TORONTO—About a dozen very polite protesters attempted to mar the Canadian premiere of Bill Maher's gleefully sacrilegious standup documentary, Religulous, at the Toronto International Film Festival recently.
But by carrying painfully earnest signs that read “Maher's Gone Too Far” and “Make Peace Not Maher”, and not even bothering to heckle rudely when writer Maher and director Larry Charles (Borat) walked down the red carpet to the theatre, the posse of picketers was so polite—so Canadian—that a lot of the audience assumed they had to be plants, paid for by Maher's publicity team.
A member of the audience even threw that question at Maher and Charles in the postscreening Q & A. Maher responded by saying that if he'd arranged the protest, “it wouldn't have been so lame”.
Although the movie's publicists may not have hired the picketers, it's not clear how legit they were, because the Canadian Coalition for Organized Religion seemingly doesn't exist on-line except for a few stories about it protesting Maher's movie. But whether or not the picketers were real, Religulous (which opens tomorrow in Vancouver) is definitely a film designed to offend anyone who, to quote Maher, “believes in the talking snake”.
Asked the next day if they were afraid of protesters, Charles—who looks like a Hassidic rabbi with a hipper tailor and designer sunglasses—deadpanned: “I think if we get murdered, it's a good DVD extra, so I'm cool with that.”
It's a good line, but as Maher and Charles addressed a small group of journalists in a restaurant at a Toronto hotel, it was hard to believe that neither of them had experienced at least one sleepless night since making the movie about faith and doubt.
It features, among other things, Maher meeting a guy who claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus, interviewing a guy who plays Jesus in a biblical theme park, and debating a Muslim woman on the site of the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
But despite the prominence of religious rhetoric—and religious power brokers—in U.S. politics and culture, Maher is not convinced his fellow Americans are actually that devout. “America is a place where a lot of people say they're religious, but we're phony religious people, mostly. The people in Saudi Arabia, those are true believers.
Everybody here likes to say, ”˜We're people of faith.' No, you fly a plane into the building because you're so sure you're going to get the 72 virgins, that's a person of faith. I mean, it's evil, but they really believe it. When they speak against homosexuality, they're not kidding. They're talking about, ”˜Let's cut their heads off.' ”
The first time Maher made a comment like this was on his ABC talk show, Politically Incorrect, on September 17, 2001. Maher said then: “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.” The statement was so politically incorrect that Maher's advertisers vanished and then–White House press secretary Ari Fleischer scolded Maher, warning that Americans should “watch what they say”.
Maher's experiences as the first public free-speech casualty of 9/11 certainly opened the door for his feature-length look at religion. “I would say it only inoculated me, because whatever they throw at me after that could never be as intense. You know, I had the White House up my ass.”
For Maher, taking on religion isn't simply politically incorrect comedy, though; it's personal. “It was one of the first issues I did in 1993, when Politically Incorrect started. One of the first issues we did, I think, was ”˜Religion does more harm than good.' And we had a modest proposal about putting a warning label on the Bible. And after so many years of doing it on television, I just thought, ”˜This is the one topic that is deserving of a broader canvas.' And then it was a matter of trying to get someone interested in doing it as a movie. That was not easy.”
It also wasn't easy finding the right director. “We were looking for a documentary director, and documentaries are all dark,” Maher said. “So, finally, someone had the bright idea of bringing in a comedy director and there was the piece.”
Maher said the point of the movie isn't just to make people laugh; it's also to make them think. He said that what he's selling in Religulous is “doubt”.
“Why is faith good?” Maher asked. “A lot of people, they never ask that question, because in America faith is always good. Politicians don't address the idea that faith could be not good; they just get up there and say, ”˜I'm a person of faith. My faith guides me. It's all about faith.' And everybody nods along. And I'm saying ”˜Why? It means suspending critical thinking. Why is that good, especially in your job?' ”