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#HotDocs23 Review: Praying for Armageddon

May 2, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The 2023 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 27th to May 7th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

In Praying for Armageddon, Norwegian director Tonje Hessen Schei (Drone, iHuman) explores the subset of American Christian fundamentalists who believe that the apocalypse is nigh, and want to help bring about the Second Coming. Their belief is that the return of Jesus will ignite a bloody final battle between good and evil in the Holy Land, as detailed in the Book of Revelation, when Christ’s followers will ascend up to heaven.

The film’s thesis is that these True Believers in the Christian Right have outsized influence in shaping American foreign policy, particularly around the support of Israel, such as the Trump administration’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. The film loosely follows the through-line of reporter Lee Fang investigating these groups for The Intercept, and trying to infiltrate the American megachurches that spread Christian Zionist views. The film also details Pastor John Hagee’s financially lucrative group Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

The film is at its most successful and entertaining as a sort of weird human interest doc, such as when focusing on unique characters like Gary Burd, the sword-wielding leader of an evangelical biker gang in Texas. Burd talks excitedly about wanting to be there when Jesus rides a horse into battle and raises his sword to slay the demons, and is taking his followers on a symbolic road trip to Lebanon, Kansas. But it feels like the film has gone into the weeds to find a subject like Burd, whose views would be considered extreme even by most Christians, and is likely giving him a larger platform than he already has.

The issue with Praying for Armageddon is that it has an overly wide scope, and the individual elements can feel somewhat disparate. The film loses focus when it shifts attention to Palestine, following a tour guide from the group Grassroots Al-Quds as she takes people around parts of the West Bank that have been occupied by Israelis. At this point, the film becomes more generally anti-Israel, alleging that the country is reclaiming these territories due to the influence of Christian fundamentalists who want this land to stage the Biblical final battle, viewing tensions in the Middle East as a necessary part of bringing about the apocalypse.

But Praying for Armageddon struggles to offer the most convincing evidence that United States support for Israel can only be attributed to the influence of these groups, and it hardly feels fair to connect all American support of the Jewish state to this evangelical movement. While the documentary can be fairly entertaining at times with its slick, thriller-like tone, it’s also somewhat overstuffed, and doesn’t really make the most compelling case that this is anything but a fringe belief, let alone one that is actually seriously influencing policy.

Screenings: Tuesday, May 2nd, 8:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre; Thursday, May 4th, 1:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sunday, May 7th, 8:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2. Tickets can be purchased here, and the film will also be streaming online across Canada from May 5th to 9th.

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