"Christian" Film – To Support or Not Support

6 02 2009

 

Fireproof

Fireproof

Due to many factors, not least of which being the constantly lowering price of video equipment for every stage (cameras for shooting, editing software, computer components to handle high-definition footage, and cheap media duplication), there has been a recent influx of independent, Christian film.  Everyone was aware of the major impact and high-budget film, The Passion of the Christ, and by many standards, it was a success and a well-crafted film.

 

However, what I’m talking about are the films like Left Behind, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants.  (Yes, there are others, but these are the films most likely to be recommended by Christians as “films you should support” for their message, their wholesomeness and their “high-quality” of filmmaking, for an independent Christian film.

 

Facing the Giants

Facing the Giants

First, let me say that I’m not criticizing these films for being made.  I think there’s a place for every type of film, and I think it is, indeed, important that films with explicit Christianthemes get made, as film is a wonderful medium where many people can experience something they wouldn’t experience before, in another setting.  However, my criticism comes solely from the idea that despite their lower budgets, there are many better films being made in the secular realm that have more compelling plotlines, with better acting, better characterizations, and better filmmaking technique.  

 

So, as someone with an absolute love of good filmmaking, what should a critic of film think about these Christian films? 

First of all, what is the intended audience?  This is something that’s been confusing for me since I first saw “A Thief in the Night”, a 70s Christian film series dealing with a Post-Rapture world (and taking many liberties with the scriptural interpretation).  When I was a child these films were scary and interesting because there wasn’t anyone doing stories like this (at least that my parents would let me watch).  But as I look forward to a (hopefully soon) viewing of that campy set of films with my friend, Daniel, I look back and remember things that were not really comparable to anything in cinema from the time.  The quality was good “for a Christian film” but not for film in general.  The films, in that case, were definitely made for Christians to scare the Jesus into (or I guess, scare the hell out of?)  their neighbors (at least that’s the sense I got).  The audience for purchase were churches and individual Christians, but not for showing to themselves, as much as to lead to conversations saying “Hey, buddy…if you were to die tonight, do you know where YOU’D go?”  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se, but I’ve always been skeptical of Christans who use fear and uncertainty as conversion tools.  There’s nothing wrong with having genuine concern for your unchurched neighbor’s souls’ wellbeing, but if it’s based on anything but love for that person, then are you truly serving God, or just boosting your ego for some unknown reason?

 

A Thief in the Night

A Thief in the Night

More recent films seem to be confused on their audience, however.  They’re trying obviously, to speak to their congregations.  They’re definitely trying to speak to those who already know and love the Lord.  But they also have so much proselytizing in the script, that they’re also trying to “reach the lost” as well.  Perhaps this is where most of my displeasure with these films is based.  See, I think that most of the cheese in these films comes from false-sounding dialogue, usually based around the point of conversations about Christ and salvation.  They never seem like anything I’ve heard anyone but these movies and perhaps some pastors say.  My friends, my neighbors, my experiences sharing Christ with others have never sounded anything like these textbook (or, rather, straight out of a tract) conversations.  

 

Of course, perhaps I’m not as open about my Christianity as I should.  I’ll give room for that possibility.  However, I think more often than not, the people in these situations sound like they have all the answers, and they’re ready for any questions at any time.  I don’t think that’s realistic.  I’d love to see a Christian film, for example, that simply poses some questions.  That perhaps has resources behind it to help answer those questions, but instead of feeding you like a child, prompts you to seek out the answers on your own.  That the questions definitely have truth behind them, and the answers may always come down on the side of Christianity and Jesus, but that it’s not so black and white.  Because, frankly, life isn’t so black and white.

 

Flywheel

Flywheel

My favorite parts of Facing the Giants were not about him and the kids he was coaching, or the conversations he’d have about Christ.  Instead they were those real-life moments.  Things like him needing a new truck, but trusting in the Lord for contentment and stability.  Like being unsure about his job, or his reaching the kids he coached.  These things are real life situations for those who live for Christ.  I still wish I saw more struggle. (Unless of course, I’m the only one who has true difficulty in life.  Perhaps this is true, as well…)  

 

My point is that if the audience is well-defined, then the script has direction and purpose.  The only story arc in Facing the Giants was the football team.  Everything else was incidental, and really, kind of forced into the story.  But of course, you don’t watch Facing the Giants for sports-drama.  You watch it because it’s a Christian film that’s supposed to identify with you and/or say something to those you’re watching it with.

So the natural issue then thereafter, is purpose.  Intended audience needs to be defined, but then the purpose of the film should be clear throughout.  Is it entertainment?  Is it educational?  (And please, PLEASE don’t throw the word EDUTAINMENT at me.  I will seriously puke.  I will.) 

 

Left Behind

Left Behind

The reason The Passion of the Christ was so popular and well received by critics of film (Christian and “Non”), was because it had a well-defined purpose.  The entire purpose of the film was to bring reality (gritty, bloody realism) to the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  So that people who have heard the story, and people who hadn’t heard the story, could see the true sacrifice Christ made at the cross.  There was no conversion intention (at least overtly), there was no trying to pander to every audience member’s tastes.  In fact, I sincerely doubt Gibson was even trying to placate Christian leaders with his film.   I think that more likely, he was simply trying to tell a realistic story about something he believed in.  And to me, that’s MUCH more powerful of a basis for filmmaking, than trying to sell a position, or trying to convert or trying to make sure you don’t offend anyone.  Heck, Jesus himself was a controversial dude.  Why would he want his films to be safe and easy fare?

 

Of course, there’s the acting and the camera work, and the editing, and all the other things that can make or break a film.  Those, however, I give some breaks to.  Not because they aren’t possible now, as there’s a lot of independent cinema being created on even smaller budgets with all of those things.  But because the “Christian” genre of film is still in its infancy and needs to raise up newer generations of filmmakers who want to tell Christian viewpoints of stories and themes.  That stuff will come (hopefully) or die out. 

So the conclusion of all of this, is really hardly a conclusion at all.  Does someone who believes there is a place for Christian film in the world’s cinemascape, support these mediocre attempts at filmmaking.  Sure, they’ve come a long way, but they’re still far from the independent masterpieces of their secular counterparts.  So, what is one to do?  I’m not giving an answer.  Like the films I’d like to see…I’d rather you think about it yourself, than take my answer.

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11 responses

6 02 2009
Edgar

I really enjoyed the Left Behind movies. I knew it was cheesee but I thought they were good.

I think Christian Independent films need to stay away from the fake blood. They need to learn from Quentin Tarantino. Short Sequences. Lots of great dialogue, and better photography. More outside shots. In-doors is dead. Outdoors is king. Day Time outdoors.

And they should give them away for free online. in-films ad-placements are the way of the future!

6 02 2009
otakudad

Definitely, I agree that advertising to allow films to go online for free is an awesome way to go, but I also really dislike blatant “product placement” and feel a little icky about it in Christian films, too. I mean, if it’s like “all the bibles in the film are versions printed by Tyndale”? that’s okay. That’s not blatant or obvious. Or if the phones are all one company. That’s cool. But when a teacher or something is always drinking Red Bull? That’s blatant. Or if every meal is Taco Bell? 🙂

Just gotta be careful about in-film advertising. And definitely outdoors is the new indoors. 🙂 I loved the Left Behind books, but I think the films were pretty bad. Again, I like certain bad films, but Christian film that’s bad just embarrasses me. 🙂

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7 02 2009
Karl

It’s the same as Christian music, though Christian music has made more progress. I feel like as long as there’s a hard and fast category that is “Christian Whatever” we’re going to have a problem. Secular artists say all sorts of things and it’s lumped together as art, so why do Christian opinions demand their own category? It sets up the film/song etc to seems forced and hokey before you even get started because the creator wasn’t really trying to fit in, thus situating his/her work within the greater discussion of the medium. I think the result is film that sounds like it was meant to be shown to conservative Christian congregations that see the film and feel good imagining a non-Christian being perfectly open to the message. Not only is a non-Christian extremely unlikely to see a poor movie and respond to its message, but it reflects on Christianity itself when we make poor art.

So I may have strayed from my point which is, if Christian film is to legitimize itself then the category “Christian Film” should be used sparingly. A good movie, well produced etc, would be good to support, just as I find myself “supporting” films that have nothing to do with my faith.

9 02 2009
Jay Kadana

I feel like the story behind how we got to the point of talking about Fireproof is very compelling in itself. A church pastor sets out with a $25000 donation to try his hand at making movies, 3 films later; boom! Fireproof. I think you’ll agree (if you’ve watched Flywheel, Facing the Giants and Fireproof) that the improvement in how professional these films are made, and how compelling the stories themselves are gets better with time. I’d say the same thing about the whole genre. I think it is getting better with time. Be patient. I think the really great Christian films are yet to be made.

As a newcomer in the Christian Movie industry (I recently started working for FamilyChristianMovies.com) we wrestle a lot with “What is a Christian Movie?” I’d love to see more films being made by believers who are industry insiders who make redeeming films that are a little more nuanced in their message. Do any come to mind for you?

I guess my idea when I hear film-critic Christians criticize Fireproof and other “Christian Films” from an artistic standpoint, I think to myself “Ok guys, get off your butts and go make a film that YOU think God will use in society!” That’s what the Kendrick brothers did, and for normal guys who decided to take their 2 fish and 5 loaves to the crowds, they’re doing pretty good for their third film.

10 02 2009
otakudad

Jay, I really appreciate your commentary here. I tend to feel the same way. Mind you, of all the Christian film I’ve been able to see in my lifetime, I do indeed feel like the stuff coming out of that church is definitely improving with each iteration. And I’m not trashing those films.

Like I said, the complaints I had mostly were not with the quality of the films in terms of shooting (which again, has improved drastically over those films), and while I don’t dig the acting, I know they used the people at their disposal, which makes a difference. However, even given that, I would hope, that with the much larger success of Fireproof nationwide, that their next project decides to incorporate some better acting talent. My major problems were not with the technical quality (as much as it was in the past) but with their motivation and intention.

Not for confrontation’s sake, but for the sake of debate…can you tell me the intended audience for these films? Who they were trying to speak to? My gut tells me the church, but the script tells me they’re trying to reach “the unchurched”. Not that there’s anything wrong with reaching both, but if you’re to reach both, then you have to work from the base of the most demanding audience (the unchurched) and develop from there.

I know I cannot make a better film than these guys. I’m pretty sure of that, even though I do very minor film work myself. My goal was not to rain on someone’s parade, as much as it was a call to those independent filmmakers who CAN work on a shoestring and make something technically and cinematically amazing, and to get those scriptwriters who know they are good and have a commitment to Christ, to get scripts out that know the intended audience, who are willing to lose the “made for TV movie” plotlines, and really make something artistically brilliant for Christ. We see musicians, stage drama, and many short-form films being made with amazing quality, care and composition. However, we don’t seem to see these sorts of things transcending into the feature-length cinemascape. I would totally welcome and applaud whoever were to make this film and be so happy for the raised bar which it created.

Overall, I think the trend is great. We’re definitely headed towards better quality. But I think the main issue is the one of audience. If you’re making a film for a Christian audience, then sure, fill it with “christian-ese” and moments that make sense to a believer. But if you’re trying at all to appeal to a non-Christian, then let’s get real. Let’s get gritty (and this doesn’t mean sex and swearing, it just means reality and dealing with tough situations in a real way – perhaps with that person NOT acting based upon their faith first, because honestly, I don’t always pray first in adversity, or think to pray for my falling neighbor… but I know I should and do most of the time. But perhaps those “see, we’re not perfect too” moments are what people who don’t yet know Christ need to see!). So let’s get gritty. Let’s get real. Let’s not be afraid to show the negatives with the positives. (I mean, Christ himself shows that living the life of a follower is TOUGH! Let’s get real about that. Let’s show some tough decisions that may not show fruit in your 2 hour timespan!)

I’m just saying, let’s make film that’s compelling, artistically worthwhile, and then, trust the Lord to work on those hearts through their friends and neighbors. The film WILL NOT CONVERT ANYONE. In fact, the people who bring those people WILL NOT CONVERT ANYONE. Only God can work through the hearts and minds of his creation. So let’s create an impetus towards that personal conversation with God that is real and not whitewashed. That’s my point here.

But, to your point, I definitely agree that the film I describe is indeed on it’s way. I am simply hoping it’s sooner than later.

13 02 2009
Donna

I agree re: the acting (scripting, too) – major distraction for me . . . and yet, I’ve sat with people thru Fireproof who were moved beyond tears (to the point of gasping thru their sobs) because the condition of the main characters so paralleled their own life situation. These folks were Christians. What purpose, then, did this movie serve? They were inspired to go back to the basics, to remember that this life – painful and real and flawed – is touched by God and His Spirit through His people. They were refreshed, inspired and educated (had no idea the temptation of “innocent” soft port, flirtation, etc.). And they were reminded that God DOES change things: situations, perspectives and lives.

I hear you about missing the “gritty” – but I’m thinking more “gut-gritty” – the real clash of our need-to-be-assuaged hearts against everyone else’s in a world that is preoccupied with itself. . . watch “In America” – that kind of dark, everyday reality – how would a film that reaches the “God’s a bunch of bunk” crowd look? Unfortunately, mine and so many others’ steps to God *ARE* formulaic to a degree, because we all end up – when we search for Him with all our hearts, minds and souls and we *abide* in Him – we all end up at the foot of the Cross. To have that end any other way, tends to come out that man, the human spirit, triumphed – when in fact, it was under the purview of a sovereign God. Tricky thing to share that intimate trip to the summit without having the audience jump ahead and then say, “Oh, yeah. The person found God – figures. Christian film. Seen this; don’t wanna hear it.” Watch “In America” (no allusions to biblical faith, just religion and not a lot of it, but a gritty – I think a GOOD – story about love and commitment and perseverence) . . . . how long do we go gently in the faith on film without telling the whole story? (Not intended to be contentious; just an “ain’t it da troot?” question . . . and maybe a challenge to filmmakers who happen to love Christ.) It CAN be done; Jesus told parables all the time – and folks were drawn in . . . and it wasn’t in the name of religion . . . . how do we do that on film?

13 02 2009
Jay

Great thoughts, I really enjoyed reading your comment in response to mine. You did ask one question about the intended audience. I’m pretty sure I’ve read an interview with the folks who made Fireproof where they said that they’d decided from the getgo that their primary audience was believers. (sorry I couldn’t find a link) I think that informs me as I watch the film as well. I think that my experience in Christian ministry (I used to be on staff with Campus Crusade) was that whenever we’d put something on, even if it was mainly for believers, we’d try to throw “the gospel” in somewhere just incase someone who was ready to PRC (pray to receive Christ) was in the audience. I know the heart that this comes from (even if I don’t necessarily think it’s effective.)

I’m with you in hoping that more and more, even better Christian films will be made. We sell a lot of different types of films. Many of them seem to attempt too many things in one movie (challenge, minister to and entertain believers, draw in unbelievers, challenge their worldview and show them how to become a believer, and make a good film PLUS make enough money to continue in their passion as filmmakers) I think the balance will be struck eventually. I believe it’s an exciting industry to be involved in, and as I said, I think the best is yet to come.

Finally I have to agree with you in saying, Thank God he doesn’t leave the heart-changing up to us! You’re right, only he can change a heart!

14 02 2009
otakudad

Jay, first off, I really appreciate you coming back to read my response. Seriously. You didn’t have to, and given your work field, it was a touchy subject, so I appreciate your sticking around to hear my side! 🙂

And yeah, in industry terms, I feel like Christian cinema is in that 1980s stage. Where the tech is STARTING to come together. The shots (angles, settings, etc…) are STARTING to click. But we don’t have that one unified whole yet. Like our Citizen Kane or our whatever. (yes, I know Kane was well before 1980, but that was also sort of a fluke, too) ANYWAY…

My point is that like you said, it’s coming… I just can’t wait to see it come. I think when that film comes it’s going to do amazing things for the kingdom. I am simply impatient and don’t understand how so many great indie films are being made and none of them seem to be the Christian variety, is all.

And while I totally understand the motive of wanting to hit on so many targets with one’s film (making it lucrative enough for future projects, reaching Christians, reaching non-Christians, presenting the Gospel, etc.) that I also feel that one of the most important aspects of art (really, any art) is knowing when to stop. Knowing what needs to be cut.

Look at Star Wars! It was great because he HAD to cut. Now that Lucas has all the money in the world and can actually make the films the way he would have back in the day, if he could? They’re well…not so good. 🙂

As an editor (where my strengths lie) I know that removing GOOD FOOTAGE for the sake of the continuity and strength of the whole is what makes a good film. And it’s HARD to let go of some really good scenes that you REALLY like! But, that’s the kind of decision that makes a production team above average, ya know? So yeah… It’s getting there. Better with each iteration (at least with the Fireproof team) but I’m hoping they take this to heart and notice that it’s not simply about technical mastery (because that IS important, but not as important as cohesive scene structure and dialogue) but also about really focusing in on your goals as a filmmaker.

And who knows? Perhaps now with the success of Fireproof, they can make a couple films. One for the Christian audience, and one as a “missionary” film. That would be wonderful. I’d love to see what they do with that.

17 02 2009
Jay

Brother, I loved reading your thoughts. Great points.

I look forward to films in the future that just show the wonder and beauty of living in the Father’s love, in a way that comes through as natural.

Not much more to contribute to the conversation from my side. this dialogue reminds me of what I loved about blogging (my old site is http://foreignperspective.wordpress.com) It’s good to be back into blogging again!

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