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Preacher

Preacher debuts tonight on Documentary Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Like all the other subjects of Daniel Kraus’ series of “Work” documentaries, Bishop William Nowell has more of a calling than a job. The septuagenarian pastor of New Covenant Church in Charlottesville, VA, assembled his tiny Pentecostal congregation nearly 30 years ago, and has seen his followers through some of the most trying times of their lives. But there are still elements to what Nowell does that are fundamentally occupational. The opening sequence to Preacher shows Nowell suiting up for Sunday service, then sitting in his empty church, waiting for the show to start. Later, we see him making a run to the grocery store to collect day-old baked goods to feed the homeless and planning out the program for a special prison service with his choir director. And we see him strumming his electric guitar while his deacons pass the collection basket. Divinely inspired or not, work is work, and bills must be paid.

Preacher comes in at a brisk 70 minutes, which means that like the other “Work” films, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The tradeoff there is that the documentary raises some questions that go unanswered. We don’t learn much about Nowell’s personal life, beyond what he hints at in his sermons and what he reticently shares with one University Of Virginia theology student—to whom he says that he’s married with three kids, even though we’re never introduced to any family outside of what we see in a photo in his house. Nowell alludes to a wayward youth and some painful boyhood experiences, but offers no specifics. It’s implied, too, that New Covenant is in some financial trouble—perhaps due to its graying congregation—but Preacher doesn’t get into that either, nor does it explore this church’s particular place in a college town with a rich history of its own.

That’s all okay though, because Preacher is as much a performance film as a character sketch. Kraus adapts his style to his subject, using close-ups and jump-cuts to convey the intimacy and urgency of worship. (Even the shots of Nowell pouring four sugars into his breakfast coffee carry a charge.) Kraus also captures Nowell’s winding rhetorical path to deeper truths. During one low-key congregational meeting, Nowell begins telling a seemingly off-topic anecdote about how his parents put a biscuit and a glass of water on his bedside table at night when he was a boy, and then he pivots gracefully into a lesson about how God provides. While delivering a sermon about Lot, Nowell gets so caught up in oblique personal references and interjections of “amen” and “huh” that it looks like he’s wandered too far afield from his message, until it becomes clear that he using Lot’s lot as a metaphor for letting go of personal pain. “Yeah, it hurt,” he says, sympathizing with parishioners who’ve been jilted. “You hurt somebody too. Get over it.” 

Throughout, Preacher gets how even something as purposeful as prayer has its own jargon and rituals. Like enforcing the law, and making music, and inspiring young intellects, the act of nourishing souls requires preparation, equipment, repetition, and a sense of sustaining righteousness.