The PBS documentary series “P.O.V.” debuts its fifth film tonight with “The Tailenders,” by filmmaker Adele Horne.
Horne meshes “essay filmmaking” with an observational approach in her analysis of how a group of Christian missionaries sets out to convert the world by employing clever recording technologies and painstaking translations.
The hour-long documentary concentrates on the Gospel Recordings Network, founded by Joy Ridderhoff in Los Angeles in 1939 to put Bible stories in the hands of every person on earth—in his or her native tongue. So far, GRN has archives containing about 5,500 out of more than 8,000 languages and dialects. It’s the richest language library on the planet.
As the name indicates, GRN wasn’t interested in books, but in recordings. Just as American evangelists used the mass media tool of the 1920s and 1930s—radio—to reach audiences, so GRN also relied on new mass communication forms to spread its message around the globe.
“The Tailenders” engages most fully when examining how GRN took consumer products—record players, cassette players—and had its engineering department rig those machines for use in the jungle, for example. How does one project a recorded voice without plug or battery?
GRN invented tremendously clever gadgets—”card talk” and “hand crank,” to name a couple—that allowed, and still allow, for mass transmission of Bible stories in places like Mexico, India and the Solomon Islands.
GRN’s translation work is no less interesting. Horne follows GRN missionary recordist Philip Young in his tricked-out bus as he and fellow missionaries plow through Mexico trying to get accurate dialect translations—which means keeping an interpreter’s personal “commentary” in check.
Young makes a terrific subject, and “The Tailenders” would have been better sticking with him as opposed to diffusing its focus to incorporate effects of global capitalism on the indigenous cultures targeted by GRN.
As the documentary wears on, GRN’s incredibly interesting work unfortunately fades away as Horne opts to consider how missionizing in general correlates—in the minds of targeted converts—with material advancement. An important topic, to be sure, but nowhere near as riveting as GRN’s modus operandi.
“The Tailenders” takes its name from the term used for those people groups apparently last to be evangelized. Reaching them requires planning, perseverance and promotion of GRN’s simple yet amazing technology.
“The Tailenders” includes a visually sweet and informative look at how sound works—how air molecules vibrate, move and receive their own translation to produce meaning for the hearer. In this way, Horne piles poetry on process, and the result—minus what strikes me as a narrative detour on global economies—is surely a gospel groove worth listening to.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
P.O.V.’s official Web site is here.
The P.O.V. “Tailenders” Web site is here.
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Also read these reviews from this year’s P.O.V. season: