Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978

What Do You Believe? The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers

What Do You Believe? The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers

Fall 2005 DVD
Ages: 11 & Up
Producer: Feinbloom Films
DVD Price: $29.95
While this reviewer found the video fascinating, there will no doubt be a number of viewers who will be offended or even threatened by it.

The program is an earnest effort to examine what average teenagers believe regarding the role of religion and spirituality in their public and private lives. Unfortunately, the film does not present a broad representation of American teenagers. The pool of young adults were filmed exclusively in the California Bay Area of San Francisco and Oakland. One Native American teen, Julius Not Afraid, is a Crow-Oglala Amerindian from the reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Though the film examines a varied sample of belief systems, including it does not include a teen who is a Protestant Christianity. Many would argue, as do I, that Protestant Christianity has a powerful voice in the mainstream media which grants it plenty of exposure, and that these other voices deserve a forum to discuss their beliefs.

The filmmaker, Sarah Feinbloom, offers viewers an array of adolescents who talk about what they believe and how they practice their religion. The lion's share of the documentary focuses upon the extended interviews of six teenagers. Peppered between each interview are sound bites from other teens and brief intertitles, introducing the different religious systems and the teens who represent them. A few of the young adults interviewed are clearly uneasy discussing their personal beliefs (like David the mixed-raced Jew, who says he does not believe in God) while others (like Morgan the Pagan) revel in the opportunity to state what they believe and be taken seriously. There are moments in the film that are awkward as the speakers struggle to articulate what it is they believe. It is worth noting that some of the teens lack the vocabulary or the life experience to adequately tackle the epistemological, ontological, and metaphysical questions the filmmaker asked them to consider.

The very strength of the film, may in the end be its undoing, for some people may dismiss it as more relativistic pap being foisted upon the nation by those "crazy liberals on the Left Coast." Had the filmmaker provided a sample of teens with greater geographical regional variation, the results may have been exactly the same, but it would be less difficult for those seeking fault to criticize.

Religious systems discussed included Roman Catholicism (Anthony), Islam (Mazouza), Judaism (David), Buddhism (Carina), Pagananism (Morgan) and Plains Amerindian (Julius Not Afraid) . While the film tries to be objective, giving equal time to the beliefs discussed and promote religious tolerance, it will be regarded by some as controversial. This is a film that is worth the time of teens and adults alike, and it will hopefully stimulate thoughtful and meaningful discussion. The film is in no way comprehensive, nor does it delve into liturgies, orders of worship, or other formal aspects of religious belief. The intention of the film is to promote discussion and create an atmosphere of tolerance for religious plurality.

Michael Birdwell   ©2005 Parents' Choice
Dr. Michael E. Birdwell is a cultural historian who focuses upon the importance of film in world culture. He teaches at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee. Other areas of research include the cultural impact of World War I on 20th Century Culture, creation of cultural stereotypes, and Appalachian history.

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