The Dutch Mafia
by Del Harvey
“It’s about family.”
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When I was given this film to review by the filmmakers, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The cover and the title suggest something a little more along the line of The Sopranos, but that isn’t really what the film is about. We are introduced to a charismatic older gentleman named Ben Essenburg, who tells us a story about how his garbage outfit came to be known as the Dutch Mafia. It’s a charming story, the way he tells it. And it’s surprising, since he’s standing on a platform in a very churchlike setting. Sure enough, within a few minutes, we learn that the film is really about a group of people who gathered together seeking something unique, something to satisfy their need for spiritual fulfillment. For a split second I felt a little bit teased, but it really didn’t bother me that much. The film that unfolds is not trying to convince me to join their group or see the light or change my otherwise “evil” ways. What develops is more of a story of a family, just as someone in the film says, and that really isn’t such a bad thing. Especially in a society where so many religions make it their crusade to sway you to their way of thinking.
This documentary has some of the highest production values I have ever seen for an indie film. That having been said, the interactive elements of text on screen at the beginning of the film could have been repeated several times throughout the film and would have provided a welcome break from the repetition of talking heads, which many documentaries tend to do. However, the story in this film does follow a natural chronological progression that distracts enough so that this really is not a huge issue. In fact, as I think more about it, it is most likely a choice I would have made as editor.
The film’s story is best told through the filmmaker’s press release, which has much more detail on the content than I could ever possibly recall accurately.
In the mid-1970s, Ben Essenburg, a Dutch-Chicago garbage man, began several renegade Bible studies that grew unexpectedly into Fountain of Life, a non-denominational church that would eventually have over 400 members. This was concurrent with a larger Christian happening known as the Charismatic Movement or The Jesus Movement. The people of this movement threw off a great many of the rules and traditions of the historical church and believed in controversial, supernatural powers called the “Gifts of the Spirit,” a concept that had been rejected by the established church of the time. Though many of these churches failed due to poor and inexperienced leadership, those that survived, such as Fountain of Life, are today’s mold for the majority of successful modern churches.
Through archival footage, old photos and over 30 interviews, The Dutch Mafia tells the story of Ben Essenburg and Fountain of Life while debating the relevance of the Charismatic Movement to Christianity and the rest of the world. This 90-minute documentary recounts the successes and struggles of the fledgling congregation over a period of 30 years and shows that Church, at its best is not a religious institution but a family where all are welcomed and loved unconditionally.
All in all, The Dutch Mafia is an excellent documentary chronicling the efforts of one Chicago region’s desire to find faith and spirituality that is inclusive and bipartisan. And that is something that is most definitely worth sharing.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, and a film critic living in Chicago.
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