Thursday, September 28, 2006

Virginia Film Festival 2006: Half Done

H.L. Mencken quipped, "The trouble with Baptists is they aren't held underwater long enough," but when I was dunked backwards for my own full immersion into the faith, I had water in my nose and ears for the better part of a week. If I had been a Methodist I would have received a light sprinkle on the scalp instead -- which is why we Baptists often joked about Methodists' being "only half done."

On seeing the schedule for this year's Virginia Film Festival, the theme of which is "Revelations: Finding God at the Movies," I had the same feeling: Something about it is only half done.

Festival director Richard Herskowitz opened yesterday's press conference (about which Rick Sincere has more to say here) by discussing how this year's theme came about. Inspired by the heavy local turnout for last year's examination of "In/Justice," Herskowitz was looking for another issue that would give festival attendees "the opportunity to address what's going on right now." By coincidence, local filmmaker Paul Wagner was working on The God of a Second Chance, a documentary on faith-based social programs in Southeast DC. Wagner suggested that few issues are more contentious at the moment than "religion and spirituality." A festival themed around religion would draw the usual assortment of locals and out-of-towners, of course, but would also ensure the involvement of churches and religious groups around town who don't usually attend film festivals. Thus would ensue a more genuine discussion and debate on the presence and role of religion in our society and throughout the world.

But as one might have expected, programming this year skews heavily toward anthropological exoticism and outright derision, the two "easy outs" academics usually take when confronted with the big G-d. The paramilitary Pentecostalism of Jesus Camp -- Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's new documentary in which children pray before a life-size cardboard cutout of George W. Bush -- will receive two screenings. So will Randy Olson's Flock of Dodos, which rehashes the evolution-versus-intelligent-design debate. Lisa Leeman's Out of Faith depicts the conflict over interfaith marriage within one New York Jewish family.

Gay and Lesbian content seems heavier than usual: Two episodes of One Punk Under God, a reality-TV series on the Sundance Channel featuring Jay Bakker, the heavily tattooed son of Jim and Tammy Faye, will focus on generational conflicts within Christianity: The young Bakker's unusual approach to evangelism and non-judgmental attitude toward Gays and Lesbians have alienated older, more traditionalist Christians (and made it more difficult for him to fund his ministry). Other Gay-themed documentaries include Camp Out, about an overnight Bible camp for Gay Christian teenagers; Keep Not Silent, a film about lesbians in Jerusalem's Orthodox communities; and In My Father's Church, in which the lesbian daughter of a Methodist minister requests a religious wedding from her father.

Condescension prevails in the fictional offerings as well: The mockumentary Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, a campy 2005 remake of the 1922 silent Trapped By the Mormons, and Monty Python's Life of Brian will all be featured on the festival's opening night. Paul Fitzgerald's first feature Forgiven features a villainous Christian prosecutor who sends an innocent African-American to death row. The films from abroad treat religion more sympathetically, though the context of presentation suggests they will be seen as exotic documents, unthreatening to a generally secular outlook. Ten Canoes retells Australian Aboriginal myths, Son of Man places the Gospel narrative in a contemporary African setting, and Travellers and Magicians (the first feature ever filmed in Bhutan) is directed by an authentic Himalayan Buddhist lama.

However, there are some exceptions to this trend. Robert Duvall's film The Apostle is the centerpiece (or the cornerstone) of Friday's festivities; Duvall will receive the annual Virginia Film Award and participate in a question-and-answer session afterwards. Chronicles of Narnia will be screened on Saturday morning with actor William Moseley in attendance. But for the most part, whenever a film is presented with a genuinely religious, Christian theme, it is offered with some ironic distance: The 1927 silent version of Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings, or Hitchcock's transparently inaccurate Catholic thriller I Confess. The one new fictional film with a sympathetic attitude toward Western Christianity will be Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, a biopic of 19th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. Supplementing these films will be two lectures from Terry Lindvall, one on religion in Hollywood and the other on African-American spirituality in the movies: Lindvall used to teach at Pat Robertson's own Regent University, so his lectures might involve more of an insider's perspective on religion than a more typical academic survey would suggest.

Although the festival's program lacks overtly religious films, spirituality -- the paler, less threatening cousin of religion -- is fairly well-represented, thanks to a generous helping of Scandinavian cinema. But Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal, Carl Dreyer's Ordet and Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice aren't really about "finding God at the movies," as the program promises. Rather, they're about not finding God, and living in a universe where individuals must provide their own salvation as best they can. Islam receives some token representation in the program, and even takes a bit (but only a bit) of potential criticism for its treatment of women in the documentary The Virgin Diaries. It's mild in comparison to the drubbing Christianity receives throughout the weekend, so if you're looking to see something on the order of Theo Van Gogh's Submission, the most culturally significant religiously-themed film since Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, you probably won't find it here. (For that matter, you won't find Passion of the Christ either.)

It goes without saying that cinephiles who bother to look for God in this year's film festival will probably be disappointed. But those who look for a genuine dialogue on the fundamentals of faith might be disappointed as well. By focusing on fiction films and documentaries which either take a critical approach to religion or present beliefs that most of the audience will not and cannot share, the festival has largely ignored films made by and for American Christian audiences. Evangelical filmmakers have been active for some thirty-five years, turning out low-budget projects that attempt to present their spiritual messages to a wider audience. Mormon filmmakers in Utah and Idaho have exploited the niche market for family-friendly, often religiously themed entertainment: The most famous product from this industry was the indie teen comedy Napoleon Dynamite.

Not only is Christian filmmaking the most profitable segment of the independent film market, it has inspired major studios to jump on the religious bandwagon. Walden Media was first out of the gate, with its blockbuster adaptation of Chronicles of Narnia. Fox Home Video has announced plans to produce a dozen religious films per year, with six of those films to be released to theaters; the company's first release, Love's Abiding Joy, sounds like a Bollywood musical, but it's based on a series of Christian historical novels. And unlike many low-budget releases, this film will be coming soon to a theater near you, thanks to a distribution agreement with two national chain cinemas (Carmike and AMC Theaters). New Line Cinema will tap Christian markets this December with The Nativity Story, a sandal epic with an authentic evangelical-fundamentalist imprimatur. But Christians don't have to wait to get their movie fix: Opening tomorrow is Facing the Giants, a drama that shamelessly hits the red-state trifecta of faith, family and football. Today's cinematic marketplace offers more Christian fare, and a greater variety, than has been seen at any given point over the past two decades. And without a serious acknowledgment of the expanding Christian element in American film production, any dialogue on religion in cinema will inevitably prove a one-sided affair.

There's no shortage of filmgoers who want to "find God at the movies," but they're unlikely to find much in this year's festival to whet their appetite. Instead of full immersion into the questions and problems of religion, the festival offers a light sprinkle of spirituality with a heavy side of superciliousness. The films offer hardly anything that could offend or provoke even the most secular of humanists -- and that's exactly the problem. If they're meant to constitute a dialogue, it's "only half done."

Joke of the Day

"Like most of [Robert] Greenwald's work, 'Iraq for Sale' results from dogged and impressive investigative reporting ..." -- Andrew O'Hehir at

This is especially funny if you know that Robert Greenwald's "leftsploitation" documentaries are usually thrown together in about five months' time, from the concept stage to the final cut. More here.

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