“Montreal – No one will ever accuse Montreal filmmaker Joe Balass of being predictable. His 2007 film, Baghdad Twist, was a sort of Mother’s Day gift, a bittersweet memoir of his mother’s most unsettling times in Iraq and the hair-raising odyssey that brought her and her family to Montreal from Baghdad. Balass was about to turn 4 at the time his kin made their hasty exit from Baghdad.
Balass’s latest documentary, Joy: Portrait of a Nun, is about as far removed as possible in content, spirit and geography from the tumult of Baghdad Twist. Joy is set in the wilds of Tennessee and primarily focuses on the mission of one Sister Missionary Position Delight, one of the founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a collective of 400 activist nuns.
The doc is an eye-opener on every level. Mish, as Sister Missionary Position Delight prefers to be called, is a nun who doesn’t fit the classic mould. For starters, Mish is a guy and gay who, with his flowing white beard, far more resembles Santa Claus than Mother Teresa.
But the doc goes beyond being a celebration of eccentricity in the unlikely boonies of Tennessee, where viewers might more likely witness a replay of Deliverance than observe a community of gay, tree-hugging hippies preach love and tolerance in some of the most outrageous frocks imaginable.
Mish, also known as Sister Iamosama DeLite the Sodomite/Soami, was at the forefront of one of the most memorable gay-rights movements in history, some 30 years back in San Francisco. Mish may come across cartoonish in his eye-popping customized nun’s habit, but there is a method to the madness. Mish not only offers refuge to fellow nuns and radical “faeries,” but also continues to fight for gay rights and civil rights in general and seeks to come to the aid of the downtrodden.
And Mish’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence live by a mantra that most can easily accept: “Spread universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt!”
As a work of fiction, Joy would require a quantum leap of suspension from reality on the part of viewers. But once again, fact proves to be wilder than anything writers of fiction could ever concoct.
Balass, also the director of Nana, George & Me (1997) and The Devil in the Holy Water (2002), spent seven years observing Mish and his Sisters.
“No question, this is a whole other world,” says Balass, who suggests there might be a trace of a parallel between Joy and Nana, George & Me, which deals with the sexuality of some Iraqi Jews.
Balass first heard of the Sisters in the early 1980s, when they organized a San Francisco protest surrounding the Pope’s visit — over his policies relating to condom use. “But they weren’t really on my radar until 10 years ago when I met Mish at a film festival in San Francisco. He had seen two of my films and approached me about doing a film on the Sisters.”
Initially, Balass felt the film would be mostly centred in San Francisco. But then Mish invited Balass to visit him at his sanctuary in the woods of Tennessee. And Balass, knowing the importance of imagery in documentaries, was smitten with the location. “I found that whole community and that connection between Sisters and faeries much more interesting than the urban story.”
The wonder of it all is how Mish and the Sisters coexist in rural Tennessee where folks tend to be suspicious of garden-variety liberals let alone gay activists who cross-dress in nun garb and then some.
“The area that they are in is populated by gay, pagan-oriented folks and Southern Baptist Bible camps,” Balass says. “Fortunately, it’s live and let-live for the most part. Mish describes it as a kind of Southern politeness: ‘don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you.’ I also think the world is changing. Even the backwoods is becoming a more tolerant place.
“What I find interesting is that a lot of young people feel like they need to live in the city if they are a minority, sexual or otherwise. They don’t feel they can make a home for themselves outside a city environment. So what I found really fascinating was this expanding faerie community in the woods in the Deep South.”
All the more so when the members of this community look like they’ve just stepped out of a Fellini film. “There’s definitely a Felliniesque quality. A lot of the Sisters refer to themselves as ‘sacred clowns’ and see themselves as shamans of sorts. They admire the joy and the laughter of clown culture — which can also be quite ironic and serious.”
Balass sees similarities between this community and his Iraq homeland of yore. “Iraq and even Iran were both places that had a rich multicultural history where different communities coexisted in close proximity. It’s only the manipulation of politicians, dictators and fundamentalist preachers that inspire hate.
“The Sisters not only work with the gay community, but they also do different kinds of charity benefits for immigrants as well as doing HIV work. On one level, it’s a spiritual thing. On another, it’s about political activism and environmentalism and creating community.” (Bill Brownstein, montrealgazette.com)