Why this group of Christians comes to Sundance Film Festival every year
Article by Allison Pond for Deseret News
PARK CITY — Pontius Pilate doesn’t normally come up in Sundance Film Festival panels.
But this wasn’t a normal Sundance panel. Instead of a theater, it was in a church, and instead of volunteers in yellow Sundance coats, it was led by a pastor. Murmurs of “Amen!” and “Preach it!” rippled through the audience. The panelists, however, were the directors and producers of the documentary “Whose Streets,” which premiered at Sundance this year, and they were answering questions about the making of the film, just as they did at other screenings and panels during the festival.
“Does anybody ever have any sympathy for Pontius Pilate? Anybody ever (excuse him because of) all he was going through, all the pressure he had, trying to govern all of these people?” said Damon Davis, co-director and producer of “Whose Streets,” a documentary about protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by police.
“The moral to the story is if you sit there and you rationalize things and you let them happen for whatever reason, you’re just as guilty,” Davis said.
Davis was addressing evangelical seminary students attending the Sundance Film Festival with the Windrider Forum, a Christian group established by Fuller Theological Seminary faculty and alumni that organizes discussions of emerging cultural issues depicted in film. For 14 years, students and faculty have been coming to Sundance to screen movies, meet with film producers and directors and talk about what it all means in a Christian context. Other seminaries and individual students have joined in recent years, and this year there were 250 participants from around the country.
It’s an unlikely group to be gathering at one of the biggest events of the year for the film industry, which is sometimes viewed by Christians as having a tin ear for issues of faith. Out of 225 films accepted to the festival this year, only two told stories of religious communities and individuals.
But the Windrider students aren’t there to criticize representations of religion or stand up for the faith, said Kutter Callaway, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Instead, he said, they are there to listen.
Windrider panel discussions tend to focus on documentary films about social issues. Filmmakers interested in social action are eager to talk to students, Callaway said, and they raise questions about what Christians are called to do in the world.
This year, that meant films about race, such as “Whose Streets,” and the Syrian crisis, including “Cries from Syria.”
During the Q&A with the “Whose Streets” crew on Thursday, Lisa Swain, associate professor of cinema and media arts at Biola University, reacted to the filmmakers.
“I thought your analogy about Pilate was so apt,” she said. “I know that I speak on behalf of — ” she paused, her voice cracking with emotion, “on behalf of a lot of white Christians that are sorry we were washing our hands. We don’t want to wash our hands anymore.”
“The beauty of film is that it allows us to expand our experience,” said Rob Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller. “Film is a wonderful way to allow ourselves to go deeper.”
Afflicting the comfortable
“Novitiate,” a drama about a young woman’s journey to become a nun in the 1960s South, explores the processes of religious conversion and faith crisis. Early in the film, a nun writes two words on a chalkboard in a Catholic girls school: love and sacrifice. “Some people settle for a love that doesn’t ask anything of them,” the young character Kathleen says, speaking of her love for God. “I don’t want that.”
“How do we break out of (our natural tendency to want comfort) and discipline ourselves?” asked Ralph Winter, a Hollywood producer who has worked on blockbusters including X-Men and Star Trek movies during a second group discussion with students after the “Whose Streets” panel.
“We’re called as Christians to give ourselves away, and that’s what we’ve got to work out.”
The conversation took place in the cultural hall of an LDS chapel in Park City on Thursday, where Christian rap music played during a break between sessions as students ranging in age from college students to life-long film enthusiasts in their 70s scribbled in journals or chatted about the religious themes in the films they’d seen so far.
Many students also stay with LDS host families, Callaway said, adding that the program could never happen without them and a host of other people who give space and time. He also said BYU students have participated in the program in the past. “That’s either an interfaith conversation or an interdenominational conversation, depending on who you ask,” Callaway laughed.
Rather than critiquing how well films do or don’t portray religious people or communities — being a brand manager for God, as Swain put it — Callaway said his main goal for the program is to learn and listen.
“Step one is almost always shut up and listen,” he said. “That’s a really hard thing for religious people to do, because the predominant approach is, ‘I possess capital-T truth and I need to identify where there’s untruth or something that doesn’t reflect it, and it’s my job to both let you know and let us know why we should all boycott it or something.’”
That approach can be alienating, Callaway said. “But if you can stop and listen and assume that the other — the film — has something valuable to say and can teach us something, the way I understand it theologically is that is in fact the voice of God.” He pointed out that prophetic voices in the Bible often came from outside the people of God, and said his goal is to listen for such voices.
Craig Detweiler, professor of communication and director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University, drew a distinction between Hollywood films and independent films like those at Sundance, saying independent filmmakers often found a prophetic voice.
“Hollywood films comfort the afflicted — always happy, always a clean resolution, for the most part.” he said. “Independent films afflict the comfortable. You come out feeling worse that when you entered. We don’t usually go to films for that. We don’t want to pay money to feel worse. But these are filmmakers with a prophetic gift who say, ‘This is what’s wrong with the world.’”
Holding up a mirror
Films about religious communities can help Christians to reflect on their own communities, Callaway said. For example, this year, “Menashe” — a film about a widower in the Orthodox Jewish community of New York City who wants to raise his son but isn’t allowed to without remarrying — premiered at Sundance.
“It has several interesting ways of asking questions of what does it mean to be orthodox?” Callaway said. “And even though my orthodoxy is different from yours, some of our things we do are just as crazy, they’re just different.”
He compared Orthodox Jewish norms with norms in evangelical Christianity related to marriage and child-rearing, making the point that unspoken norms about single parenting, single people and gay people can be challenging for people who don’t fit those norms.
Tabitha Wright, a Fuller student from Arizona, said she was personally affected by the documentary “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.” The film depicts civil rights marchers, one of whom said that when they didn’t know what else to do, they sang.
“They said, ‘If we don’t know what to do, we’re going to do what the Spirit tells us to do,’” Wright said. “You don’t have to know what to do. When you put yourself out there, it’ll come. The next step will come.”
Christians in the industry
Many students in the second group discussion wanted to talk about what kinds of films Christians should make and how they could break into the industry with meaningful films.
Swain said films aimed only at a Christian audience can be “preaching to the choir” and create caricatures of Christianity that alienate it from larger society.
Winter had some advice for Christian students hoping to break into Hollywood.
“You have to be the best in your craft — world class,” he said. “The example you are, the way you treat people and the way you respect people, the way that you act speaks much louder than any words you have to say.
“If we’re going to reach a wider audience, our primary goal should be to entertain. when you’ve got somebody laughing or crying, the underlying worldview, call it a message, can slip in because I got your attention,” Winter said.
Johnston said he tells his seminary students not to preach anything that hasn’t changed their own lives “because it won’t change anyone else’s.” The same thing applies to filmmaking, he said.
“Find the pain and don’t look away,” Swain said. “Don’t try to fix it. Find what hurts, what doesn’t make sense, where the answers don’t suffice. That’s your story.”
Detweiler concurred, quoting recently deceased Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, who said, “Take your broken heart and turn it into art.” “You begin with the pain. The beauty is when you can redeem the pain and turn it into something transformative,” he said.
Swain pushed back. “Most of the time the problem with Christians is not the redemptive element, it’s the fact that they want to fix it too fast,” she said. “They want to skip to the answer.”
In the end, Detweiler said, he comes to Sundance to cultivate empathy.
“I come back here because I need this. I need to have my heart broken annually so I can go back to my comfort and work and minister out of that,” he said.
“In five days I’m going to learn about Syria and St. Louis and all these things that are headlines but are a little vague to me. I’m gonna hear from people, I’m actually going to meet a person who’s been there, I’m going to talk to a survivor, and that’s going to be the fuel in my belly for the next 12 months. …
“That’s what the Windrider experience is.”