
Jones, a 22-year-old KU senior, scored one of the last interviews with pastor Phelps himself, who's has been out of the spotlight most of this year reportedly because of health issues.
"In the church service he was really intense - he has that Southern Baptist kind of style. He's an excellent speaker. He could be an amazing asset. There is a certain kind of energy to the pickets, but you go to the church service and that energy is multiplied exponentially," Jones says.
"I was actually really nervous to go down there and do the interview with him. But he's more likable than I would have thought."
Although Phelps and his extended family of lawyers attended Washburn University, the pastor was garbed in KU gear when he met with Jones.
"Fred went on this diatribe of how KU is this homosexual mecca - he had harsher words for it," Jones recalls. "And after this I said, 'I see you are wearing some KU apparel. Are you rooting for the football team (at today's game)?' He said, 'Oh no. I knew you guys were from KU. I have one of these from a lot of schools around here. I wear them to keep the enemies at bay."
Notions of privacy
Surprisingly, gaining access to Phelps wasn't as difficult as an observer might expect.
"We're not generally reluctant. We just finished about three and a half weeks with the BBC that is working on a documentary," says Shirley Phelps-Roper, the fifth of Fred's 13 children.
"We're not reluctant for this reason: Our job is to publish these words. We have to put this cup of the wrath of God to the lips of the nation and make them drink it. That pretty well takes away all notions of our privacy."
Phelps-Roper, who is en route back to Topeka after protesting a funeral in Lincoln, Neb., describes Jones as a "pleasant guy" and easier to work with than the somewhat more demanding crew from the BBC.
"I haven't seen what he came up with (on film)," she says. "But he asked a lot of questions that were just straightforward. At the end of the day it just depends on how you end up putting it together. I have to think he did something that's not what we will perceive as one-sided because he's asked us to take a look at it next Sunday."
Jones first toyed with the idea to document Phelps as part of a short project for a video production class at KU. But as he continued to accumulate material, the scope kept expanding. (An earlier version of the video won the Department of Theatre and Film's "Tensie" Award for Best Student Project of 2005-06.)
"It would have been easy to make a documentary that dismissed someone like Fred Phelps and his family as harmless crackpots," says Matt Jacobson, a KU associate professor who teaches the production class. "This could have been a film that would have simply poked fun at the Phelps' extremism - Lord knows, they'd be easy enough targets. Instead, Ryan made what I think is the harder choice. He made a documentary that goes deeper into their way of life."
Jones attempts to present a balanced response to Phelps by interviewing dissenters, including Bill Bunten (the mayor of Topeka), opposing attorneys, ministers and theologians.
He also speaks with two of Phelps' four estranged children, who level allegations of abuse from their father.
Jones' first filmed encounter took place when Phelps picketed the Salman Rushdie speech at the Lied Center in October 2005.
He says, "I would get heckled sometime at pickets. I would be filming them and people would say things to me to the effect of, 'You're only making it worse!'"
"That's something I struggled with as I got deeper and deeper into it: Am I doing (Phelps) a service by making this film?"
After careful consideration, Jones realized that he was on the right track. He decided to title the picture "Fall From Grace" as a way to drive the point home.
"It could be interpreted a couple different ways," he explains. "On the one hand, (Phelps') interpretation of the Christian faith distances itself from the message of grace. ... But from their perspective, they could say this is a nation that has fallen from grace."