The 41st annual Denver Film Festival (DFF41) is in full swing and continues to offer a wide variety of shorts, movies, documentaries, and beyond to appeal to cinema-loving Denver residents and beyond.
A unique angle that DFF41 provides is a detour down the avenue of CinemaQ: a showcasing of films focused on LGBTQ issues. Among the eight featured pieces of 2018, The Gospel of Eureka tackles queerness in conservative America through the story of drag queens and Christianity.
Set in the small town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, one would easily assume there is a division between the religious agenda and the freedom of sexuality and gender identity. However, this gem of a town tucked inside the Ozarks is the unexpected breeding ground of smashed stereotypes, on and off the stage. As national tensions run as thick and heavy as the Southern humidity, this documentary shows how two worlds inevitably collide and create a vision of humanity and hope.
Once the soaring scene has been set, the viewer is landed into the presence of an unassuming Kent Butler, the actor who recreates the life and death of Jesus three times a week. He embodies an unintentional yet unavoidably comical seriousness as he takes his role in the play, his community, and his religion, to the extreme.
Contrasting with this first scene, the next set of characters appears within a swirling of disco laser beams and vodka cocktails inside drag bar Eureka Live Underground. The spot is hot, lively, and referred to as the “Hillbilly Studio 54.” In full swing on a typical evening of fabulous karaoke performances by drag queens, the owners, Gregory Lee Keating and Walter Burrell, watch their performers and patrons with joy. Keating and Burrell are a same-gender married couple who have been together for more than 30 years and take themselves as seriously as the queen performing “Lick It Before You Stick It.”
Filmmakers Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri expertly direct the film as it hops back and forth between these two dichotomies of outright grandiose showmanship. The extravagance of both worlds, extreme religion and maximum queerness, are depicted as equals. While at moments they pause, resting amid the tension, Mosher and Palmieri ensure that is not a place that the audience must stay. No sides are necessary to choose between, no enemy or black-and-white line ins the sand is drawn. This is a story of different lives coexisting.
Differing ideals unequivocally exist throughout the opposing points, and in some of the residents of Eureka Springs there are strained disagreements, one centered around a protest against an anti-transgender bathroom bill. However, these are gracefully intertwined with rhetoric of personal stories, heartfelt memories, and shedding tears about the LGBTQ scene as it was and the people that once were.
Inducing audience laughter often, the contradictions become less like a conflict of interest and more like a parallel universe as the story unfolds. In a town that could be assumed to be more unequal than similar, it is the compassion and community that rises up and proves that LGBTQ rights are upheld in a variety of shades of progress.
The coupledom between Keating and Burrell takes center stage as it offers a heart-warming and heart-string-pulling inside perspective of their endearing and unconditional love and partnership. Their three-decades together has incorporated their Christian values as they read the Bible together over the dining room table. Similarly, the Jesus incarnate Butler makes no point to ostracize or disparage any member of the community, LGBTQ or otherwise.
While the film does not offer a Hollywood happy ending or resolution of tension, the undeniable evidence of progress gives a breath of fresh air. Amid the stark differences as the hard right and hard left continue to create division, this small town has come closer to a hopeful middle ground.