In the history of allegedly sacred objects, it's safe to say few claim humbler origins than the little item a small-town Kentucky man named Todd Walker believes to be the Biblical artifact known as the Urim and Thummin. It's a carved vessel the size of a baseball, black and seemingly made of stone. Walker found it while wandering the aisles of the Goodwill Superstore in Nashville. Something drew him to it, and he bought it. It cost 69 cents.
Not long after, Walker, a middle-aged family man who laid tile for a living, found that when he peered into the object, he had visions -- some ancient, some otherworldly, many hellish. He convinced his brother and his brother-in-law of the object's oracular powers; now they all want to convince everybody else. Cult-favorite independent filmmaker Jacob Young documents their efforts in Urim and Thummin, a new feature-length documentary making its Pittsburgh premiere June 12 at the Film Kitchen screening series.
For Young, Appalachian eccentrics are familiar terrain. The West Virginia native's film career began 20 years ago, with "Appalachian Junkumentary," a scruffily charismatic short about auto graveyards. Much of his work aired as episodes of Morgantown public-television series Different Drummer, for which he profiled a controversial prison warden; a man who ran his own chemical-waste dump; and his best-known subject, a wild-man mountain dancer named Jesco White.
The "Dancing Outlaw" is internationally famed, largely due to Young's approach, which is radically empathetic even while remaining tuned to comic possibilities.
In Urim and Thummin, for instance, it's amusing, for instance, when Walker and cohorts embark on what Young terms their "witness tour," the sacred object (its namesake mentioned in the Old Testament) tucked into a canvas tote bag. And it's hilarious when they gather testimonials from locals including a couple, both of whom are retired professional wrestlers; a local TV personality and his Jeopardy-champ wife; and a guy who paints "Jesus Saves" on his car.
But Young makes it clear that Walker's faith is sincere -- even as he follows the men to Vanderbilt University, where the Urim and Thummin is shown to an archaeologist; the chair of the religion department; and a professor of religious studies (who tells them it's actually pronounced "or-eem and too-meem").
As a documentarian, Young's rule of thumb is "make a friend, then make a film." For Urim and Thummin, he shot one-third of the footage himself, and structured the 79-minute film in the editing room after three years of shooting wrapped, in 2006. But while Young, 53, agrees there is something intriguing in the object's cryptic carvings, and its strange, prismatic effect on light, he was reluctant to actually look into the Urim and Thummin. He was afraid of what he wouldn't see: "I really wanted to believe it, because I had to believe it to make the film."
Urim and Thummin premiered in April, at the Nashville Film Festival. Young says the moderator of the post-film discussion had to cool the tempers of religious audience members who considered Walker's beliefs sacrilegious.
But Young says the film was generally well-received, as was another feature-documentary collaboration between Young and producer Dub Cornett: The True Adventures of the Real Beverly Hillbillies catches up with the controversial proposed reality-TV series The New Beverly Hillbillies (which Young was to have directed) after political pressure led CBS to dump the show. Young documented Cornett's attempt to keep his promise to fulfill the canceled show's premise by taking the Griffey family, of eastern Virginia, to Los Angeles after all.
Young lives in Morgantown, where he's a producer and director in WVU's television department. He's got other personal projects going, including a just-completed fiction-film script he'd like to produce independently. But he remains excited by documentary, and tantalized by what's possible when the subject of one's film is on a quest to, say, start a religion. "Imagine if somebody were running around with a camcorder with Joseph Smith," Young asks. "How could you say no to that?"
Film Kitchen 8 p.m. Tue., June 12 (7 p.m. reception). Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland. $4. 412-316-3342, x178 or www.filmkitchenpgh.org