Director: Sheila Marshall
Writers: Sheila Marshall & Kris de Meyer
Composer: Jorge Puig
Starring: John-Christian Bateman (voice), Michael Bertenshaw, Nick Edison, Harold Camping.
Rating: Not Rated
Right Between Your Ears is an interesting documentary that I accidentally stumbled across, as opposed to intentionally seeking it out. I was invited as a critic to Sydney’s Lift-Off Film Festival, and I accepted the position without giving much of a glance at the films I would need to watch. Once I did get my hands on the program, I was dismayed to see that only a handful of entries truly piqued my curiosity. One in particular, however, stood out from all the rest.
Speaking to the others critics before entering the cinema, it turns out I wasn’t the only one. “A documentary about doomsday believers? Sign me up!” I recall someone saying. It was one of the most anticipated films of the festival due to its unique subject matter. Though while it captured everyone’s fascination, there was one major doubt as well: would this be a respectful piece, or will it devolve into an excuse to laugh at the expense of others, creating a mockery of the Christian faith as a whole?
Violence/Scary Images: This documentary revolves around the lives of various doomsday believers. They are convinced that the world will end at a certain time and date. While they frequently discuss the topic, there aren’t any nasty descriptions or theories as to what will happen on the day.
Language/Crude Humor: None.
Drug/Alcohol References: None.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: The people followed in this documentary are Christians first and foremost. As such, they frequently mention God, Jesus, and other Biblical concepts during their interviews. While they have also fallen victim to the false doomsday teachings of Harold Camping, which is the subject matter of the film, the finer details of these theological ideas are not thoroughly explored. It’s treated as being extraneous to the movie’s core focus, which is primarily about the science behind decision-making, as opposed to Biblical interpretation. The film certainly does not promote Harold Camping’s false prophetical teachings, rather, if anything, it exposes them.
Other Negative Content: When the doomsday sayers realize they are wrong and experience a crisis of faith, audience members with certain agendas may obtain a shallow reading of this film, conflating Harold Camping’s incorrect teachings with Christianity as a whole. However it is certainly not the documentary’s goal to debunk the entire religion or to sneer at the beliefs of those featured, and to interpret it as such is disingenuous, although some may try.
Positive Content: Right Between Your Ears’ main objective is to foster an understanding of your fellow man. Without lecturing or promoting Harold Camping’s false ideologies, it not only provides an explanation as to how people may have arrived at the conclusions they have reached, but it also has a sympathetic tone–something like this could happen to any one of us. The doomsday believers are merely an example of something larger; the phenomenon of people making different decisions despite being provided with the same source material. Instead of focussing on the differences, this documentary aims to unite everyone from all walks of life. It does this by going into the psychology behind it all, to demonstrate that despite our beliefs, whatever they may be, in many ways our minds all work the same, and it’s not merely a case of idiocy or mental deficiency, but a relatable process.
Right Between Your Ears is a talking heads style documentary that respectfully follows Harold Camping’s believers. It covers their boldest, and eventually the most embarrassing moment of their lives; when they realized they were wrong after announcing that the world was going to end on May 21st, 2011. It’s incredibly easy to sneer at their gullibility, but this documentary takes the wiser route and instead tries to understand how these people went about their decision-making process, and whether this could happen to any one of us. It’s psychology, neurochemistry, and theology all wrapped in amongst an intriguing human story.
The movie is split into two halves, with the first act set before the doomsday date, and the second taking place afterward, exploring what happens on a psychological level when people are proven to be wrong. This double act structure may feel oddly incongruent since audiences normally digest films that follow a standard three-act narrative configuration. Yet Right Between Your Ears makes it work, as its simple story composition allows the film to flow at a wonderful pace. As soon as it explores one aspect, it intuitively moves on. Right Between Your Ears, therefore, is a succinct documentary, one that pops in, delivers the relevant information, and then gets out without awkwardly lingering around. It’s an admirable quality for this particular genre.
However, for those wishing to delve more deeply into the specifics of Harold Camping’s doomsday predictions, such as how he came to conclude that the world would end on May 21st, then this is the wrong documentary for you. This isn’t a flaw; rather that topic was never the intended focus. The brilliance of Right Between Your Ears is that the information that is presented can be applied to any personally held conviction, as the documentary is about the nature of belief itself.
Essentially any type conviction or decision-based persuasion could have been featured, from veganism to ufology. Yet doomsday sayers are unique in that there is literally a definitive point in time when their beliefs will be shown to be either true or false. It’s this clear-cut result between right and wrong that makes these people the perfect test subjects to find out whether faith affects the brain, and if there are any changes once it is debunked.
Right Between Your Ears is a clever title. Not only does it reflect the film’s exploration of how the mind works, but it also alludes to the common misconception that certain beliefs can only be held by mentally ill people. With religious convictions in particular, I have noticed in recent years more of a “Us vs. Them” attitude develop in society, where following Christ (or religion in general) has become synonymous with being clinically insane or stupid. It’s not merely an expression; some literally think religion is a mental illness. A percentage of people cannot conceive as to how anyone of sound mind can take Scripture seriously. Likewise, some Christians struggle to understand how others have failed to see God, where it’s so obvious to them. There is a divide that has occurred–an “otherness”–where because one cannot follow another’s mental logic, they, therefore, must be a defunct human being.
I got a whiff of that attitude from the audience before I walked into the cinema. It was fascinating to see people enter with the intent of seeing a freak show, but leaving with an empathy for their fellow man, despite their difference of belief. This is because Right Between Your Ears rewinds everything back to the point of inception. Using helpful graphics like pyramid models to unlock the secrets of the mind, this documentary demonstrates the inconvenient idea that strong beliefs can arise from perfectly rational decisions. It bridges a gap between believers and non-believers, showing that we’re not so different after all, and while one may not agree where the other has ended up, one can at least hope to understand and respect the journey taken.
Since the film isn’t about the specifics of Harold Camping’s theology, it, therefore, has a universal appeal, although Christian audiences will naturally extract more from this movie than other demographics. This movie made me question my faith but in a healthy way! After the viewing, I found myself reflecting on how exactly I came to accept Christ, along with the individual decisions that were made along the way. I also questioned whether there would be anything that could shake my foundational beliefs, and analyzed what they could be. It’s incredibly important to have these moments of self-awareness, because if you can understand yourself, then it increases your chances of being able to communicate those thoughts with another.
When it comes to sharing our personal testimonies, sometimes there’s a lot of focus on discussing whom God is, what Jesus did, and why we believe–and that’s all very important. But from what’s revealed in Right Between Your Ears, maybe we should also consider the “how”? How did we come to believe? What was the initial decision that lead us down the proverbial rabbit hole? If we can take our thoughts back to their origin–to a common ground–then there’s a possibility that the other party will at least understand how we came to where we are today. The same is true vice versa, where it can be helpful to learn how they came to the opposite decision.
For Christian viewers, Right Between Your Ears also highlights the damage false teachings can have. Due to fake prophets being likened to wolves in sheep’s clothing in Scripture, there is an assumption that untruthful interpretations of God’s word are therefore committed with intention. However, what we learn about Harold Camping’s failures should chill any devout Christian – not only was he unaware of the distortion within his teachings, but he preached it under honest intentions. To watch a man who has fervently followed the Lord throughout his entire life, only to horrifically stumble at the last minute is devastating. It’s certainly worth a discussion as to how this situation can be prevented within the Christian community, particularly on how to keep others accountable, or how to maintain a sense of self-awareness.
It should be obvious by now that Right Between Your Ears–while it first appears to be an exploration of doomsday sayers–is certainly more complex, tackling multiple issues whether intentional or not. It’s certainly a pleasing experience to walk into a cinema expecting a simple straightforward story, only to leave with a strong handful of themes and life lessons that can be mulled over for months.
The director, Sheila Marshall, was in attendance at Sydney’s Lift-Off Film Festival, and it was wonderful to speak with her after the screening. Her film obviously wowed the crowd, as it was voted Best Feature Documentary! She and neuroscientist Kris de Meyer have graciously donated their time to answer a few more questions for GUG about this film. The interview is below, along with my final thoughts and information on future screenings.
What inspired you to make this documentary?
Sheila: We’ve been friends for a long time. Kris is a neuroscientist. I’d worked in film and television for a while and my background before that was that I’d studied social policy and international political economy. We’d been talking about ideas to use stories to bring interesting and helpful research to a wider public. At the same time, since the early 2000s in fact, Kris had been interested in online debates around controversial issues like the invasion of Iraq, climate change, and gun control. He observed that people often misunderstood each others’ point of view and that led to anger.
Kris: That’s true. As I was following these debates, I started to spot similarities in how, regardless of the content that’s being discussed, people dismissed and distrusted those who had opposing views to themselves. People on both sides tend to be convinced that their side is right and the other side is wrong. I rarely saw someone become convinced by the arguments of those on the other side.
Sheila: So when Kris came across an article in a newspaper about the May 21 believers his curiosity about how we relate to our convictions, whether they are right or wrong, was pricked. I suggested we make a film about it so we contacted Family Radio – the radio station at the center of the May 21 prediction. They said it was fine to come but that their approval could change at any time.
What is the main message that you hope your documentary conveyed to viewers?
Kris: That, when we passionately care about an issue, we have much more in common with people who disagree with us than our common sense tells us. That’s important because that feeling that we have that our views are right and the other people are wrong (and ignorant, stupid, crazy, or evil for holding their beliefs), lies at the heart of the polarisation of opinion and divisions in society.
Sheila: The way our contributors are portrayed in the film hopefully illustrates similarities in how (not what) we all believe and models another approach to help us engage with those we disagree with.
What was the most difficult part of creating this documentary?
Sheila: We spent six weeks in California with the May 21 believers and had over 100 hours of footage. The film is about 63 minutes long, so the biggest challenge was crafting the story. We kept asking ourselves: What’s the big idea, what’s most useful for people to know, why is that or this person in the film? We were pretty brutal in keeping the main thing the main thing.
Kris: Another factor was that we wanted to weave scientific insights into the story of the May 21 believers so that viewers could better understand what it is that they were going through. That was difficult as it meant finding a balance between two very different styles of a documentary–people stories and science stories. It took us a long time and some iterations but given the audience response I think that–averaged over the tastes of many viewers–we got that balance more or less right.
In the film, a neurological test analyzing brain activity was undertaken. Did the results surprise you?
Kris: The study we did for the film was a repetition of an earlier scientific study that looked at what belief (accepting a statement as “true”) and disbelief (rejecting it as “false”) looks like inside the brain. To the belief statements of the original study, we added statements specific to the May 21 prediction, e.g., “May 21 is Judgment Day” or “May 21 is a normal day”. We asked the same questions before and after May 21. The biggest surprise for me came in the comparison of the before and after. I had expected that the answers would flip from true to false and vice versa, yet for the participant in the study, they changed from “knowing” the right answer (in other words, being certain) to “not knowing.” What was also interesting was the time needed to answer the questions: when we “know” something to be true or false, we can answer quickly; when we don’t feel we know, it takes much longer to decide what the answer is.
Sheila: I wasn’t sure what to expect. The people we’d met, with the exception of their specific belief in May 21, were regular people. I was more curious than anything and was fascinated by details like our participant taking longer to answer a question after May 21 and activity in the brain showing someone is thinking about their own thoughts.
While making this film, were you at any time questioning whether Camping’s believers had it right; did the strength of their conviction ever sway you or the crew?
Sheila: We were interested in their experience of believing more than in the content of what they believed. Many of the believers had studied the May 21 prediction, and the evidence they felt they had for it, for several years. We were filming events as they unfolded, intensely for the six weeks we were there, and had little time to explore the specific reasons for their belief in detail. We didn’t believe in May 21 but rather empathized with the practical and emotional impact it was having on the believers.
Kris: On the eve of May 21 around 11 pm, when earthquakes were meant to start happening in the Pacific Ocean, a fleeting feeling went through my head “What if we see reports of earthquakes in the news?” It was there for a split second, and not just as a thought, but also as a feeling or intuition. As Sheila said, we hadn’t been able to explore the evidence for the prediction in detail. Rather, it came from the social connection we had with the believers and the strength of their own conviction. We’re profoundly social creatures and can be much more influenced by the beliefs of other people than we might expect.
Has this project changed your life in any way? If so, how?
Sheila: I’m more thoughtful about how I respond to being challenged and how I approach others I disagree with. Understanding dissonance has made it easier for me to call out my own dissonance. Hopefully, I’m better at admitting mistakes and saying sorry when I ought.
Kris: It’s made an impact (I hope – thought some people around me might disagree!) on how I interact with people who disagree with me in my personal and work life, and how I try to take responsibility for things that I do wrong. I’m of course not doing this perfectly–it’s all work in progress :-).
As a film critic, I always find documentaries to be the hardest to judge. The genre relies heavily on the subject matter, and some topics are simply more engaging than others. Thankfully, when it comes to intrigue, Right Between Your Ears has it covered, as evidenced by the multitude of awards it’s receiving around the independent film circuit. It is clear with its storytelling; it’s wonderful to see that Sheila and Kris’ intentions were conveyed and interpreted correctly by their audience.
This documentary is cleverly titled, multi-layered, and isn’t biased with its approach. It allows the interviewee’s lives to unfold on screen, probes with a few questions and makes sure it doesn’t outstay its welcome, even though the film’s lessons will stick with the audience for much longer than its runtime. It’s no Mountain, Sherpa, or Red Bull-sponsored flick where the cinematography is paramount–Right Between Your Ears is rather basic in its presentation in comparison. But one can’t really ask for much more from a documentary.
If you are keen to see this film, it will be shown as part of the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival in California–March 23, 8 pm (along with a Q&A session with Sheila Marshall). If you’re from Belgium or the UK, then you are also in luck. While Right Between Your Ears will appeal to anyone no matter their beliefs, since the Christian community will obtain a deeper understanding given the subject matter, it is a great candidate for screenings at community groups, theological colleges or schools, particularly with its bite-sized hour length runtime. To organize such a screening, or to obtain an education license, then email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wish to simply see the film for yourself, or want more information about the movie, be sure to check out the official website.
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