Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Avril Z. Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and eductaor with over seventeen years experience making films and helping other filmmakers figure out which films to make. As she says in the first article in this series, "while it is good to critique films from a theological perspective, it is equally important that we think about artists who are creating the work," so we're excited to feature Avril's proposal for what filmmakers who are Christians should consider as they decide which stories to devote large portions of the time and talents to. Avril's entire series is archived here. - Editor
Right now, as I am writing this, I am knee deep in revising budgets and contracts for a film that I am producing this summer about a teenager whose life gets turned upside down when her mother abruptly converts to Islam. The film provides a fun, fresh take on faith and identity from the perspective of African-American Muslims, which is something that we rarely have the opportunity to see in film. I get a lot of questions from fellow Christians about why I would work on a film like this. Actually, I don't get many questions, I just get people who suddenly stare at me as though I'm crazy or who go radio silent. I guess Christians aren’t supposed to make films about any faith tradition other than their own. The irony is that I have been deeply affected and formed by many films about other religions as well as cultures that are different than mine.
The power of story is that it illuminates our interconnectedness. Every good story reflects some human need or desire that can lead us to examine greater truths. The beauty of film, in particular, is that it allows us to actually see and experience new worlds, and as a result it has the potential to spark conversation, greater understanding between one another, and (perhaps) changes in perspective.
But how do we experience such new worlds without judging them against our own standards or without misunderstanding the context behind various beliefs or actions? How should we interact with films that are vastly different from our lived experience? I believe that whether we are film watchers or creators, when we learn to understand our posture as insiders or outsiders, we learn the true power of shared stories and their impact on how we relate to one another and to God.
For the purposes of this article, I am defining “insider” as someone who is part of a certain cultural group, albeit racial, religious or other. “Outsider” is being defined as anyone who does not consider themselves to be part of said group whether by choice or by necessity. Anytime someone creates or shares a film that reflects their own culture, I believe they are sharing that film as an insider. It means that they are sharing part of their life and culture with anyone who walks into the watching experience, whether it be a classroom, a movie theater, or a living room. Sharing a film as an insider means inviting others to be part of the community so that we may know one another. It also means inviting people to see film as a conversation between human beings that warrants a gracious response, even when the film sparks difficult conversations. Such an exchange can make insiders vulnerable to judgment or misunderstanding from others, but the value of story is that it draws on commonality even when difference seems to be the most prevalent factor.
When I was approached to work on this current film project, I believe that I was given an invitation to learn about someone else’s experience and have a conversation about the ways in which one’s faith could affect a girl’s coming-of-age. That story is a universal one that allows us both to examine bigger questions about life choices and identity that transcend only one religion. And as leaders seeking to foster inter-faith dialogue, what better way to build bridges of understanding than to allow insiders that kind of space to tell their stories?
Conversely, watching and creating film as an outsider requires listening first, and resisting the urge to make judgments or assumptions about a culture. In watching film as an outsider, we may sometimes have to accept that the criteria for how we judge what is “good” may need to change, both in terms of aesthetics and content. John Lyden talks about this shift in mentality in his book Film as Religion when he writes about accepting religious traditions other than our own, and I think it bears some resemblance to the film experience as well. He writes:
The initial attitude that religions take toward one another is often one of incomprehension. This is not so odd when one realizes that to encounter another worldview is to encounter a separate subjectivity, a different way of thinking about reality, which by definition is not one’s own...The history of religious interaction is full of examples of gross intolerance and lack of understanding...We believe we have nothing in common with this other and so reject it, often with undisguised hostility.
This brings to mind the numerous controversies swirling around Hollywood when it comes to diversity. Typically, stories that do not come from the perspective of what is considered mainstream (i.e. stories about white and/or male characters), are considered counter-cultural and risky. The lack of understanding of different stories often results in indifference and aversion. However, as we watch that which is unfamiliar to us, we must be aware that a culture may have its own set of rules that we must learn. Sometimes, even the very definition of beauty may change, for beauty may not come through visual pleasure, but through truth of an experience, exposed injustice, or through sacrificial love.
A couple months ago I went with a friend to see the film Ixcanul, a story about an indigenous young woman from Guatemala who tries to find her own sense of agency in the midst of an arranged marriage and complicated pregnancy. The film was Guatemala’s first Academy Awards submission, and my friend happens to be from Guatemala, so I was excited to share this experience with her.
Before the film screened, the director came out and introduced the film to a room full of film enthusiasts from many different walks of life. As I sat in the theater, I became keenly aware of the fact that I was an outsider in that scenario. Watching the film, I became super sensitive to my reactions out of respect for my friend. Was it ok to laugh at that joke? What should be the appropriate response to that moment in the film? I wanted to be respectful of my friend sitting next to me and of this culture, so I took my cues from her.
Later that week, my friend shared with me that as much as she enjoyed the film, there were parts of it that she was embarrassed by. One of those parts was when the mother of the young girl in the film killed a goat in order for her family to eat. When I asked her why she was embarrassed, it wasn’t that she was embarrassed by what was happening. She felt embarrassment because she was watching it with outsiders. She said she was worried about what other people would think about her culture. Would they see them as barbaric? Would they think all Guatemalan people are that way? What if someone from PETA was in the audience? Her vulnerability in sharing that film as an insider made her uncomfortable for a moment, but it also laid a foundation for fruitful conversation between two people with different backgrounds and experiences on the beauty of sacrifice within family relationships.
As an African American woman, I often feel the same way when I show films that depict my culture. I’ll admit, anytime I watch films that reflect my culture with people outside of my community, I find myself wanting to hide or explain away certain scenes in efforts to protect the legacy and the culture that has in many ways shaped me so much. It’s the very reason why I often feel inclined to fast-forward through the scene of one of my favorite movies, Do the Right Thing, when Mookie throws the garbage can through Sal’s Pizzeria, sparking a riot in the streets of Brooklyn. Although that scene is disturbing, it rings true. For myself and many people inside my community, we know why Mookie threw the garbage can. But I have seen people outside of my community disengage from that part of the film without even attempting to learn the cultural significance of that moment.
How can we have civil dialogue about race or religion or any issue for that matter if we cannot graciously find the commonality in a story that is shared? Understanding what it feels like to share film as an insider helps me understand how to watch and create film as an outsider. It may seem divisive to categorize and separate the audience in this manner, but I think it is merely a posture that helps us better understand differences and be more tolerant of stories that are different from our own.
I believe that's one of many reasons why Jesus often speaks in parables. The power of the spoken word in story form gives listeners the liberty to contextualize the messages. Identifying with characters in a story, it becomes possible to realize one’s own place in the story, even when society would not automatically recognize the similarities.
For example, John 4 tells a story about someone who is an outsider in every sense of the word. The woman at the well is a possible adulteress, a Samaritan and, well, a woman – all of which make any interaction with her taboo and against the moral codes of the day. Although Jewish people and Samaritans may have been at odds with each other, Jesus engages her in conversation. He even gives her opportunity to tell her story about not having a husband and about who her ancestors worshipped. Jesus listens and responds, and then offers her life by telling her that he has living water where she will never thirst again and that the time has come for true worship. By allowing her space to share, the message of salvation becomes palatable. She tells her testimony and as a result, other Samaritans become believers.
Jesus tells stories about women and Samaritans and tax collectors so that even as outsiders, we can give priority to their stories and eventually see a reflection of ourselves in the midst of the difference. Similarly, in my experience as a producer, by giving space for someone to make a film about a Muslim girl struggling to find her identity without judgment, I realize that I, too, have been (and in many ways still am) a Christian girl struggling to find her identity.
If film or any art form is going to continue to be a catalyst for civil dialogue and social change, we have to be willing to not just step outside of our comfort zone and watch, but we also have to give up our privilege and put ourselves in a place of gratitude, both as insider and as outsider, because sharing those cultural experiences are what help bring about change and allow us to have community and to connect as humans.
Avril Speaks is a filmmaker, scholar, and educator who teaches cinema courses at University of La Verne and Azusa Pacific University. She recently earned her second master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary, and she continues to produce, write and direct film and new media. Her ultimate goal is to diversify the film market by educating and empowering aspiring artists; thereby creating a movement of media that represents the true, multi-dimensional qualities of people and speaks to the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or at her website.