ZENITH will be awarded a special top prize at the upcoming, 2003-2004 MOVIEGUIDE (tm) AWARDS! ZENITH won a special "Crystal Teddy" for BEST DOCUMENTARY! Thanks to everyone who made this possible!
ZENITH has also just been nominated for the TEMPLETON EPIPHANY PRIZE, as part of THE 12th ANNUAL MOVIEGUIDE(tm) GRACE AWARDS GALA.
This GALA has long been described as the Christian Academy Awards.
There is so much love in this production, it is hard to imagine that it wouldn't transform all who watch it - all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. ZENITH is one of the best documentary movies of all time.
Ted Baehr, MOVIEGUIDE (movieguide.org)
We have included our newest review in its entirety, by Phil Hall -- as reviewed in FILM THREAT, The On-Line Film Magazine. This is because it was such a wonderful review, and because they gave ZENITH an AWARD!
ZENITH VOTED BY FILMTHREAT "TOP 10 BEST MOVIES OF 2003 YOU HAVEN'T SEEN -
The tiny town of Zenith, Kansas, in the heart of the state's farmland, has seen more than its fair share of woes. The family-owned farms have either gone broke or are edging towards insolvency, thanks to the competition from the supersized corporate farming interests and the plummeting prices for the crops being grown. The community members responded to these economic hardships with various forms of self-abuse: alcoholism, drug addiction, failed marriages and relationships, and endless self-pity.
So how can the folks of Zenith rouse themselves from their misery? In the grand tradition of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, they've exclaimed: hey, let's put on a show! But rather than stage a musical revue, the people of Zenith created their own passion play.
This is the focus of "Zenith," Kirsten Tretbar's friendly documentary on the very unlikely happenings in one agricultural community. The passion play itself is not a community theater-style event staged in a high school auditorium or VFW hall, but rather it is an elaborate affair complete with horse-drawn chariots, elaborate costumes, and three men (a banker, a farmer, and an oil driller) alternating in the role of Jesus.
"Zenith" is at its own zenith by documenting the struggles of today's family-owned farms. This issue, which only seems to gain national attention during Willie Nelson's annual Farm Aid concerts, is genuinely heartbreaking and Tretbar documents the subject with maturity and sensitivity. In the film's most dramatic moment, a calamitous thunderstorm rolls into town and deluges the land with such excessive rains that it would seem the Passion Play should be substituted with the story of Noah. Tretbar's camera catches the storm from the safety of farm family's home, where the lights have been turned off and the only illumination comes from the lightning flashes beyond the window. Once the rain has gone, one person glumly acknowledges the need to rent a special harvesting machine to get the rain-drenched wheat to stand and grow straight again.
The film is also deserving of praise for offering a balanced and sympathetic vision of devout Christians. While the presentation of faith has long created problems for filmmakers, who either opt for presenting the born-again as Jesus freaks or pretend that religion does not exist, "Zenith" provides a balanced view of people who have put their trust in their church and (from outward appearances) have grown in their emotional strength by concentrating on the Bible rather than succumbing to drugs or alcohol or self-pity. At one point, a participant in the Passion Play production wryly observes the true audience for the play's message. "The ministry is not for the people who see it," he says. "It is for the people who are in it." The church may have also brought back humor to this glum region. Elsewhere in the film, one of the actors playing Jesus exclaims that he hoped the Lord would "touch my checkbook two or three times (since) that could use some healing!"
As for the Passion Play itself: the production is staged in an open field at night and is conducted entirely in mime while a sonorous taped narration explains what is happening. The acting is often like an extreme game of charades, complete with florid arm movements and eyebrow twitching, and the actors wear the most excessive and ill-considered make-up hues this side of the drag queen regiment at a Gay Pride Parade. Nobody is expecting great theater here, of course, and there is one unintentionally funny moment when Jesus, praying at Gethsemane, is visited by the chubbiest lady angel this side of Jerusalem (proving that there is a place in Heaven for the plus-sized). Though perhaps the camera is the cruelest observer at this type of an event, magnifying its flaws while ignoring the sense of immediacy and rapport that would be experienced from those viewing the production in the audience.
"Zenith" never presents the Zenith community with anything less than respect, though it is hard to comprehend why the film does not address one very obvious question: for all of the time, money, energy and enthusiasm that is poured into the Passion Play, wouldn't it have been wiser to concentrate (in some way or another) on improving the current state of the local economy rather than spending so much on this elaborate diversion? The film presents no evidence that anything has been done to leverage political muscle at a state or federal level, nor does it show any signs of trying to attract new businesses to the area, nor does it offer the possibility of job training or educational realignment to help people move into other careers. While the Passion Play is very well-intentioned and clearly fills a void in the lives of many people, there is a nagging doubt that it is not the right solution for this particular town at this particular time.
Yet, filmmaker Tretbar clearly did not take the Michael Moore approach and visit this subject with a pre-conceived political frame. Instead, she allows the people of Zenith to be themselves and the visit to their world is a compelling and memorable experience.
Phil Hal, Film Reviewer, Indie Section, WWW.FILMTHREAT.COM
In Kirsten Tretbar's documentary ZENITH, the tiny farming town of Zenith, Kansas, finds collective spirits renewed by taking part in a production of a Passion play. With a keen eye for the strange, minimalist beauty of the plains landscape, Tretbar presents an openhearted and inspirational look at the independent family farmers who, crushed for years by divorce, depression, addiction, sagging returns and looming monopolies, struggle to find meaning in their lives and locate it in something none of them seems to have expected.
Mark Olsen, LA WEEKLY, October 28, 2002
ZENITH is a deep and brilliant metaphor of faith and life in our current times.
Micheal Rhodes, 5-time Emmy award winning Director/Producer: CHRISTY, ROMERO
Kirsten Tretbar has a terrific eye, capturing the event in beautiful, fragmented images that suggest the genuine commitment behind those bad wigs and plastic Roman helmets.
Robert Butler, National Film Critic: Kansas City Star, April 15, 2002
Voted PICK OF THE WEEK by The Kansas City Pitch Weekly, April 15th, 2002.
In Kirsten Tretbar’s, ZENITH, a dying town stages the Great Plains Passion Play (the story of Jesus up to and just after the crucifixion) seemingly as a way to purge its rage about agricultural subsidies that keep incomes at 1948 levels “with 1999 expenses.” Tretbar grew up in Kansas but has worked as a documentary producer for the BBC; she went to Zenith, eighty miles northwest of Wichita, to see assorted aunts, uncles and cousins in the play, then returned a year later with a camera.
“There’s divinity in all of us, and it must be fed,” says one of the town’s sweet residents (who could have inspired Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character) as she and her husband go about recruiting a congregation for their woefully under-populated church. Many of the men have been feeding themselves with something else, namely alcohol. Once the pews are peopled again (helped by a few residents who attend a Promise Keepers rally in Kansas City), a theatrical spectacle seems the natural by-product.
Tretbar gains the trust of Zenith’s residents, procuring honest testimonies about how the play has changed their lives. Many of the men cry when they talk about their spiritual evolution, but nature provides the most wrenching scene – a hailstorm that families watch helplessly, knowing the damage it will do to their crops. On the flip side, these good ol’ boys get made up for the show with lipstick and eye shadow; the guy playing Pontius Pilate dyes his hair at his bathroom sink.
Steve Walker/The Pitch Weekly, KC Film Critic
Passion plays--dramatic portrayals of Christ's life, crucifixion, and resurrection--are traditionally performed in Catholic countries. But this documentary by Kirsten Tretbar observes an elaborate production in the small Kansas town of the title. Farmers, grain elevator managers, oil-rig workers, bankers, and other local folk get together to combine their talents, all the while poking fun at one another's makeup and costume. Yet the passion play is, as one participant puts it, "a ministry for the people in it." The pressures of rural life have contributed to divorce, bankruptcy, alcoholism, and loss of faith; the redemption offered by the play helps the residents of Zenith to get through the rest of another long, hard year. Tretbar, a native Kansan, purveys plenty of homespun humor and a deep respect for a way of life that's rapidly disappearing.
Caroline Palmer, Film Critic, CITY PAGES, Minneapolis, Sept. 19, 2002
ZENITH is a spectacular presentation representing a true American Story. People need to experience this look at faith rediscovered.
Peter von Gal, President & COO, HALLMARK Entertainment, Inc.
Norman Rockwell's bucolic vision of rural America is, for the most part, dead.
In her beautifully shot and timely documentary, ZENITH, director Kirsten Tretbar paints a far more accurate portrait of present day life in the small towns that dot the nation's vast rural landscape.
In an inspiring tale that captures the transforming power of shared vision, ZENITH illustrates how one town fought back. ZENITH is a community awakened, an example of 'what might yet be' for all of our struggling rural places.
In short, ZENITH is hope.
Joel Dyer, Journalist and Author "Harvest of Rage" An award winning book about suicide and depression in rural farming communities. (Harper Collins/1997)
ZENITH tells the story of a small prairie miracle.
Director Kirsten Tretbar gives us a completely new angle on how those struggling with the assaults on the American family farm have found spiritual resources to rebuild their community in a time of crisis.
Professor Faye Ginsburg
Director of Graduate Program in Culture and Media
Department of Anthropology, New York University
A film that lifts up the struggle of the small family farmer as a sacred calling, and in so doing offers hope to us all.
This film is of the very highest caliber in its genre. It could well be THE best I've ever seen.
Reverend Robert Chase,
Head of Media The United Church of Christ