The Revisionaries: An Amusing Tale Of Failure From Afar

Whatever the textbooks tell students today, the White House will say twenty years from now.  Every member of the Texas State Board of Education (TSBE) knows these stakes, since they determine the criteria for many textbooks across state lines. The Revisionaries is a documentary that shows how the far right are trying to question things like evolution and the division of church and state by writing their doubt in millions of students’ textbooks.

The Revisionaries follows the affable dentist and old Chairman of the TSBE, Don McLeory, as he asserts his creationist beliefs through education policy. His major ally is the prayer-happy professor of law Cynthia Dunbar, while his opposition comes in the form of science advocate, Kathy Miller and Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor.

Debate on the education board plays out like the “culture war” Fox News anticipated but failed to actually report on. The religious right starts every session with a prayer for victory and seems to end each one with their wish granted. Eliminate mentions of diverse peoples, add St. Thomas Aquinas to the section on Enlightenment thinkers (despite living at least 400 years too early), and make sure that the theory of evolution is criticised and debated in classrooms.

The film shows both sides of the debate without comment, acting like a fly on the wall. Whether the best side won these debates is up to the viewer. The director, Scott Thurman, claims that Cynthia Dunbar saw the film during the premier and liked it. Don’t take that as a negative. In the Toronto premiere, people were hooting and calling at the some of the nigh absurdist comments of the religious right.

McLeary is at the centre of this madness. He has a childlike enthusiasm for his beliefs that’s hard to dissuade. The same enthusiasm makes him entertaining for those on either side of the conflict. Even if you hate him, you want to watch him as the director conveys his own fondness for the contradictory man.

“I’ve never had further distance between someone I liked so much on a personal level, yet disagreed with so fundamentally on a political level,” Thurman said in the Q&A following the film’s Canadian premiere. “Every time I would show the dailies to fellow graduate students they would tell me, ‘You know, the issues can get a little dry at times, but every time Don came on the screen I just got on the edge of my chair. What is he going to say next?’”

That’s true, no matter whether you like his politics or not. When he declares openly that he is certain the world is 3000 years old, it is hard to suppress a chuckle. Sometimes, you smile when he displays some childlike idealism, even as he turns back the clock on an entire state’s education system.  Others find him equally peculiar. Wetherington stares in amazement at some of McLeary’s absent declarations during a visit to the anthropolgist’s home, before kicking him out. Of course, McLeary leaves the scene unfazed and optimistic, while the audience giggles.

The Revisionaries is an unfinished film, unfortunately. The story ends right as the moderates seem to get a fighting chance.  It’s hard to blame the filmmakers for it.  You can only dedicate so many years of your life to filming and editing together board meetings and elections and interviews. Regardless, you get the sense that we’ve only begun to see the “culture war” commence.

“You have to wait several years if not a generation of kids to see what the accountability is going to be like,” said Thurman, describing life in Texas after the time-frame of the film.

Those looking for a better end, best read the news. Some states have started to legislate that they will not buy any textbooks from Texas. At the same time, the Republican primaries have recharged the far right, giving them a second wind against the moderates.

Admittedly, Revisionaries is more of a fun farce than something that irks me at night. I can sit in the comfort of my Canadian suburban home, and laugh about the film in retrospect. The ending doesn’t bother me, but I can see others becoming nervous. The film has no emotional arc thanks to its observational nature and limited time span. McLeory is still around, and we have no idea what effect he’s had on the world. Nor does the film attempt to tell you. But if you are looking for more, the sequel is in our newspapers or on TV. The Revisionaries simply asks that you pay attention.


Posted on May 22, 2012, in Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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