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A blue-state filmmaker finds religion

Alexandra Pelosi isn't imitating Borat in her documentary about the evangelical movement, "Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi."

And there were some doubters about that among TV critics assembled in Pasadena, Calif., recently when HBO showed some brief clips from the 60-minute film, which airs at 9 tonight on HBO, and then repeats several times over the next two weeks.

Critics laughed when disgraced evangelical the Rev. Ted Haggard popped up in a clip and quizzed some members of his congregation about their active sex lives. One critic said it seemed like a "gotcha" moment that suggested the film was going to be satire about the evangelical movement.

It isn't. Pelosi, the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has given viewers a fascinating documentary journey through West Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Kentucky that will be seen through the prism of the values of those watching it.

There are moments featuring evangelical wrestlers and a drive-in church that some viewers may find unintentionally humorous. But the film isn't a Borat-style hatchet job, by any means. Pelosi's previous HBO films include 2000's Emmy-winning "Journeys with George [Bush]" and the 2004 film following Democratic presidential hopefuls, "Diary of a Political Tourist."

"Friend of God" is a respectful, entertaining look at the spiritual and political strength of the movement, which has anywhere between 50 million and 80 million members and is expanding its message through the culture via wrestling acts, comedy routines and pop and rock music. The film's title comes from an inspiring musical tune played at churches.

Pelosi puts up a graphic at the film's start that explains that Haggard was dismissed from his church "for sexually immoral conduct" a few days after her film was completed. And after Haggard remarks later about the heartbreak that occurs when a pastor falls into corruption, dishonesty or greed, another graphic explains he admitted he was "a liar and a deceiver" after being accused of having sexual encounters with a male prostitute.

Haggard's enthusiasm and constant smile look even creepier with that knowledge. Fair-minded journalists can argue over whether Pelosi should have chosen to kill Haggard's interview. However, there's no denying it adds to the film's entertainment value.

The road trip has a small Buffalo angle. The Rev. Rob Schenck, who was an anti-abortion activist in his Buffalo days, is the founder of a Washington, D.C., group, Faith and Action, which calls itself a Christian outreach to elected and appointed officials. He gets a few seconds of screen time.

The evangelical movement's political power is well-documented, as is its indoctrination of very young children. To some, the brainwashing of the children may be the scariest part of the film.

The most moving part comes near the end. The Rev. Mel White, a former ghostwriter for the Rev. Jerry Falwell who has become a Christian gay activist, explains that Falwell and other preachers are spreading lies against gays. But he still attends Falwell's church and is in tears as the congregation sings "God Bless America."
It's a powerful moment of editing, especially since the film tries to avoid being judgmental. "I went with him to that church, because in all fairness, it is important to show some of the harm that the evangelicals cause in the lives of gay people because they preach against them," Pelosi said in Pasadena.

She handed in the film to HBO at the end of October, a week before she was due to have a baby. When the Haggard scandal broke a few days later, she was two weeks past due and the decision was made to go with the movie she made and add the disclaimer.

"It was just a complete coincidence that he liked to talk about sex with his congregation," said Pelosi, adding that he had been her tour guide for the film she started in June 2005. "He was my authority figure, and so the credibility of the piece may be undermined because he has no credibility anymore," she conceded. "He really welcomed me into his world. So it may hurt, the fact that . . . I chose him as the leading man."

Dr. Larry Pound, a consultant to the evangelical community who sat beside Pelosi, said Haggard was a legitimate choice because he was the chairman of the National Association of Evangelicals at the time. "She chose rightly," Pound said.

Pelosi, who has appeared in and narrated her previous HBO documentary, is heard but not seen in this one and avoids a conclusion. "I was trying to take myself out of it because the No. 1 rule in religion is it's not about you," she said. "I was trying to be a tour guide for those of us from the blue states that may have some interest in who these evangelical Christians may be. I felt like I was on an archaeological dig."

She wanted to discover if red and blue and everyone else can get along. Can it happen?

"If we are able to look past the two most polarized and political issues -- abortion and gay rights -- then, of course, yeah," Pelosi said. "If those two issues are really important, then you might not be able to get past that. I'm from San Francisco and I live in New York. A lot of the people I know might not be able to get past those two issues."

If viewers can get past the Haggard distraction, "Friends of God" may very well sing to them.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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>TV Review

"Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi"
Review: Three stars (out of four)
9 p.m. tonight on HBO

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