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
A few years ago, I had a conversation with a fellow filmmaker about ways that Christians can “redeem the media.” Although I’ve had this conversation several times with other filmmakers over the years, I often still struggle with what we mean when we say that.
For some people, redeeming the media means making films that overtly preach the gospel and convert people. For others, redeeming the media means evangelizing to the people that work in the industry. When I first decided to move to Los Angeles, I met several Christians who would express their joy that I was going to “bring some morality” to Hollywood, as though the city itself was void of any decent people who loved God. I found their exuberance puzzling, because I already knew of some great, strong Christians who were working in the industry. I wasn’t surprised to arrive here and discover that there are plenty of Christians who are not just working in Hollywood, but who are “bringing morality” and light to the industry in ways that many would not expect.
What does it look like to realistically “be a light” in the film industry? The word “redeem” means to “compensate for the faults or bad aspects of (something).” While creating “moral” films or evangelizing could be seen as a way to counteract the violence and sexuality that we see in the movies, there are several faults within Hollywood that go beyond the morality of its storylines, and I believe that redeeming the media could simply mean maintaining a code of ethics that reflects our faith and convictions. Whether as a producer or a crew member, I have learned throughout the years that one of the best ways to shine the light of Christ within the industry is to simply be a kind person and do my job. At the end of the day, it is the people that you are working with that matter most. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus says to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” In the verses before that, Jesus delivers the famous Sermon on the Mount, where he details what it looks like to be salt and light to the world.
If Christians are looking for ways to redeem the media, our approach must be inclusive of the filmmaking process itself as well as the people we interact with as a result of that process. Following are six suggestions for practical ways to demonstrate our faith within the film industry by focusing on its people and processes.
“Blessed are the poor…”
We’ve all heard about the realities of starving artists. The truth is, most likely every artist has made a financial sacrifice of some sort throughout their career in order to pursue their craft. If you are in a position to produce a film, it’s difficult to be a good witness if you are cheating people out of being compensated for their hard work. Any crew member that works on a set puts in long hours of hard labor. Standing on one’s feet and concentrating for 12-14 hours or more, shuttling heavy equipment back and forth between locations, and managing all the set pieces, costumes, actors, schedules, etc., can be grueling work. Being a light in this area means paying people what they are worth, and not cheating them out of their money so that they can make an honest living. And if you are an independent filmmaker and cannot afford to pay people, be honest about that upfront. You might be amazed at who will show up to help you achieve your vision if you have a good story and if you continue to treat people kindly and fairly in other areas, such as food, parking, reasonable work hours, etc.
“Blessed are the meek…”
When we think of Hollywood celebrities who walk the red carpet or who go on talk shows to brag about their latest project, meekness is usually one of the last attributes that we associate with working in the film industry. Being meek is often associated with being weak. However, Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth. According to Webster’s Dictionary, being meek is “having or showing a quiet, gentle, and humble nature,” and while in the film industry you never want to be a pushover, there is some value to being humble and teachable. Demonstrating meekness could mean following instructions or getting coffee for the crew when asked, and sometimes those small acts can lead to promotion or simply staying in the good graces of the people around you. There is nothing more annoying on a film set than having someone constantly talking out of turn or being a know-it-all. In contrast, being a light can mean exercising meekness and undeniable gentleness in an industry that is often thought to be prideful, boastful and self-aggrandizing.
“Blessed are those who hunger…”
As mentioned above, film crews typically work very long hours, and within the industry, whether you are paying people or not, it is standard that you feed your cast and crew according to the amount of hours worked. Typically, at least every six hours a meal, known as craft services, should be provided in order to keep your cast and crew nourished and ready to work. Not only is that rule a courtesy for their hard work, it is also a way to control the time on set so that no one gets left behind while they go wander off to the fast food place down the street for lunch.
Many years ago, I worked on a low budget film that did not have any money for craft services, and the producer, who happened to be a Christian, had not provided any means for people to be fed. A couple days into the shoot, the camerawoman was fed up and shouted very loudly, “If you’re supposed to be a Christian, this is very irresponsible and a terrible way to treat people!” It’s hard to evangelize to people if you’re not meeting their basic needs. There are simple ways to feed massive amounts of people on the cheap. Your cast and crew work hard. If you want to be a light in the industry, feed them. And feed them well. It’s the least you can do.
“Blessed are the merciful…”
Have you ever watched the end credits of a movie? At the end of every film there is usually a long list of credits naming all of the people who worked on the film but who do not get top billing. Most audiences use this as a time to gather their trash and exit the theater, so they miss out on the hundreds of people that gave a significant portion of their lives to make the film happen. Ironically, that often happens on film sets as well. Big name producers and actors are important, but it’s the sound person, the props master, and the production assistants, to name a few, that keep the production going on a daily basis. If you want to be a light in the industry, be merciful, and be just as nice to those people as you are to the stars, because without them, there would be no film.
“Blessed are the pure in heart…”
I believe there is a misnomer that people in the film industry hate Christians or that they are hostile to faith. To this end, many times I have seen young filmmakers come to work on a project and try so hard to impress the people on set and also distance themselves from their faith. While there is nothing wrong with making a good first impression, most people in the industry just want you to be yourself. Being genuine and sincere goes a long way in getting to know people and being a light. I have discovered that oftentimes, people in the industry are not as hostile toward your faith as people may think, particularly if your faith is an organic part of who you are as a person. Let people know the real you and your faith becomes more accessible in the long run.
“Blessed are the peacemakers…”
Film sets are not always the friendliest places. People are often disrespected, devalued, and taken advantage of. If you are a filmmaker, make a conscious effort to at least try and create a team that will work well together. Whenever I work on a project, I try to create a set environment that is efficient and productive, but most of all, peaceful. I want people to feel supported and comfortable in doing their work to create, and I want people to feel valued for who they were created to be. This creates a sense of community among the cast and crew so that at some point it goes from being only my project to becoming everyone’s project. Everyone from the cinematographer to the set designer to the production assistant has gifts to bring. It is wonderful to see all hands working together to make the story take shape. The film set becomes a reflection of God’s creation, of various gifts coming together to make something beautiful.
Redeeming the media doesn’t start or stop with the content we make. It means seeing cast and crew as a vital piece of what God is creating, and as a result, treating them with dignity and respect. I believe this is one of our greatest tasks as believers within the film industry or any sector. In this light, there are several Christians who have been sharing God’s love and light in the industry for decades. The more we challenge ourselves to embrace a more wholesome theology behind filmmaking, the more our faith begins to impact lives in meaningful ways.
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.