On Thursday night I hit up Swiss director Miriam von Arx’s new documentary Virgin Tales at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Virgin Tales is an observational documentary that follows the Colorado Springs Evangelical Christian Wilson family. The Wilsons founded father-daughter “Purity Balls” at which daughters vow to their fathers to remain pure and chaste until marriage. According to the film’s website:
In the United States around 5,000 of these Purity Balls are held in Colorado and 47 other states. And Europeans are increasingly succumbing to the fervour. People from 17 countries, including Great Britain, France, Finland and Germany, have approached the Wilsons’ to organize such events in their countries.
For two years von Arx and her small crew of women filmmakers spent time with patriarch Randy and Lisa Wilson and their seven children, following them day-to-day through two purity balls, holidays, coming-of-age ceremonies for one son and daughter, and some of Randy Wilson’s work as National Field Director of Church Ministries for the Family Research Council. She spends most of the time with third daughter Jordyn, the oldest non-married sister at age 20. Von Arx situates the family in a broader social context, including the rise of the Tea Party movement, and argues that the purity ball trend is part of a “second sexual revolution: chastity”.
Minor spoiler alert: But von Arx, I think to her credit, doesn’t take the Michael Moore-esque approach of making the creepiness extra obvious through voiceover – she lets the family present their vision of this perfect Christian family, and sometimes you want to buy that it really is perfect – they all seem so happy and loving towards one another, so open with their emotions, so unconflicted about the choices they make. During the post-film Q&A von Arx said she thinks what she’s most proud of is “when you can see there are so many things politically opposed but there are some things that aren’t really wrong.”
But von Arx lets the cracks in the facade show through. One example is when Lisa says, in reference to her homeschooling the kids, that she doesn’t know algebra but God does so her job is just to open her kids’ hearts up to God so He can teach them algebra. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it – there are more moments like that.
Von Arx says that’s why she called the movie “Virgin Tales”, to show “they’re really trying to have this fairy tale for their children…when you sell them this fairy tale then it’s something you want to have.” She commented that she feels all the events they have as a family (the coming-of-age ceremonies, anniversary celebrations, girls’ nights with other girls from the balls, etc) are needed to “just confirm you’re doing the right thing”. The idea of the fairy tale promise as a form of control goes a long way to explaining the picture-perfectness of the family moments and comments like Jordyn’s in the trailer about it being pointless for her to get an education when she’s always known she wanted to be a wife and mother.
“All the roles models they have is other mothers and wives,” said von Arx, “So their aspiration is to be mothers and wives.” She added that because of the homeschooling the kids are forced to make their siblings their best friends and to almost never interact with people who aren’t part of their family or church.
Going into filming von Arx told them “I’m not religious and definitely not ‘pure’” and assured them that she would be presenting their story largely without commentary, but she says the family never asked her or the rest of the crew about themselves.
“What they call everything outside of the culture is chaos,” she noted.
But part of her hoped that just seeing her and the crew making this film would spark the girls’ curiosity. In addition to picking an all-woman crew to open doors and increase the parents’ feeling of their daughters’ safety, von Arx said, “We walked in there showing the girls that you can have a job.”
There are no more screenings listed on the film’s website, but this was the first showing in Canada and I have high hopes it will come to other Canadian towns. If you get a chance to see it wherever you live, you should definitely take the opportunity.