At the ripe old age of twelve and immaculately dressed, Ezekiel Stoddard is the youngest ordained minister in the United States today. Amidst the screams of genuinely-moved congregation members and the swirling lamé skirts of background dancers, the spectacle of Ezekiel's preaching talent is no less than mesmerizing. And no less of a performance than the kind you'd expect from another child prodigy exhibited in a nation-wide talent show or reality TV series. Luke Monaghan's short documentary raises the complex but necessary question of how to channel Ezekiel's mix of precocious talent, popularity, and commodified spirituality.
Mainline Films, in partnership with Dazed, presents Tribute – a series of film portraits featuring contemporary youth. Here, director Luke Monaghan speaks to Mainline's AG Rojas about making the film.
Mainline: First off, how did you find Ezekiel? Did you have an idea before you started looking, or was the idea born entirely from finding him?
Luke Monaghan: I saw a news story on The Huffington Post about him. He was eleven years old then. I saw that and knew I wanted to shoot him, he had charisma but I was also interested in his age and the responsibility put on the lad. I found out that he was home-schooled by his mother (who has 10 children, Ezekiel is the 2nd youngest), and find a genuinely lovely boy who was pretty normal. I would say it was the adults who were not so normal, which makes me fear for Ezekiel as he grows up.
M: So his involvement in the church hadn't affected him yet as far as you could tell? Is there some sort of self-awareness to his preaching, or is he completely sincere?
LM: He's completely sincere. It's definitely affected him in that Christianity has been forced onto his obvious charisma and talent. But before we arrived at the church with our cameras on Sunday, I can't remember him talking about God once. We didn't mention it. We just played tennis, basketball, went to McDonalds and drank milkshakes. It was the parents mentioning God all the time, getting the family to sing for people and advertise the church as we walked around their town.
M: At what point did you decide not to use any voiceover or interview elements? Did you go into it with the mindset that you wanted to communicate his story strictly through visuals? It's definitely a risk, which i think pays off in the sense that you're not bombarded with facts, but simply presented with emotions. It makes it more interactive in a way.
LM: I originally wanted the whole film to be soundtracked by one of his sermons. There was never a plan to do an interview, I just thought it was the most obvious way of doing something different to the other shorts and docs I love on similar subjects. It was tempting, but I'm pretty happy we didn't do one.
M: I feel you: it's almost a reaction against the way people assume documentaries have to be made, the idea that you have to sit someone down and have them tell you their story, as opposed to just exploring their lives in a more natural way.
LM: Yeah, it was fun to go into it like that, not having the safety net of dialogue. Paul and I had to really sit down and work out how we were going to make this interesting.
M: How long has Ezekiel been preaching for? Does he seem interested in this as a long term profession?
LM: He says God spoke to him when he was 6. So not long afterwards he started writing his own sermons and going around local churches to deliver them. It's pretty wild. He's making his mum a decent little bit of change at the moment, and I've got the feeling that this is him for life now.
M: I think a lot of directors would've taken the opportunity to judge these people, because it's easy to do so. But it feels like you tried to present a more nuanced view of the churchgoers. Was this a conscious decision?
LM: I didn't know how I was going to present it as a director. Once we went there, we shot what we saw. The adults were the ones catching the Holy Ghost, collecting the money, bringing these kids to church, etc. Ezekiel is chill, innocent, and has been doing what he's been doing pretty much since he could talk. So it doesn't come off like he's weird, because in reality, he isn't. What's weird is his surroundings, which has made him America's youngest minister.
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