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Lights, Camera, Controversy: The Risky Business of Christian Filmmaking

Following God's call in the entertainment business involves facing a variety of challenges for Canadian Christians.

Fade in on a drab, sterile room. A group therapy session is in progress. One by one, participants talk about what has been bothering them lately. One thin, twenty-something guy whose last name is Parker is tired of having to cover for his brother Peter's sudden, unexplained absences. Another guy, last name Allen, drones on about how fed up he is with being compared to his brother Barry. Turns out Barry is fast, and this guy is, well, slow. Painfully slow. Around the circle it goes: Parker, Allen, Banner, Prince, Storm, Stark, Kent, Wayne. But wait—why do these names sound so familiar? Is that your "Spidey sense" tingling?

Lights, Camera, Controversy
A scene from The Girl Who Married a Ghost.

It should be. After all, the title of this short film—Super-Anon—should have been a dead giveaway. Anyone who has ever read comic books will eventually catch on to the gag. This film is about a support group for siblings of superheroes such as Spiderman, the Flash, the Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman—and boy do they have baggage.

Super-Anon was screened at the September meeting of Reel Light, a network of Christians who work in Vancouver's entertainment and media industry. Formed five years ago to encourage professional excellence and provide spiritual support to those in the industry, Reel Light now claims all sorts of actors, writers, filmmakers, crew professionals and, predictably, a few dabblers and wannabes among its membership.

The night of the Super-Anon screening was an exciting one for members of the network. The ten-minute film, created by "Reel Lighter" Steve Plitt and his team, had just won first prize in the 48 Hour Reel Fast Film Festival. With nothing but a sound byte, a photograph, a location idea, a "surprise," and sleep deprivation to guide them, filmmaking teams must write, produce and edit their ten-minute films within 48 hours. Plitt's film, which was largely unscripted, is hilarious, sending up all sorts of superhero and pop psychology conventions.

After the screening, Plitt and his team are duly praised. Beyond winning the contest, there is also a bigger victory here: mainstream acceptance of a Christian film—or at least a film made by Christians. For people who often feel marginalized by the mainstream movie industry, this sort of recognition means a lot.

Then again, it's not clear if the competition judges even realized that a team of Christians was behind the project. After all, the film is about superheroes, not Jesus. Sure, it contains some subtle Christian elements. For example, the major turning point is the redemption of Spiderman's brother, and the group does resolve to form a "B-team" of heroes that goes around urging people to "stop doing stupid things." But frankly the point of this film is to make people laugh, not win them into the kingdom.

That's a potentially controversial goal for Evangelicals—those who put so much value on sharing the life-saving Gospel message. Is crafting "mere" entertainment a worthy calling? Shouldn't a Christian filmmaker focus exclusively on producing material with a clear Gospel message? Many Christians in the industry return to these questions again and again. Others have made their peace with them.

The language of unchurched people

"That is a terrifying thought to a lot of Christians, that we are called to entertain," says independent producer Karen Pascal in Toronto. "But that is the first function of film, to entertain. If you really want to reach beyond the already converted, then you have to speak in a language that engages them, captures their imagination, and shows them a deep image of God."

Lights, Camera, Controversy
A scene from Debating Christ.

Pascal, formerly a producer at 100 Huntley Street, Canada's most watched Christian TV program, now runs her own company, Windborne Productions. She is currently producing a docudrama for Hallmark based on the life of C. S. Lewis. She holds up Lewis as a model Christian artist, someone who could tell a story that revealed the kingdom but could still be appreciated by people who did not share his faith.

With so much of our society moving toward image-based, narrative communication, Pascal says the Church will be left behind if we continue to rely merely on the plain, unadorned spoken and written word. To illustrate her point: 90 percent of the screen time for her non-fiction project on Lewis will consist of dramatization.

"True storytelling is the most important thing to know," Pascal emphasizes. "Jesus told stories; we preach. We don't engage the culture because we have failed to understand them."

Peter Lalonde, co-CEO of Cloud Ten Pictures in St. Catharines, Ont., seems to understand the larger culture perfectly well. "This is the entertainment business. If you're trying to create a thinly disguised sermon, it won't draw a viable audience. You need a great story, and then you let your Christian point of view determine the message of the story."

Making preachy films is, ironically, exactly what Lalonde has been accused of. Yes, some big names have praised his work: Ted Baehr's MovieGuide called Left Behind "a compelling movie that captures the essence of [the bestselling novel] and presents the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a powerful, entertaining, winsome way." But Lalonde's films have also been accused of "sermonizing punctuated by lame plot contrivances," to quote Peter Chattaway, a Christian film reviewer in Vancouver.

To be fair, Lalonde is the first to admit that much of faith-based filmmaking has been too "on the nose." He likens the present state of Christian filmmaking to hacking a path through the jungle. Due to a lack of sophistication and experience, Christian filmmakers haven't taken full advantage of the medium yet. But he thinks the situation is improving with each film made.

"In the early days, I think we preached to the choir a little bit. In today's world we want to be true to the centre of the Christian faith but expand that audience to people on the periphery of faith. The next great stride is to make films for the general audience as well."

"Those of us making [faith-based films for the mainstream] had to start small and build from there. Would I like to have started with a $100 million, Oscar-nominated Christian film—of course. But that is like asking a pastor why he did not just build a 100,000 seat church to start. [Cloud Ten's] goal from the beginning has been to make the best films that our budgets and heart-felt efforts and talents allow, and to demonstrate that Christian films are commercially viable."

Lalonde's company has certainly demonstrated viability, selling a reported eight million films, winning a VSDA (the equivalent of an "Oscar" in the video/DVD world) for best-selling video of the year by an independent studio (for Left Behind), and just recently landing a distribution deal with Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment. The distribution deal puts Cloud Ten in the big leagues, a rare achievement for a faith-oriented film company.

Left Behind was the film that really launched Cloud Ten outside the Christian ghetto, Lalonde says. "Now we have paved the way for many others who will follow. Of course, as our success and stature grows we can leverage that to do more nuanced and creative pieces." Besides end-times films, Lalonde points out, Cloud Ten has already done well with Waterproof, a redemption story with race-related themes, and Miracle of the Cards. Whether cinephiles like Chattaway or larger mainstream audiences will be convinced by future Cloud Ten offerings remains to be seen.

Investors shy away

Cloud Ten's success is definitely an anomaly among Christian production companies, Canadian or otherwise. But Christian filmmakers who want to jump directly into the mainstream with their Evangelical values intact find themselves swimming against a formidable current, especially when it comes to raising money. According to up-and-coming Vancouver filmmaker Murray Stiller, one of the main challenges facing Christian filmmakers today is that most people in the mainstream industry assume Christians are going to preach, so they won't fund their films. Meanwhile, most Christian investors will not finance a film unless it does preach.

Lights, Camera, Controversy
A scene from Left Behind.

This puts Christian filmmakers in a difficult position if they are trying to make movies that are faith-based but are also designed to appeal to a general audience. For Stiller, however, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. "People get hung up on the money when a creative solution might actually make the project better," he says.

For instance, Stiller self-financed his upcoming release Debating Christ, a comedy about a delusional character named Jesus who wants to save the world but can't find anyone who wants his help.

Karen Pascal concurs that raising money is by far the most difficult aspect of filmmaking. She is praying that God will raise up visionary investors who realize that even though a project is not the Jesus film, it is still "kingdom stuff." Like Lalonde, she sees a place for all sorts of Christian films—those that appeal to a Christian audience, those that are clearly evangelistic in nature, and those that are pre-evangelistic, containing only a nugget of truth or very subtle Christian overtones that are hoped to create a hunger for more. This third category is definitely where Karen Pascal's heart is.

"I am very intrigued by the concept of 'seed planting,' " she says. "A film doesn't have to say it all, and it doesn't have to say it all at once and bring someone to a decision for it to be considered a Christian film."

Exorcisms on film

October rolls around, time for another Reel Light meeting. This month, the guest speaker is Francis Testa, an independent producer who is in the midst of pitching his new reality TV series Spiritual Warriors: Possessed to Mel Gibson's Icon Entertainment.

Testa, who spent more than six years training to become a Catholic priest before deciding to become a filmmaker, calls the series a "13-part course in demonology." Each week will feature a real, live exorcism in addition to some teaching about how the demonic world works and how it can be overcome. Testa hopes this show is going to help turn people toward God by making them aware of the demonic world and how to defeat it.

He has brought along a "trailer" or preview. It features a graphic dramatization of an exorcism, professional ghost hunters, lots of lightning and scary music, and even some video evidence of a ghost. The trailer is spectacular and chilling. If the series gets made, it will definitely be a hit. It has everything faith-based producers look for: strong commercial appeal and obvious spiritual "guts." Yet, when the lights come up, the Reel Light crowd is buzzing with questions.

Many of them focus on what Testa is doing to protect himself and his camera crew as they film the exorcisms or enter other spiritually hazardous zones. Others ask how he manages to find such bizarre individuals and cases to film.

This discussion begs the question: At what point does the desire for mainstream acceptance begin to eclipse the spiritual integrity of a project? Is it really appropriate to film someone who is demonically possessed and then package it as entertainment (albeit with a ministry motive)? Doesn't this veer dangerously close to glorifying Satan or at least creating a fascination with him and his power?

At the Reel Light screening of Testa's trailer, it was obvious people wanted to be encouraging. Testa was meeting with Mel Gibson the following day. But the encouragement was clearly qualified.

"It's a Faustian sort of thing," says Reel Light director Deb Sears in a subsequent interview. "This could be your ticket [to the big time], but is it honourable?" She pauses. "Then again, would you want a non-Christian doing it instead? This definitely has us percolating."

Seeking success, keeping the faith

In many respects, the tensions faced by filmmakers are similar to those faced by other Christian creative types, such as authors and pop musicians. Decades ago many pioneers in those parallel industries devoted themselves to building independent Christian publishing houses, music studios, distributors and retail chains—only to see the majority of them bought up by large media conglomerates. Whether ghettoization—a business model of Christians entertaining Christians—will become a major force in the film industry remains to be seen.

"Everyone needs to rub shoulders with a Christian in every walk of life … "

But the filmmakers quoted in this article have little interest in creating or operating in such a "closed industry" model, as Karen Pascal calls it. They want to blaze a new trail between the dual pitfalls of compromising core Christian values to become acceptable to the mainstream on one hand, and forever speaking to the choir on the other.

They are convinced of the need for Christians to work out their calling within the entertainment industry even as they worry that their Christian brothers and sisters may not initially understand or respect this calling.

"Everyone needs to rub shoulders with a Christian in every walk of life," says Jackie Bagley, who is currently serving as assistant art director on Stephen Spielberg's Into the West mini-series just outside of Calgary. "If we're not in among our world, how will they ever see Christ?"

Jim Van Dijk of Vancouver, one of Canada's top camera operators, echoes this view. "Hollywood didn't leave Christianity; Christians left Hollywood. Why are we refusing to fight our way into the most influential industry in the world? Why are we sending Christians to the Muslims but not to the film industry?"

For Bagley, Van Dijk and others, the call to be "salt and light" in the film industry is as strong as any missionary's, even when working on films like Fantastic Four, Catwoman, and Scooby Doo 2.

Even a bit of "salt" can make a difference, according to producer and screenwriter Rob Kirbyson of Vancouver. He recalls an experience on the set of Turbulence II a few years back. The final sequence of the film involved a fight between the hero and the villain in the back of an ambulance. The script called for the ambulance driver to be shot in the head, causing an accident. In a production meeting just prior to filming, Kirbyson asked how the filmmakers could say the movie had a happy ending when one page earlier the ambulance driver had been killed.

"It's okay," the director replied, "he's not a major character."

"That's exactly the problem," Kirbyson responded. "Hollywood films teach us to care only about the hero. Everyone else is disposable."

After thinking about Kirbyson's comments for a moment, the director turned to his production team. "Could we just shoot him in the shoulder then?" Everyone seemed to like that idea, so the scene was re-written. A short while later Kirbyson ran into the actor who played the ambulance driver. He pulled him aside and whispered, "I just saved your life, buddy."

Apart from influencing content, Christians also have an impact through the relationships they form with their non-Christian co-workers. When Jim Van Dijk started working with his camera crew several years ago, he was the only believer among them. Now three of them have become Christians.

"The great thing is that they get to see you every day. They get to see the real stuff," Van Dijk says. "I don't know who knows I'm a Christian, but I do know how I want to treat people on set. There are guys in my position who are mean and vulgar. I want to be in contrast with that. I want people to think, 'Hey, he's a good guy.' That's very challenging though when you have a director or an actor who is being difficult, you're wearing 70 pounds of camera equipment, you're in mud up to your ankles, and you're doing take 14."

At times like that, Van Dijk has to remind himself that God is the one who called him to this position. "I'd hate to do what I do without knowing the bigger picture," he says.

In both Kirbyson's and Van Dijk's examples, we are not talking about revolutionary change. But without people like them on set, even this sort of incremental change won't happen. As Kirbyson says, "People with a Christian world view simply don't exist in Hollywood."

So although questions about what sorts of films Christians should and shouldn't be involved in are stimulating; in a sense, they miss the point. Maybe a person who feels called to the entertainment industry just needs to get out there and do something and ask God to steer him or her in the right direction.

Murray Stiller seems to think so. "Christians need to be thoughtful about what they're watching and what they're making. It doesn't mean that everything has to be The Passion. You just need to trust your own faith commitment, that you are doing something God wants you to do."

Pascal raises the stakes even higher: "I think we make a mistake not calling people into this industry if we truly understand the times we live in, how media are constantly impacting the world in which we live. If we don't become skilled communicators, skilled users of it, who will?"

Kevin Miller is a freelance writer in Abbotsford, B.C.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2005.




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