God Straightens Legs is the debut feature documentary by filmmaker and artist Joële Walinga. The film focuses on Renée, the filmmaker’s mother, as she negotiates her diagnosis with breast cancer and the decision to forego traditional treatment. Told primarily from inside her room in her suburban home, the devoutly Christian Renée watches her favourite television pastor, wrangles insurance companies, and reflects on her dreams and faith.
She also waits, while we see glimpses of the world passing by outside of her window - moments of beauty that move from the quotidian to the near fantastical, in one of the filmmaker’s several imaginative gestures. Shot with elegance and precision by cinematographer Maya Bankovic, God Straightens Legs is a film of profound intimacy, generosity, and reverence for small moments of grace.
Wednesday 26 September
Doors 6:30 PM | Screening 7:00 PM
$7 General Admission | $5 Students
Jackman Hall (317 Dundas St W.) - McCaul Street Entrance
NOTE: From 7 September to 13 October see Joële Walinga's new installation
Puberty in Florida at Gallery 44 as part of the exhibition In the Same Breath. More info here.
Joële Walinga is a Toronto-based visual artist and filmmaker whose work explores subjective experience, outsidership, and the aesthetics of empowerment. Her work has been shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Khyber Centre for the Arts, Narwhal Contemporary, Xpace Cultural Centre, TRUCK Contemporary Art in Calgary, the John and Maggie Mitchell Art Gallery, and Gallery 44 among others, and has been featured in Canadian Art, CBC Arts, Art Matters, Women in Hollywood, Daily VICE, Screen Anarchy and POV Magazine. Her 2018 feature documentary God Straightens Legs had its world premiere at DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver in May 2018, and she is currently in post-production on a documentary about The Dragon Academy in Toronto.
Dan Schindel lives and works in Los Angeles. His writing on film, art, comics, games, and every other subject has appeared in Hyperallergic, Vox, The Film Stage, Observer, and more. All his work can be found at his blog.
Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.
By Dan Schindel
“You don’t believe, you won’t see. You believe, you’ll see.”
So says televangelist Joseph Prince. Renée, a middle-aged woman with breast cancer, watches Prince’s broadcast sermons at multiple points throughout God Straightens Legs. The film’s title alludes to Jesus’s healing of paralytics, acts attested to in all four Gospels. A good number of Jesus’s miracles involve the curing of physical disabilities or diseases, with blindness one of the most common ailments to fall before his hands. The literary appeal of the miracle is obvious; the metaphor writes itself, and it has been written often, to the point of becoming a stock phrase. (“I was blind, but now I see.”)
Renée has elected not to pursue treatment for her cancer, instead leaving her fate wholly in God’s hands. Mostly bedridden, she’s settled into passing idle time at home. She watches Joseph Prince on TV, listens to soothing music, and talks with visiting friends. Joële Walinga, her daughter and the director of the film, observes and intervenes in her wait. God Straightens Legs and its personal portrait of her mother’s faith is the story of a “seeing” person told from the point of view of a “blinded” one – or the other way around, depending on your own beliefs.
One could easily picture a version of this documentary that utilizes Renée as an introduction to a wider social issue. There would be talking heads, statistics, scenes of rallies and political hearings, scientific data, and polling numbers. We would surely learn a good deal about the relationship between religion and medicine, and gain some choice facts and figures we could later pull out during parties or internet arguments. But no. Walinga does not give us the comforting distance of a broader scope; this is a film confined to a townhouse, to myriad glimpses of suburbia (mostly caught through windows). Philosophical confrontation comes not through talking points but through a close, respectful character study.
This movie is still. The subject matter is intimate but the form is detached: it watches from the corners of rooms, scrutinizing small gestures and smaller details. Close-ups are rare. Sometimes the camera peeks out a window during a conversation, in the same way you might if your attention drifted from an activity you weren’t participating in. It finds oblique ways to view the action, often looking at Renée through a mirror sitting on the floor. Every voice in God Straightens Legs affirms Christianity, and yet it feels profoundly atheistic in form. Walinga never speaks aloud, but her lens projects ambivalence. Cutting from Joseph Prince brightly asserting that faith can undo all wounds to Renée on her bed, still waiting, suggests a refutation of the preacher’s belief in the healing power of miracles.
Despite all this, the film does not condemn Renée’s decision, nor disparage her beliefs. What use would such unpleasantness be? What would even change her mind? Any non-religious person with religious parents will recognize this kind of interpersonal détente. The movie does not tell you what to think of Renée’s approach to her sickness. She speaks for herself, and there is no voiceover narration. We are invited to listen.
In a telecast, Joseph Prince references Jesus’s healing of two blind men in the Book of Matthew. "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" he asks first. They do. Belief is a door to those who walk through it and a barrier to those who cannot. The film lets us see Renée, but not understand her. The 1 Corinthians quote about seeing things “through a glass, darkly” refers to our imperfect mortal understanding of divine matters, and a nonbeliever will understand this acutely when looking at Renée’s complete surrender to faith. The movie does not try to bridge this gap or clear the glass, but instead communicates this ideological disjunction. There’s no answer, only questioning.
There are many documentaries about illness – charting slowing movements and other forms of physical decline. God Straightens Legs is not their kin. It does not appear to take place over a long period of time, and Renée’s outward physical condition does not noticeably change, but around the midpoint she is shown to be improved, able to emerge from her room and slowly descend to her home’s ground floor. And the room itself is also transformed in a fantastical flourish, the muted fixtures replaced with lovely, idealized decorations, all under Walinga’s orchestration. With a perspicacious eye, the director populates the film with these choreographed moments of peace and happiness – her own smaller versions of the miracles her mother is hoping for. Ultimately, the truth of Renée’s wait isn’t a matter of sightedness but of different ways of seeing the world. This carries through even to the film’s final shot, a startling cut that offers an evocation of either absence or inspiring liberation – or both.