Give Peter Rodger credit for audacity: In Oh My God, the writer, director, producer, and DP jets around the world, traveling from Africa to India, Japan to Israel, to ask an assortment of religious leaders and extremists, everyday people, and celebrity ringers that vague, if endlessly provocative question, “What is God?” Or rather don’t, since what seems like an audacious endeavor—as well as a genuine inquiry borne of personal uncertainty—dissolves into empty exercise when we realize that Rodger is simply shaping his material to accord with a predetermined viewpoint. Not that, throughout his travels, the filmmaker doesn’t uncover a multiplicity of perspectives, nor even illuminate some of the reasons behind mankind’s essential need to believe, it’s just that those opinions that don’t agree with the final assessment of several of Rodger’s subjects (including Ringo Starr) that “God is love” are given short shrift.
Appearing on screen, Rodger claims he made his film because he couldn’t understand how an institution that fundamentally preaches tolerance can become such a force for hatred and violence. But rather than show a similar tolerance for his own subjects, he arranges their testimony in such a way to promote the idea that God is an essentially positive presence (or at least concept) that teaches us to do good and that religious conflict has nothing to do with the man upstairs; it’s based on either a desire for land and power or a misreading of scripture. Not such a bad conclusion but hardly the only one a thinking person is likely to reach. And, in Oh My God, those who disagree with the party line are summarily contradicted.
When Rodger visits Israel’s occupied territories, his sunny optimism about the future of Jewish-Arab relations (illustrated by footage of leaders of both parties walking literally hand-in-hand) is temporarily disturbed by an American rabbi expressing doubts about a Palestinian state according Jews the same rights Israel grants people of other religions. But only temporarily, since the director immediately cuts in footage of another rabbi happily living in an Arab state to refute him. Similarly, when Rodger visits with a jihadist in an “undisclosed location,” he challenges his subject to locate the passage in the Koran that explains how non-Muslims will burn in hell. As the man searches the text, Rodger edits the footage into a flippant montage scored to bubbly pop music—the better to ridicule the man. Then when the Muslim does locate the passage, the filmmaker cuts to an American Islamic leader to explain (rather unconvincingly, it seems) how the jihadist has misinterpreted the text. No doubt the militant’s attitude is regrettably—and dangerously—blinkered, but so is Rodger’s. Why even bother letting the man speak in the first place when you just plan on haughtily contradicting him in a display of your own superiority?
Actually the most audacious thing about the film may be its appallingly bad taste. Rodger employs questionable rhetorical strategies so frequently that it doesn’t make sense to label them lapses of judgment; after a while, they seem like his regular working method. After all, this is a man who thinks nothing of posing fatuous questions about God to Katrina survivors and children suffering from cancer in order to prove the existence of faith in the most unlikely situations, a man who lovingly turns his camera on Seal as the singer sentimentally equates the existence of a higher power with the pictures of his family he keeps in a locket, and a director who dresses his film in an assaultive aesthetic that makes sure we’re not granted much leisure to contemplate his subjects’ words. Never content to simply let an interviewee speak, Rodger continually cuts away from his subject, assembling video and audio montages (the latter of which often turn parts of a talking head’s speech into something like a dance remix) to undercut the contemplative pretense of his project.
But it’s not like most of the people Rodger talks to are dispensing remarkable insights anyway; the religious leaders have a slight leg up on the celebrities, but they’re hardly much more enlightening. Still, at least one subject—musician Bob Geldof—refuses to play along. After asserting his absolute atheism, he questions his very inclusion in the project. “You asked me to do the film,” he tells Rodger. “I have a very pedestrian point of view.” At least he admits it.