AFI DOCS Review: Three Fantastic Documentaries to Watch

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending D.C.’s AFI DOCS. For many, the annual, international documentary film festival is the closest thing you can get to a Hollywood red carpet experience on the east coast. With more filmmakers at the 5-day event than the city likely receives in an entire year, the film festival is the rare time when a city other than L.A. or N.Y.C gets the honor of premiering a number of films sure to be seen at next year’s Oscars, and it’s not hard to understand the choice of location.

Because documentaries are so often political in nature, utilizing the genre to inform or make a statement about one hot issue or another, hosting the event in the nation’s capital compliments the atmosphere of change and reformation, as such documentaries aim to achieve. What results is an experience closer to a TED conference than Sundance, but nonetheless one that brings to D.C. a more tangible Hollywood feel than anything else.

So knowing that the selection of films would largely play to location, I wanted to view as balanced a selection as possible. And while I wish I could say I was able to see more films than I did, due to the unfortunate truth that a lot of screenings were happening simultaneously at various locations (and I was not blessed with the ability to be in two places at once), what follows are the three films I was able to screen: An Honest LiarPoint and Shoot, and The Internet’s Own Boy.

#1 An Honest Liar

An Honest Liar, the story of James “The Amazing” Randi, who has been mastering the art of illusion and sleight of hand for more than half a century, begins with Randi’s own personal mantra: that he’s a magician who tells you he’s going to fool you, and then he does.

Starting off his career as a stage magician whose speciality included escaping from seemingly impossible situations (a la Harry Houdini), he soon took to humanitarian causes, using his expertise in deception to expose charlatans who claimed to perform “real” magic, and it’s the latter profession that occupies most of the film time.

As the documentary progresses, several major investigations are chronicled: Randi’s debunking of Uri Geller, James Hydrick, and Peter Popoff. The first two were magicians claiming to possess psychic powers such as bending forks, moving book pages and pencils without touching them, and being thousands of years old. The third one, however, took matters into Christianity and was by far the most depressing to witness.

Peter Popoff was a televangelist and self-proclaimed prophet whose “healing” services brought in an audience of thousands. He would call audience members by name to come up to the stage to be healed, and after thrusting them to the ground , would tell them to go ahead and throw their medicine on stage as they wouldn’t need it any longer. Naturally, it didn’t take long for Randi to take notice and investigate the claims of supernatural healing for himself.

With the help of a surveillance specialist, Randi intercepted a radio signal which revealed the “voice of God” to be none other than Popoff’s wife, who was relaying information about persons in the audience, their illnesses, and their street addresses as to Popoff as he “healed” the sick.

While the documentary was largely an inspiring and entertaining account of Randi’s life, the emphasis on the egregious Popoff case was extremely disheartening to watch and did no favors for an already increasingly negative view of Christianity in America.On the bright side, however, the topic did promote a faith-related question, and so after the showing when Randi and his partner Deyvi Peña took to the front, I was able to ask Randi a question of my own, though the answer I received was somewhat less than satisfying:

As someone of faith, it was very sad to witness the corruption of church leaders like Peter Popoff, so I was wondering, since you worked with other aspiring magicians — the other magicians in the Stanford experiment — did you ever, in a similar way, work with any church leaders to help debunk some of the ones like Popoff?

The church leaders were…they wanted to stay away from that…they just backed out of it. I thought that was very improper of them. I made some tentative offers towards them, but they know very well that I am an Atheist, and I’ve declared myself to be an Atheist, and I think for very good reasons. It’s not just because it’s something I choose. I think I have good reasons to be an Atheist. I’m not going to get into that now because that’s not the subject, but uh no, we did not get any help from any of the religious figures at all, though we should have, I believe.

#2 Point and Shoot

Point and Shoot is a documentary film about the unique story of Matthew VanDyke, an American who sets out to find his sense of manhood and finds himself in the middle of the 2011 Libyan Revolution. The film is told almost entirely through the eyes of VanDyke as he uses a GoPro to chronicle his adventure, which starts as just a motorcycling trip all over northern Africa and the middle east, until it eventually brings him straight into a war-zone.

During his travels abroad between 2007-2010, he forms lifelong friendships, some of which live in Libya. Fast forward to 2011 when the Libyan Revolution takes place, and VanDyke returns to Libya voluntarily to aid his friends. Shortly after the fighting begins, VanDyke is thrown in a Libyan prison where he remains for nearly 6 months until the prison is sieged and he is freed. In an extraordinary move that many would call foolish and insane, VanDyke decides to continue to stay in Libya to fight, rather than return safely to America. The majority of the film documents the events that take place after the imprisonment.

In between VanDyke’s own footage of his travels, director Marshall Curry interviews VanDyke and his loved ones who bring their own striking and personal accounts of the experience. It’s a powerful and thoughtful film that captures the feeling of isolation in a foreign country, as well as the tragedy and horrors of war to the degree of 2010′s Restrepo. Even more, the documentary is as intense and sobering as it is heartfelt and comical, and simply put, any documentary, whether involving war or not, should take notes from Point and Shoot.

#3 The Internet’s Own Boy

The Internet’s Own Boy is the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, an American computer programming prodigy who was hunted and demonized by the government for his unwavering stance that knowledge should be a right rather than a privilege.

The documentary begins with his early life and extraordinary achievements at a young age, some of which involved aiding in the development of web feed RSS at age 14, and co-founding Reddit at 17. As he grew older and possessed an astonishing number of successful internet ventures under his belt, he began a career in internet “hacktivism,” in which he sought political change regarding the fair use of information.

It was during this period that Swartz used MIT’s network to upload thousands of documents to the web, which he considered the public’s right to access. Unfortunately for Swartz, the government disagreed and charged Swartz with 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, giving Swartz 35 years in a jail and $1 millions in fines. The extreme disproportionality of the charges in regards to the crime came on the coattails of wikileaks and individuals like Snowden. Truly, the film makes it clear that Swartz’s extreme punishment was the product of the government wishing to make an example out of Swartz to deter others from following in his footsteps, and paired with the response from Swartz’ friends and family, the film made a compelling case for the injustice of it.

Unable to cope with the extreme charges, Aaron Swartz ended his life on January 11th, 2013. Yet, judging by how fired up I became on an issue that I had previously not given much thought, I’m betting this powerful documentary will create the change Swartz fought to the end for. But even if you disagree with the stance that is fervently supported, watching the film is still a captivating and emotional experience, and in my opinion, was the best film out of the three.

Deliver Us From Evil – A Refreshingly Thoughtful Crime-Horror Film that Explores the Implications of Evil

WARNING: REVIEW CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS…

I’ve always found the spiritual horror genre compelling for the question it forces its viewers to engage: Does the supernatural being shown really exist?

For many, the answer is a scoff and resounding “no,” but when the subject matter (in this case demonic possession) falls under several religions that together total more than 3 billion followers, the question of the film’s fictional or nonfictional qualities becomes up for debate in a way that no other genre can be.

And that is partly why so many flock to see these movies. Although many audience members are just there for the cheap scares, there’s something alluring about the possibility of supernatural forces engaging with people, and that maybe, just maybe, there is some truth to the “Based on the true case files of such-and-such” these films claim to hold.

Of course, what follows is filmmakers overusing the “Based on true events” trope to attract audiences, all while increasing the extent and intensity of the film’s supernatural elements, and what results is the audience suddenly finding the film too fantastical to be anything but fictional.

But while Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil doesn’t convince the existence of evil any more than other horror films, it at least understands what that would mean.

Based on the real life events of New York street cop Ralph Sarchie (Played by Eric Bana), Deliver Us From Evil follows Sarchie as he uncovers a series of related, paranormal cases with the help of Mendoza, a rough-around-the edges Jesuit priest (played by Edgar Ramirez).

Skeptical, to say the least, that these strange occurrences are at all paranormal or spiritual, Sarchie is hesitant to gain the help of Mendoza, who insists these related cases involve demonic possession. He slowly begins to accept this help, however, as he is targeted more and more by the three possessed persons, whom, as Mendoza explains it, have targeted him because he holds the “gift of discernment,” allowing him to sense them, and is therefore a threat.

While this “threat” isn’t really delved into, nor is there an explanation for why the possessed persons in question were chosen as hosts or what their goals are, the strength of the film lies in the relationship between Sarchie and Mendoza, which provides a pleasantly uncommon level of character development in a genre not known for having the roundest of characters.

As most horror films focus as intensely as possible to provide jump scare after jump scare (and Deliver Us From Evil has its fair share of the famous horror cliché to its detriment), Deliver Us From Evil instead finds its strength in the underlying implications of this evil existing. Sarchie, who has resisted the existence of both God and the supernatural since he fell away from the Catholic faith at 12, must reflect and grapple with both what he’s witnessed, and what it means for him in a larger context.

Also, although filled with too many moments of the cliché “protagonist explores dark corridor only to have the inevitable jump scare,” which quickly became both predictable and boring, I found myself enjoying that the context was of an investigative cop addressing reports of strange activity. Watching Sarchie be forced to enter these situations for his job provided a deeper sense of unrest because the reality is that real cops have to enter similarly unsettling environments and sometimes see almost equally disturbing images. And while the existence of the supernatural will likely always be up for debate, the fact remains that the world can be a very dark place and sometimes we’re forced to enter it.

Unlike most horror films where the characters, after discovering the existence of evil and triumphing over it, are simply relieved that they can move on with their lives, Deliver Us From Evil recognizes that the existence of supernatural evil then requires the existence of a supernatural good. Upon finally acknowledging that these individuals were indeed possessed by a demon, Sarchie returns to his Catholic faith and the film ends with the baptism of his new baby girl.

The true success of Deliver Us From Evil is that it goes beyond the horror to address the existential implications of a supernatural evil. While not always succeeding in the scares that many viewers will crave, its willingness to go behind the scenes makes this film stand out among its contemporaries.

They Are Making a Documentary About Christian Worship Band Hillsong and We Have Details

A feature-length documentary chronicling the history and lives of one of the biggest bands in the world, Hillsong United, will be released by Alcon Entertainment and Warner Brothers on April 3, 2015. Named Hillsong – Let Hope Rise, the movie will feature concert footage and backstage glimpses of a band known around the world for their Christian worship songs.

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[Read more...]

‘Deliver Us From Evil’ Director Scott Derrickson on Demons: We Don’t Know

Scott Derrickson, photo via IMDB

Scott Derrickson is a believer.

The director of the new exorcism movie Deliver Us From Evil is convinced there’s something to the story of demon possession it portrays.

“What I do know,” he told Patheos when we talked by phone last week, “Is that I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t seen a ghost or know somebody credible who has seen a ghost or has a spirit story of some kind.”

This type of supernatural experience, as common as it may be claimed, is discounted by secular materialists and Christian culture alike. One side finds them laughably unlikely, even impossible. The other, distasteful, confusing, and potentially embarrassing, better to be left in the shadows.

But Derrickson uses his horror films to bring them out of the shadows and challenge each group.

“Chesterton said there’s a misconception that people who believe in miracles or the supernatural do so because there’s a religious disposition to believe. Not true. The opposite is true. People who unilaterally dismiss all of these millions of ghost stories, they dismiss them based on dogma.”

“The two monoliths on the American mind are religion and science… both of those giant behemoths are telling us that the same lie. ‘We have it all figured out. We know what the universe is like, we have a theory that is probably correct.’ They have the same need to broadcast this idea that the world is not so mysterious. I just don’t buy it from either perspective. It’s important to be intellectually honest enough to admit what we don’t know outweighs what we do know.”

Then, he says, the world becomes a much more magical place.

Like Derrickson’s 2005 hit, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil is based on the a story recounted by a person who unexpectedly encountered exorcism. It stars Eric Bana as Ralph Sarchie, a New York police officer who has seen it all, or so he thinks. But when he encounters a new kind of evil, he has to bring in help in the form of a priest. It opens Wednesday, July 2.

A baffled Sarchie (ERIC BANA) studies the bizarre words and symbols and hears strange sounds from behind the wall in Screen Gems’ DELIVER US FROM EVIL.

Derrickson has spent a good deal of time thinking through the ramifications of evil and good. He freely quotes the likes of G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor. His philosophical thinking comes, he says, from his emergence from fundamentalist thinking.

“It comes from my high school roots in Christian fundamentalism. You can’t spend your formative years in an environment like that and not break out of that violently.  Once I got into my college years, my expansion was a violent one, and it sent my mind shooting out powerfully into the world of ideas. I want to know the truth, to think seriously about good and evil. I don’t want to live a lie.”

Derrickson earned his undergraduate degree at California Christian college Bioloa University, where he studied humanities and theology as well as communications. He went on to earn a M.A. in film production from the University of Southern California. His most successful films have been horror, although he did direct the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. He will get his second shot at a mainstream non-horror film. Marvel announced last week that they are tapping Derrickson to direct a Dr. Strange, a dark and quirky comic book character.

As is common in the more interesting film directors, Derrickson blends artistic skill with a quest to explore life’s questions. He doesn’t believe he has all the answers.

“I’m not afraid of the truth wherever it leads me. Not everybody is like that. Ideas matter so much. Everybody lives their philosophy, so we should pay attention to it.”

Christian Film Briefly Nominated for an Oscar, ‘Alone Yet Not Alone’ To Make Theater Run

Audiences will soon see for themselves the film at the center of all the fuss during Oscar season. Alone Yet Not Alone, the movie that was nominated, and quickly denominated, for a Best Song Oscar, comes to theaters on Friday, June 13.

George Escobar, c0-director of Alone Yet Not Alone, says his head is still spinning from the very public controversy. [Read more...]

Ann B. Davis aka Alice from ‘The Brady Bunch’ Left Hollywood for Faith: ‘I was Born Again’

Ann B. Davis, who played the beloved housekeeper Alice in The Brady Bunch, died over the weekend.

New information is coming out about her faith and her life. The Associated Press reports:

For many years after “The Brady Bunch” wound up, Davis led a quiet religious life, affiliating herself with a group led by [Episcopal Bishop William] Frey.

“I was born again,” she told the AP in 1993. “It happens to Episcopalians. Sometimes it doesn’t hit you till you’re 47 years old. [Read more...]

Four Awesome Campy 1970s Christian Movies That Hollywood Should Totally Remake (Like Left Behind)

Maybe you’ve seen the trailer for Left Behind starring Nicolas Cage. It got me thinking, the current day doesn’t own the rights to all Christian campy movies. Here are four movies from the 1970s that Hollywood should remake. Why? Because they’re awesome possum! And I still have nightmares from a few of them. That’s got to count for something.

A Thief in the Night

Before Left Behind, there was A Thief in the Night. A whole generation of children was scared into the church by this horror/suspense movie about a girl who missed the rapture. Here’s the entire movie, in case you’ve got an afternoon to kill.

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By the way, there used to be these things called cords that connected phones to walls. And when you left a phone handle off the hook, which means you physically did not hang it up and break the connection,  it would beep to let you know. You need to know that going in.

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Brother Sun Sister Moon

You will learn everything you needed to know about hippies from this 1972 biopic of Francis of Assisi.

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This movie is very timely due to the popularity of Pope Francis. But you need someone who can sing and who can look longingly into a camera.

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The Cross and the Switchblade

The true story of David Wilkerson and his mission to help the thugs, gangs, down and out, and street people of 1960s New York City.

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It’s a tough story in a tough city. There can only be one…..

The Hiding Place

Another true story of Corrie Ten Boom and her family, ordinary boring Dutch Christians who sheltered Jews from the Nazis. The story isn’t really campy. It’s remarkable. It doesn’t end when the Ten Booms are arrested and sent to concentration camps. It’s just getting started.

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Ok. The trailer is a little campy. But the story is so inspiring, it’s beyond inspiring. It’s superspiring. This one has Oscar written all over it. I said OSCAR!

 

Review: Tom Hardy Sets His Own Standards in Riveting ‘Locke’

Some dramas need scores of extras and epic settings to keep the audience on its edge, but a rare gem of a movie can dial down the setting, the action, and the cast to a minimal few and still give you a pit in your stomach and tears in your eyes.

Locke, destined to be one of the best movies of 2014, brings the audience in so tightly to the personal drama of one man, one single man, that the rest of the world, entire, seems superfluous. [Read more...]

Released from Paramount Contract, ‘Noah’ Bible Guru John Snowden Responds to Ken Ham, Ray Comfort, Brian Godawa

Editor’s note: John Snowden was a youth pastor in the Los Angeles area when Rob Moore of Paramount approached him about a project. Snowden came aboard Noah as Biblical advisor and we know the rest. As of April 1, Snowden is no longer under contract with Paramount pictures and now gives his full reaction to the controversies swirling around Darren Aronofsky’s film.

John Snowden on the set of NOAH.
photo: Niko Tavernise. (c) 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

I knew some wouldn’t appreciate Noah’s liberties, for sure, but I didn’t expect the level of ire I’ve heard about the now apparently controversial Bible movie. Ken Ham, along with Ray Comfort, and similar disagreement from Brian Godawa, have led an all-out assault on the film. Here is my response to a few of their thoughts, which hopefully will also be an opportunity shed more light on what I firmly believe is very positive theology in the film. (Warning: There may be spoilers if you haven’t seen the film!)

Objection: Humanism!

Godawa in particular focuses on the fact that Aronofsky is allegedly a “humanist.” I put that in quotes because I don’t actually know that Darren is such. He might be. He may even “probably” be. But Godawa presumes that Aronofsky’s worldview has compelled him to tell a subversive story undermining God, and the proof is not what is in the film, but that Aronofsky is a humanist. This cynical view (and cyclical argument) assumes no person can tell any story that they don’t wholeheartedly embrace. So a humanist, for example, could never put into his film critical Christian theology such as that man was created in God’s image, because that would undermine his humanist agenda.

The only problem with this is that the film clearly holds this very important piece of theology front and center, that God created people in His image. Despite Godawa’s clearly false claim, the film repeats it many times from many characters. It is said by Noah twice, The Watchers said it once, Lamech said it, and it is perverted by Tubal-Cain. Throw in the bonus that Noah clearly says “we get our power from The Creator” and the whole humanism thesis quickly dissolves.

Objection: Veganism!

In an ongoing criticism of the film, Godawa vents that the depicted sin of humanity is all about meat eating in the film. When one reads through Genesis, there are two ways to read it regarding meat eating. First, the most literal way is that God never blessed eating anything but plants until after the flood – thus meat eating is a sin to Noah in scripture for the timing of most of the film. Or there’s the more “nuanced” way – which we’d naturally assume is Hollywood’s tendency: “Nuance it” to justify an agenda, right? Well, the nuanced way is: Sure, God never really gave permission to eat meat until after the flood, but since God did kill animals for Adam and Eve (but did He?), and since He gave Noah instruction to bring 7 of each clean animal onto the ark, and since we can read into that statement the Torah’s definition (that Noah hadn’t heard) of “clean” certainly implies kosher food laws it must mean that those animals were for eating, therefore Noah eats meat in Genesis.

For what it’s worth, I think both are actually viable ways to read the text. And since there are two ways to read into vegetarianism in Genesis, maybe we can give “Hollywood” a pass on taking the more literal interpretation as their own.

Objection: Creation From Nothing!

Creationism in the film was allegedly subverted too – because it starts with “In the beginning there was nothing.” That’s Pagan, they say! Atheists believe that!

So do I. I’ve taught the Bible plenty. My favorite part is creation and Genesis 1:1 – 12:3. The Hebrew verb for “created” in Genesis 1 is a word that is only used with God as the subject and it means to create from nothing. And in the creation sequence the film follows that very line with God speaking light into existence on “the first day and it was good.” The creation narrative in the film then goes on to name the six days one by one (albeit with an evolving-animals sequence), yet then on the sixth day, God distinctly creates humanity in his image. While I wish it said it was “very good” at that point, the fact that God created us in his image on the sixth day is very clearly in the film. Adam and Eve didn’t just passively evolve in the film. How can an atheist tell an atheistic version of creation with “The Creator” as the creator and still be pushing an atheist’s agenda?

Objection: No Rebellion Against God!

In the most head scratching criticism from Ken Ham, he suggests that the film doesn’t depict “rebellion against God.” It’s head scratching for two reasons. First, never are those words a part of Genesis 6 – 9. Second, more importantly, Tubal-Cain’s speech as the rain starts is so so overtly personifying rebellion against God: Tubal-Cain’s arrogant comparison of himself to god, giving and taking life, that men united are invincible, or that Tubal-Cain cries that he will build a new society in his own image are all manifestations of rebellion against God. Even just yelling at God to do what Tubal-Cain wants God to do images such rebellion. Tubal-Cain says to Ham “A man is not ruled by the heavens but by his will.” These are the same themes of Biblical rebellion against God that we find throughout scripture including at the Tower of Babel, which the story of Noah (and the lineage of Ham) feeds.

Ham got on the boat. Ken Ham missed it.

Objection: Environmentalism!

But the most important sin in this film is supposedly the environmental “agenda.” It’s pretty much unanimous after all, since almost every American right-wing Christian who’s seen the film has completely objected to the environmental undertones in it. It’s honestly not my favorite part either, but this is where grace (and not even that much is needed) toward a non-Christian director has to come into play.

But even with such grace, and to be clear, I’m a right-wing homeschooling Ken Ham-VBS-curriculum-teaching conservative-talk-radio-listening Christian myself (I really am), I defend the fact that the film clearly depicts primary sin as the violent arrogance of man time and again. It doesn’t depict “property rights advocates” in a bad way like Godawa claims, it depicts a bad guy subjugating his fellow man and taking the land that others are living on. It’s man’s inhumanity to man – the very thing Ken Ham alleges the film didn’t depict. And it most certainly doesn’t explain the flood as anything but man’s wickedness – which is partly environmental as depicted but is so overwhelmingly shown as violence (threatening, intimidating, killing, selling women in the mob scene, stealing, and people fighting over, yes, natural resources). You’d think from the reviews Tubal-Cain is the non-violent CEO of the Exxon corporation (yet carrying a “gun”).

But then even looking closer we can find that it would undermine its own ostensible “environmental agenda.” For example Noah scolds young Ham (played by a pastor’s kid, no less) for picking a flower, he uses environmental jargon to teach his son a lesson. An environmentalist “agenda” would leave that flower dead, destroyed, and irreplaceable. It would be the final action that sets in motion the ball rolling that will actually clinch the destruction of the entire planet – right? But that’s not the story told in that scene nor in the film as a whole. What happens in that scene is that God immediately and miraculously replaces that flower, clearly demonstrating that God is going to take care of things – just like he does in the end of this film, and in the end of Revelation 21-22. True story – an executive for one of those environmental organizations saw the film and was not happy with it. Why? Because the film showed that the “Almighty” (his word) fixed the environmental problems in the end, which is contrary to environmentalist’s messaging. There you have it.

Naameh says in the film to Noah, “We are surrounded by darkness, yet beauty survives even in this barren ground. Maybe it is a sign he comes to heal.”

God makes all things new. God restores the broken, grows gardens from deserts, and brings fertility from bareness. That is good theology, and that is in the film.

Objection: Unrighteous!

Nearly every rejection I’ve read mentions that Noah was righteous yet the film allegedly depicts Noah as anything but. Instead of being righteous he was sinful, mean, and focused on killing his grandchildren believing that God wanted him to kill off humanity. While I wouldn’t make the theological case that the Biblical Noah was blind to God saving humanity through him (nobody is claiming that’s the Bible’s position – it’s simply a movie’s dramatization of God wanting to wipe out humanity which IS in the Bible), and probably in a million years wouldn’t have dreamed up that plot for my own Noah’s Ark movie, it is clearly a choice they made in the film. But it doesn’t make Noah not righteous. Hold on, you say? You object? Let’s think it through – how can a person who almost kills children thinking it’s God’s will be righteous? Well, you can ask Abraham. How can a person be a prophet of God when he doesn’t obey God and wants people to die? Ask Jonah. How can a person be after God’s own heart but also be a murdering adulterer? Ask David. Why do we protect Noah as proto-Jesus by assuming righteous means anything other than Noah trusted God? In the film, Noah wasn’t taking pleasure in the idea of killing humanity, he was angry about it, and he was assuming it was God’s plan just like it says in Genesis 6:5-8. I also, for the record, believe that in the end the film does not communicate that it’s God’s will for Noah to kill the babies, but it is God’s will (as Ila explains) to help Noah learn God’s mercy in contrast to the stark justice he just witnessed.

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Where does Noah’s come from?

Objection: Paganism!

But all of these aren’t the real issue. No, as I see it, the core of the criticisms I read boil down to the fact that a person who is not of the Christian worldview is making a Bible film. Or perhaps if Christendom allowed this, why on Earth did they let him have any ability to have any creative control over his own film? Either way, I’m reading between the lines that this is what is truly and fundamentally intolerable. How could a non-Christian possibly get it right? Is there a line that would have been “right enough?” No, I don’t believe we would allow it. Rather any creative choice that strays too far from the text (if from a non-believer’s mind) should be rejected. The text stands alone – and I believe it does. Maybe that means we should actually reject any depictions of a Bible character? Or maybe only if it’s done by a non-believer. This is all sounding awfully similar to a fatwa, and it grieves me.

Wrap-Up

Let’s wrap this up. ”Love your neighbor” is our charge. That is expected of us even if we think he’s a secular liberal vegan pagan atheist humanist environmental whacko Hollywood director. Vilifying him (and effectively his whole team) will not get us any closer to God. And to me, he was personally quite a kind, thoughtful, creative, hyper-intelligent colleague with whom I had incredibly fruitful conversations. I’m thankful that he took a huge risk to tell a Bible story in a very creative way, and did it quite impressively. You don’t have to like the movie, love the movie, or see the movie. But we really need to respond better than this when we have objections.

John Snowden served as the Biblical Consultant on Noah from April 2012 until March 31, 2014. After six years of vocational youth ministry in West Los Angeles, John moved with his family to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he is a Vice President of CloudFactory, a tech company seeking to connect a million people in the developing world to basic computer work while raising them up as leaders to address poverty in their own communities. He is not related to Edward.

Read More:

Rebecca Cusey on An Invitation to Listen: How the Church Should Think about Noah

Rebecca Cusey’s Review: A Bible Movie That Doesn’t Preach or Browbeat

Rebecca Cusey’s Interview with Aronofsky and Handel

Peter Chattaway’s Extensive Noah Coverage

Barbara Nicolosi Accuses Me of Selling My Soul to ‘Noah’ Marketers – For a Stale Bagel

Apparently my colleague Barbara Nicolosi is going to blow the cover off the scandalous secret of Christian film marketing.

I want to be very clear that I have a lot of respect for Barbara. She was instrumental in helping me start thinking about movies specifically and culture in general. She taught at the Act One writing program at the time, a screenwriting school that takes the business of Hollywood seriously and trains Christians to hone their craft so they are able to professionally and artistically speak into the moviemaking and TV business.

Barbara was never soft with her students. You have to make a career of Hollywood, she taught, not a hobby. You have to respect the craft. You have to actually work hard, very hard, and maybe in decades you’ll be at a point where you can make a difference.

It was tough love, tough love that the Christian culture needed and she helped shape Christian thinking at that time and I’m grateful for her voice back a decade ago.

That’s why it bothers me so much, though, that in the case of Noah, Barbara will not concede that other Christians may have a valid different opinion on the movie (here’s my positive review). She has said that those of us who like it don’t really like it, but are lying and have received some shady, yet undefined, payout from the studio.

Because we have the temerity to disagree with her.

This is insulting at best, slanderous at worst.

I certainly don’t get paid much for being a movie critic. If I were selling my soul, I’d expect it to pay better.

Barbara has taken what was a friendly debate among various Christian critics and turned it into something ugly and personal. Us versus them. The righteous versus the evildoers. The godly versus the diabolical. Over a movie. Over, let’s repeat again, a movie. Not human trafficking or homelessness or war theory or abortion. A movie.

This was not necessary. And it’s not right.

Yes, marketing firms focus on the Christian market. This is not news either. We can’t have it both ways, saying that Hollywood ignores people of faith on one hand and demanding products (i.e. movies) that we want to see, and then turn around and complain that we’re treated as a market.

So you can peek behind the curtain here, let me tell you how I came to review Noah early and interview the directors.

By the way, separately from my screening and interview, the advertising department at Patheos made a deal to advertise the film on our site. Many other sites advertised the film as well. One had nothing to do with the other. This is an age-old dilemma in news, from the early days of newspapers. Like all reputable sites, we have a firm line between editorial and advertising, which is why what Barbara says about the Entertainment Channel at Patheos, which I run, being undisclosed paid advertising is patently untrue.

The stories I ran were selected for their news value and nothing else. With all the worldwide press this film has generated, I hardly have to argue it was a news-worthy story.

Peter Chattaway here at Patheos was covering Noah and other Bible stories in more depth than anyone else long before he was offered an interview. He continues to do fine work. And Steven Greydanus’ work on Noah has been extremely valuable and insightful as well.

By the way, Barbara will receive a decent sized check for her post, paid for in part by the advertising she so denounces.

Anyway, Paramount and Grace Hill Media, who have always treated me well and with integrity, offered me an advance screening and an exclusive interview on a movie with a lot of buzz, especially to my faith-based readership. I jumped at it.

That’s called journalism.

I know “journalism” is a lofty word to throw around about movie criticism, but ultimately that’s what I aspire to. Like Jake Tapper scoring an interview with the President or Barbara Walters interviewing Bono, we all scramble for content that will bring eyeballs to our writing and serve the public. We want the big story, the scoop.

I do many interviews a year, some of them pitched by Grace Hill Media, most via other contacts. I turn down quite a few pitches from GHM and others as well. Some interviewees are big names, others you wouldn’t recognize but have big talent. Here’s the interview I did recently with Jason Bateman about the extremely R-rated Bad Words, an interview I also very much enjoyed, and which, frankly, should be WAY more controversial than my work on Noah. 

Of course I jumped at Aronofsky. I would be crazy to turn down an advance screening and interview with the hottest movie of the year so far and a story that was making waves not only in religious circles, but worldwide secular circles.  It has nothing to do with the pride of meeting famous people or stoking my ego, except in the sense I would like to be an excellent journalist. It has everything to do with scooping the story and serving my readers. This is what journalists do.

I agreed to an embargo until a certain date – standard operating procedure in many beats of journalism – and nothing else. It was clear that the studio hoped I’d like the film. It was clear that I might not and that was the risk they were taking. We discussed that ahead of time.

Paramount tried to set up the screening and interview here where I live in DC. Darren Aronofsky was still editing some aspects of the film and could not take time for an entire day trip to DC. So I accepted a flight up to New York paid for by the studio. Patheos does not have a budget for travel, at least not yet, something not unusual in the tightened financial arena of current media.

The plane was just a rickety puddle jumper. More dubious than luxurious. I flew there and back the same day. I watched the film in a screening room and missed lunch time doing it. Someone brought me tea in a styrofoam cup (which I spilled all over the floor and myself like a dork but at least it helped me identify with the characters in the flood scene).

I liked the film very much, immediately. Paramount reps rushed me to make my window with Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. I talked with them for 25 minutes and found them both fascinating, intelligent, respectful, and well-thought. This is not always the case with Hollywood types, but it was here. (Read my entire interview here.)

I confess that in a moment of weakness brought on by low blood sugar, I did accept an abandoned stale bagel that was laying around the Paramount break room.

Ah the glamour of show business!

I then went home, paying for my own crappy overpriced airport dinner, which I scarfed down like an orphan in a Charles Dickens novel, and wrote an honest review and interview feature. Oh, I bought myself a nine-dollar beer too. I might buy myself another one after finishing this post.

All in all, I would rather have stayed in DC that day if it weren’t for the story I was chasing. I went through a long day of travel for a story that I thought, and still think, was valuable to my readers. The travel about as much fun as a root canal. The story itself was great fun. I do not appreciate Barbara or anyone implying I have done anything scandalous, immoral, or unprofessional here.

Barbara’s reasoning goes: These critics disagree with me, therefore they are lying. If they are lying, they must have a reason to lie. If they have a reason, they must be bought. It’s the worst kind of ad hominem attack and betrays a shocking arrogance about the presumed correctness of her own point of view.

She’s so right that anyone who disagrees with her is not only wrong, but evil.

My salvation hardly rests on whether I agree with Barbara on how many stars a movie should get.

I mean, I agree with Rotten Tomatoes’s Tomatometer 76% of the time, but I don’t expect that to get me into heaven.

I liked Noah. I’m not going to apologize for that or be bullied into changing my mind. I liked having a scoop. I’m not going to apologize for that either.

But I would much rather engage Barbara, learn from her, and enjoy her usually insightful analysis than fight her. I hope she’ll be willing.


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