Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Two factors primarily fostered my decision to make so-called “faith-based” films: One, I grew up in the Christian community and was dissatisfied with the nature and quality of Christian films, and two, I grew up a big movie fan and was frustrated by the fact that I never saw stories that reflected my life experience.

I found the latter especially odd because a life filled with the drama and comedy of weekly church attendance, daily prayer, an obsessive “wait until marriage” sexual philosophy, and a deep love of Ronald Reagan is, believe it or not, shared by almost half the country.

But evangelical Christians were rarely portrayed in film, and usually not accurately or affectionately. I suspect a similar perspective is shared by current black, gay, “geek” and other subculture-represented filmmakers who grew up with the same feeling while watching movies.

There has, however, been a shift in the last decade-plus.

Films representing the aforementioned groups have increased in quality and quantity. And that’s a good thing.

But to varying degrees, it hasn’t necessarily been a smooth transition, and faith-based films still have a ways to go.

I was inspired to make my latest film,”The Resurrection of Gavin Stone,” because it seemed many independent faith-based films felt compelled to make a big statement, which often made the movie feel “preachy.”

This isn’t a bad thing, as there are plenty of great preachy films from all kinds of ideologies. But I was jealous of movies like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Barbershop” — films that represented authentic cultural experiences and had something to say but didn’t carry the weight of needing to be “important.” Plus, they were entertaining, even for an evangelical white dude.

And that was the other thing. I was convinced culturally-specific films, even meaningful ones, didn’t have to be exclusive to that culture. I never once felt “Schindler’s List” was “too Jewish” or “Brooklyn” “too Irish,” or “Sister Act” “too Catholic” for me.

If anything, the more specific movies are to their cultures and the settings within them, the less bothersome it feels when the movie does veer into preachy territory. Nuns moralizing to a sinner? A conversion-by-baptism religious ritual? A speech about racism or black politics? I would expect nothing less from movies set in a Catholic church, a Greek Orthodox ceremony and a black-owned barbershop. I, even as an outsider, am not turned off by authenticity; I’m only turned off when messages are shoehorned in where they don’t belong.

So I felt compelled to make a film that authentically reflected my world without sermonizing about it, the same way these other filmmakers did. A film that would feel relatable, and maybe even important, to evangelicals, but entertaining and authentic enough that outsiders could enjoy it.

And that’s how I ended up directing my latest, a movie that is set in an evangelical church and includes a pastor, a Sunday morning worship service, prayer, a Sunday School teacher as the female love interest, and features scenes of a staged production about the life of Jesus.

And here’s the crazy part — it’s not only gotten some tears from test audiences, which is par for the course with faith films — it’s also gotten quite a few big laughs. Christian stories can be funny — who knew?

But how can a story like that be enjoyable to non-churchgoers as well? Well, the main character has never been to church either, so the comedy and pathos come from his fish-out-of-water journey into this world.

I’m not so arrogant that I can predict how it will do or claim that my own movie will open new doors. As William Goldman famously said about the film business, “Nobody knows anything.” But I’m at least pleased I made a film I would have appreciated when I first loved movies. And hey, if “Barbershop” can exist in the same world as “Do the Right Thing,”surely my film can exist in the same world as “The Passion of the Christ.”

Dallas Jenkins is currently director of Vertical Church Films at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, following his tenure at Jenkins Entertainment, the production company he started with his father in 2000. He has produced or directed 10 award-winning feature and short films with companies such as Warner Brothers, Lionsgate, Pure Flix Entertainment, WWE Studios, Blumhouse Productions, Walden Media, and Hallmark Channel.

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