Anytime someone mentions an organization that has Liberty or Freedom in the title you almost want to run for the hills. Almost.

The Revisionaries, a rather brilliant documentary opening this weekend at the Sundance Cinemas Houston, shows in no uncertain terms how a small group of people on the Texas State Board of Education influence public education and textbooks across the entire country.

Director Scott Thurman set out to make a documentary about a single biology teacher and lessons of evolution as part of his master’s thesis. “A kind of profile study,” notes Thurman in a phone interview with Free Press Houston. “That slowly shifted from a profile of a teacher to the politicization of education. I learned about the political debate on the Texas State Board over how evolution would be taught in science.”

Eventually Thurman spent four years making the Revisionaries. “It was rough finance wise, I was supporting myself with graduate student loans, but then two producers came on board and secured additional completion funds.” What Thurman discovered was not so much cinematic as it was strong with “fascinating content and great characters.”

Among the people we meet are the chairman of the State Board Don McLeroy and his ally on the board, “a craftsman of words” Cynthia Dunbar. We also meet anthropology professor Ron Wetherington, and Kathy Miller. Miller represents the Texas Freedom Network, an org started by Cecile Richards (Ann Richards’ daughter) to counter evangelical right orgs like the Liberty Institute.

Thurman’s film is remarkable because of the even-handed way it presents its facts and characters. “I wanted to show these people outside of the Board,” adds Thurman. Indeed McLeroy never expresses his creationist point-of-view while in Board meetings although Revisionaries shows him discussing dinosaurs and Noah’s Ark with his Sunday school class, and asking his dental patients how they feel about the age of the Earth. Likewise Thurman establishes that McLeroy and Wetherington can sit down across from each other and have quite a civil conversation. They are two gentlemen who agree to disagree.

The Revisionaries “is about language too, the evolution of language,” says Thurman. The Board is depicted hammering out the way textbooks will read. What’s the difference between “constitutional republic” and “democratic society?” Or “HipHop” and “country western music.” Naturally “secular humanism” and “intelligent design” are terms that play prominently in the polemics of the film.

Director Thurman will introduce The Revisionaries and participate in Q&A’s on Friday and Saturday. On Friday, Oct 12: after the 7:15 screening Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network will join Thurman.
On Saturday, Oct 13: after the 5:30 screening, Thurman will be joined by Don McLeroy, former Chair of the Texas State Board of Education. And after the 7:20 screening Thurman will be joined by Nancy Friedman, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

— Michael Bergeron