Let me begin this discussion about how faith and film relate to each other by making an observation. People always act based upon what they truly believe, not what they say they believe.
For instance, when Y2K was approaching and some were declaring the end of the world, it might have led to some extreme behavior. If one believed that the world was ending and that the Lord was returning to rapture the faithful, there would be no reason not to climb to the top of the Empire State Building and jump because the Bible says that when the Lord returns, we will be changed in the twinkling of an eye and caught up together with the Lord in the air.
However, the core belief in gravity might prove stronger than the belief that the world was ending and that this was the exact moment in history to put to the test that caught-up-with-the-Lord-in-the-air belief.
When I consider the core belief of my faith in God, I bring certain experiences to it. After all, much of the Bible is made up of the recorded accounts of people’s experiences of God. For full disclosure, I am a Jewish man, attended Hebrew school as a boy, had my bar mitzvah and came to know Jesus as the Son of God through personal experience in 1975. I believe He is the Messiah. As a living, breathing person, I must ask myself some core questions: Do I believe in God as creator and sustainer of life, or is all of this an accident? If I believe in God, is He personal, knowable or some impersonal energy? If I believe in him and believe he is personal, then what does he expect from me?
I bring questions to how I integrate my personal faith and view of the universe into story expressed through film. It is also my conviction that story and film both influence and reflect the human experience and global culture. What is important is what is true, authentic and ultimately common in our human experience. This has been the basis for story for thousands of years. Every story is about something, whether dramatic, comedic or some other genre. It is always about something, and it resonates when we see ourselves in it.
In the United States, faith has become a market, a business, and many are making movies to appeal to that market. But it must be said that the defined market is primarily a Southern, evangelical community that is vocal about media, politics and a range of other things. That is fine, but, by definition, that market excludes many more people than it includes and so the market is limited. It is driven by a doctrinal position that differs from many other sincere, believing people, whether of other mainline denominations or Catholic, let alone everyone else.
I have studied the Bible for decades; it is a wonderful, poetic and honest book. When I die and come face to face with God, I am pretty sure I will not get a test of my doctrine. And if I do, I will probably fail. The Bible is full of stories that are honest to the experiences of the people who lived it. They are challenging and difficult, not tied up in nice, tidy bows and, for that reason, it is the best-selling book of all time, requiring us to wrestle deeply with the human experience. That is the stuff of story.
Life can be messy; life is full of mystery and, if I am honest, leaves me with many more questions than answers. In that is the stuff of conflict, which is drama, which is story.
My fear is that what has now been defined as the “Christian market” may confuse a couple of important points.
The first is that all our energy should be about evangelism and so film must be a tool for conversion. That leads to beginning the story with an agenda imposed upon it. I wrote earlier about the importance of stirring up questions that cause us, as humans, to wrestle with core beliefs. Often, “Christian” films are answering questions nobody is asking.
The second is that the culture war, if there is such a thing, is about morality and so it is easy to confuse wholesome with biblical. The Bible is “R” rated. To me, faith-related in film is not at its core about wholesomeness. Not every film is for all ages. Stories must ring true. An actor will know if a scene does not feel truthful, and an audience will know as well. We should hold ourselves to standards of good taste, not be gratuitous or exploitive, but commit to the truth of our common experience, where we all huddle in a dark room and wrestle with life and what it means to be human. It seems to me that our morality reflects our values as a community of people at a particular time and that our values emanate from our core beliefs. Film helps us face and confront our core beliefs.
I recently produced a film called “Captive” with two wonderful actors, David Oyelowo and Kate Mara. It was based upon a true story that took place in Atlanta in 2005, when Brian Nichols broke out of jail during his trial for a rape he claimed he did not do, killed four people and took Ashley Smith hostage in her apartment for seven hours. During that time, each was confronted with life and death, purpose and forgiveness. It was not squeaky-clean. It was authentic and rough but, in the end, quite powerful. It rang true to the struggle of a single mother fighting drug addiction and a killer who felt like life had victimized him. In that mutual brokenness, they found a connection, Ashley found redemption and Brian decided to live.
My challenge and hope is that we all see movies and TV, laugh together, feel together, hope together and wrestle with the questions of our common human experience.
• Terry Botwick, CEO of 1019 Entertainment, is a producer and former television executive, and has held leadership positions at CBS, Vanguard Films & Animation, Big Idea Productions (“VeggieTales”), Hearst Corp. and The Family Channel. Most recently, Mr. Botwick produced “Captive,” starring Kate Mara and David Oyelowo, which was acquired by Paramount Pictures.
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