Any artform can be viewed, experienced and analysed in a variety of ways. This holds true for films, too. I can look at it as a whole, or dissect its use of CGI, the score, or the performances. But Pray Away achieves something which bypasses technical critique. It transcends the documentary film medium to become a true document. A document of an illness affecting the human race. In its look at the origins, success and repercussions of conversion therapy and the so-called “ex-gay” movement, Pray Away serves as undeniable evidence of the true harm caused by hate, bigotry and homophobia. And former-Altar-Boy me cannot help but be in awe. And shame.
Pray Away, In a Nutshell
Should we decide to be basic and simply read the synopsis for the film, Pray Away goes something like this:
In the 1970s, five men struggling with being gay in their Evangelical church started a Bible study to help each other leave the “homosexual lifestyle.” They quickly received over 25,000 letters from people asking for help and formalized as Exodus International, the largest and most controversial conversion therapy organization in the world. But leaders struggled with a secret: their own “same-sex attractions” never went away.
After years as Christian superstars in the religious right, many of these men and women have come out as LGBTQ, disavowing the very movement they helped start. Focusing on the dramatic journeys of former conversion therapy leaders, current members, and a survivor, PRAY AWAY chronicles the “ex gay” movement’s rise to power, persistent influence, and the profound harm it causes.
However, if ever there was a film where one must look beyond the synopsis to appreciate its full impact, Pray Away is it. So, let’s!
One of my favourite things about this film are the testimonies. Indeed, the bulk of the movie is dedicated to them. But quantity does not guarantee quality. What does guarantee quality, however, is the selection.
I have never seen so many former high-ranking members of the Pray The Gay Away scene in a single documentary, let alone one as cohesive as this. It is so crucial to understanding the reason why this movement exists in the first place, to have the people who created it tell it to us.
The way they hunted on those who were emotionally affected, how they utilised pseudo-science to gain authority, and how those pseudo-scientists were profiting from the exposure is, honestly, sickening. But to see and understand why it not only happened, but continues to happen… that is mind-boggling.
I’ve written extensively before about how my Catholic upbringing helped shape the way I see the world. On the flip side, being able to see Christianity as an institution, from the point of view of a former believer, grants me a sadly not-so-unique perspective on the shortcomings of The Church (and most churches in general). It is one thing to endlessly argue with my bigoted family members about why it’s OK for non-straights to marry, be together or even exist (a conversation whose premise sound as if it should be non-nonsensical in its obviousness). It is something else to see how widespread this hatred actually is, and how much it has hurt so many people.
And it is here that one must realise, what the former leaders of Exodus have also realised. What those who have left gay conversion therapy have realised. And that is, that most of modern-day Christianity has strayed significantly away from the core teachings of Jesus.
Regardless of whether one believes in Jesus as a holy entity or not, the fact remains that what he is credited with saying has little to do with hating on people because of who they love. I’m not a Catholic (or a Christian, for that matter) anymore, but I cannot help but realise that, for a religious organisation based on the historical figure who said “‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), there sure is a lot of hate in Christianity today.
Pray Away is More Than the Sum of its Parts
As I said before, however, Pray Away is more than a film. It is a living document, a testimony on the effects of hate. Is it shot well? Yes, it is beautifully shot. The lighting in particular is top notch. But talking about its (truthfully fantastic) technical merits would be a disservice to its message.
Much like I thought people should watch Wuhan, Wuhan as a means of lessening hate toward, and increasing understanding of, the Chinese population and their own struggles with the pandemic, I honestly believe that Pray Away should be required viewing policy makers, religious leaders and the general public.
We need to see the effects of the hate that we, as the human race, are putting out into the world. Ne need to put a face to the bigotry-based policies that we vote for. Moreover, we need to see the faces of those affected.
And as a tool for teaching understanding, caring, love and humanity, Pray Away is better than any conversion therapy could ever hope to be.