|Napoleon Dynamite. Super Size Me. Every year, films like these debut at Sundance, the nation's premier independent film festival, then go on to leave their mark on the broader culture. The prestige of opening at Sundance can be a make-or-break proposition for hungry independent filmmakers, resulting in fierce competition for the event's relatively few screenings. |
This year (2005), thousands of films jockeyed for 120 openings. The chosen few vied for the attention of 45,000 industry insiders, movie stars and film buffs all looking for the next breakout hit. Among the hopeful throng was a group of theology students and aspiring Christian filmmakers from three schools. This gathering, called the Windrider Forum, was the first of its kind in the festival's 24-year history. My wife and I were among that group of 60 or so students. Together we watched 10 features, 20 shorts and spent 15 hours of class time talking about the intersection of film and faith.
Much of what we saw caught me by surprise. I expected to have my faith assailed. Instead, many films resonated with my convictions. Stranger, a Polish entry, tells the story of an expectant mother named Eva. She is intent on getting an abortion, but her life is altered when she overhears a doctor telling another pregnant woman that a fetus can hear its mother's words. Eva spends the rest of the movie telling her unborn child her life story. "It takes courage to love life," she says.
Despite language that earned it an R rating, Rory O'Shea Was Here chronicles the touching, unlikely friendship of two severely disabled young men in wheelchairs. Two other painful yet insightful films explored the devastating consequences of divorce. Several documentaries dealt directly with people of faith. And those were all secular movies.
Furthermore, God's fingerprints were all over the lives of Christian students interested in entering the filmmaking arena. Throughout the week I sensed that many of them were developing connections with one another that will nourish their dreams of influencing our culture through cinema.
My spirits sagged, however, when I read mainstream articles reporting on the festival. One piece, "Sex Selling at Sundance," identified films that were pushing the bounds of erotica. Another article spotlighted titles depicting children who act out violently and sexually. Sadness welled up in me as I read. The redemptive movies deserving attention weren't receiving it. Instead, sensationalism and sexuality garnered the most publicity.
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. After all, my job involves going to a lot of movies. I know that sex, violence and crude humor sell. Sundance merely reflects that reality. But this year it reflected something more. And I'm glad I was there to see it. Sure, the best films—those that might inspire an audience instead of pandering to their vulgar appetites—may not get the most attention, but I'm happy to report that they're out there.
The films I saw and the Christian filmmakers I met impressed me. There's a new generation of artists eager to craft stories of imagination, grace and passion. If only those projects didn't face such an uphill battle for wide release and recognition.
The next time you hear about a movie that trashes beliefs we cherish, remember that God is at work. Then pray for those Spirit-inspired filmmakers who toil against long odds to bring their stories of hope and redemption to a theater near you. Pray that they would have the courage to see those projects through, that God would provide the funding they need, and that they would hold fast to the conviction that movies can impact the human heart for good as well as ill.
I'm convinced God is operating in the moviemaking world in ways that would surprise us if we could see them. And I believe Christian artists are uniquely positioned to communicate His beauty and truth to a world enshrouded in spiritual darkness.
Published February 2005
In 2010, I spoke with Christian author and college professor Craig Detweiller, a filmmaker in his own right (Purple State of Mind) who founded the Windrider Forum. Here's how he describes Windrider: "It's really an opportunity to bring Christian community to the Sundance Film Festival. I actually have students who get class credit for going to see 12 to 15 films during the week. Young seminary students who are looking at ministry and trying to figure out how to relate to their contemporary culture, they come. And then also young filmmakers come to interact with the smartest, sharpest independent filmmakers on the planet. These are world premieres, so we're amongst the first people to frame the discussion. They're often messy, complex films, but it's great because many of them are dealing with life's biggest issues of death and dying and disappointment, of hope and dreams and the questions of salvation and God's existence. You know, How do I carry on in a world that often seems crazy and mad? In some cases these films can be very offensive and borderline blasphemous. In other cases they can be utterly surprising and redemptive. It's that juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane that I think really drives the conversation."