|Photo credit: Nicole Teeny|
2013, 76 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
NOTE: I was able to review this film through the generous support of IFC Center, one of New York's best movie theaters. They show a selection of new and old films and bring in talent from almost every movie they show: http://www.ifccenter.com. The film was showing as part of Slamdance On the Road 2013, where films from the Slamdance Film Festival are shown at special screenings at IFC Center with accompanying short films and filmmaker Q&As.
Easily one of my favorite documentaries of all time, Nicole Teeny's Slamdance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary award-winner, Bible Quiz, is a beautiful character study and a spirited and tension and humor-filled look at Bible Quiz, a competition in which teens are asked questions about minute portions of the Bible. The teens memorize large portions of the Bible to prepare and are in intense competition with other churches' groups across the nation. The teams face off at Bible Quiz competitions trying to be the first to answer a question correctly.
Teeny's documentary works as well as it does mainly because she focuses on one girl, Mikayla, not the entire team, and follows her journey. Mikayla comes from a broken home with serious dysfunction and is a really lovable character. Teeny captured some incredible interviews with her. These interviews are raw and emotional and probe Mikayla's depths, revealing a lot more than what is on the outside. By focusing the film around Mikayla, Teeny tightens the film and gives us someone to root for. While the world of Bible Quiz is definitely foreign to most, Mikayla is a really good guide into this world. She puts a human face on something that could have easily been demonized.
Another one of this documentary's many strengths is that it is not judgmental. Bible Quiz is an odd competition to say the least and, as written before, could have been shown in a negative light. This could have been a very nasty, satirical documentary in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, but Teeny makes this a straightforward, likable documentary that will completely win your heart. She ratchets up some brutal tension as the film draws near its climax; it is almost unbearable. Raising tension in a film is hard to do, and Teeny's control over it is masterful.
It was mildly disturbing to watch Bible Quiz because of its depiction of the complete devotion that some kids show to memorizing what simply amounts to a very influential book. As I was watching the teens rattle off answers to questions, I couldn't help but wonder whether the Bible passages that they had memorized actually had meaning to them. While the teens are certainly religious and believe in the Bible, I couldn't help but wonder what good this Bible Quiz actually does for them. They are always prepping for the next competition and it saddened me to see that they were rarely out and about having fun. As James Ponsoldt's brilliant drama The Spectacular Now shows us, the "now" is the time to be in, and the kids shown in Bible Quiz rarely seemed to be in the "now". Towards the film's conclusion, JP, the team captain, says that he does have some regrets about devoting himself so heavily to Bible Quiz, and this stuck with me. It was a great choice by Teeny to include that in the film, as it was a very revealing moment.
Teeny was around for a Q&A after the film and the following are a few fun facts about the film. The film was shot in 2008 and took 5 years to complete. Teeny said that she gave Mikayla the option to see the film at its premiere at this year's Slamdance Film Festival or to see it early, and Mikayla chose to see it at the premiere. Mikayla was wrapped up in the film and was rooting on her younger self during the film.
Overall, Bible Quiz is an amazing documentary. It is deep, thought-provoking, and extremely fun to watch. Mikayla is a really interesting character and Teeny's direction of the whole film is impressive. Look out for Bible Quiz.