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
What kind of character makes for a good story? Courageous characters who overcome insurmountable odds, declaring victory in the end? Characters who fight to the bitter end? Or are good stories simply about characters and situations that connect us to human emotions and experiences? In his book on screenwriting, Story, Robert McKee says that “‘Good story’ means something worth telling that the world wants to hear.” His words probably sum up the previous questions well, yet, filmmakers from all walks of life continue to look for the magic formula. In the book Story Wars, Jonah Sachs states that "So many of the stories that have really stuck, that have shaped culture, are about one thing: people reaching for their highest potential and struggling to create a better world." Indeed, we are heroes in our own stories, and we willingly identify with victors because we ourselves want to be victorious.
However, while these “victor stories” provide us with necessary inspiration and hope, the reality is that some people have situations forced upon them that they cannot overcome by their own will. They are victims who suffer at the hands of personal or systemic injustice. So, as Christians seeking to tell stories that resonate, how do we explore our own narratives in ways that are meaningful and perhaps lead audiences to a form of transcendence? We know we respond to stories of victors; what might we gain from telling and hearing stories of victims?
The Value of Tragedy
Sometimes, meaningful stories come from unexpected places and affect people in unexpected ways. Consider the ways Hagar’s story (recorded in Genesis 18) has helped theologian Delores Williams.
In the story, God promises Abraham and his wife, Sarah, a son, despite the fact that they are both very old in age. To their surprise, God does eventually does provide them with a child, and Abraham goes on to be the father of many nations. It is a wonderful story about God’s miraculous power and his ability to keep his promises. However, there is another character in this story. Hagar is the slave woman forced to sleep with Abraham because he and his wife did not believe God. Hagar bears Abraham’s true firstborn, Ishmael, only to be cast out to live in the wilderness and raise her son. Although the larger context situates Abraham as the most important character in this story—the victor—there is also rich meaning to be gleaned from Hagar the victim’s story.
In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams talks about the ways in which Hagar’s story has resonated with her and helped her find transcendence and voice as an African-American woman. She states,
As I encountered Hagar again and again in African-American sources, I reread her story in the Hebrew testament and Paul’s reference to her in the Christian testament. I slowly realized there were striking similarities between Hagar’s story and the story of African-American women…A very superficial reading of Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:9-21 in the Hebrew testament revealed that Hagar’s predicament involved slavery, poverty, ethnicity, sexual and economic exploitation, surrogacy, rape, domestic violence, homelessness, motherhood, single-parenting and radical encounters with God…In the Christian context of Paul, then, Hagar and her descendants represent the outsider position par excellence. So alienation is also part of the predicament of Hagar and her progeny.
Williams’ interaction with the story of Hagar may seem more tragic than triumphant—perhaps this is one of reasons why Hagar’s story is often considered less significant than the larger story of Abraham and Sarah—but Williams suggests that it is this tragic aspect of Hagar’s story that makes her story important. Hagar is an outsider who is a victim of her circumstance, but she must find a way to survive regardless. Abraham may be the more renowned character in the story, the one who triumphs, but for some, it is Hagar who gives necessary voice to those who are marginalized and cast out.
Surely Abraham and Sarah’s predicament was through no fault of their own either. But there is a difference between their story and Hagar’s that can possibly offer some other food for thought as we consider which stories we tell – Hagar’s story ends ambiguously.
One of the advantages to creating stories around victors is that we know the outcome. We know that everything works out in the end, and are therefore more prone to paint what is ugly with a beautiful brush. In the example of Abraham, the Bible tells us what happens later on in his life and the ways in which his story fits into the larger Christ story, so the “bad things” that happen to him don’t seem as “bad.”
The end of Hagar’s story is vague, but that ambiguous aspect of her journey is also valuable. Such tragic and mysterious stories reveal something that we often don't want to admit – that our lives, too, tend to be ambiguous at times. Perhaps this reality bothers us because as Christians, we are supposed to know our outcome, but the uncertainty of everyday living sometimes makes us question it. Hagar’s story is one of personal injustice that persists, and when personal injustice persists in our lives, stories like Hagar’s are particularly helpful.
Looking beyond the Biblical narratives, what does it look like for contemporary cinematic artists to explore these kinds of possibilities in stories that leave us guessing?
Season two of the ABC television show, American Crime, is an example of a contemporary story that demonstrates the possibilities of audiences experiencing sympathy and ambiguity via victims. If you haven't watched the show, each season presents a brand new storyline using some of the same actors but different characters from the previous season. This season, the focus is on racism, same-sex gang rape, and school shootings. These are a lot of issues to deal with during one season of a show, but American Crime seems to accomplish it with style and class.
In season two of American Crime, Taylor is a teenager who is allegedly raped in the story. However, we soon find out that one of the high school basketball stars, Eric, has a story that is just as tragic – Eric is a closeted gay teenager who fears coming out to his teammates, while also trying to survive an abusive relationship and a less than supportive father. And in the midst of all of this, Eric is accused of raping Taylor. The multiple storylines allow the audience to see the issues through established institutions of family, school, and sports, to enforce the idea that society as a whole has caused this injustice, and not just one individual. In this story, there are no victors. Everyone is a victim, whether of physical or sexual abuse or of the pressure of social status, and all of the characters are complex.
The show’s ending says a lot about its technique in handling these complex issues. When the series ends, nothing is resolved. The audience is left with more questions than answers, something that television in particular usually avoids. However, this is what sets the show apart as a compelling drama that gnaws at the core of our existence, challenging us to try and understand the plight of these students, teachers, and parents striving to exist in a less than perfect world. As Brian Lowry, critic for Variety magazine wrote, "The hour ended without providing concrete answers. But by then, even taking into account the finale's minor flaws, 'American Crime' had quite eloquently made its case, once again, that a broadcaster can still lay claim to one of the best hours on television." What is striking is that at the end of the series, both Taylor and Eric are given choices to either accept or reject their circumstances, leaving us to imagine what hope and redemption would look like for these characters.
Stories that remain unresolved force us to anticipate and imagine a satisfying resolution in what happens after the story “ends.” In the case of a show like American Crime, these types of stories may even compel us to take action in hopes that we can be part of working justice in the real world.
Victim stories also allow us to see God’s provision in different ways than we may have imagined. For Williams, this is precisely why she connects with Hagar’s story: “God’s response to Hagar’s story in the Hebrew testament is not liberation. Rather, God participates in Hagar’s and her child’s survival... Because they would finally live in the wilderness without the protection of a larger social unit, it was perhaps to their advantage that Ishmael be skillful with the bow.” Hagar’s story could be a way to reveal hidden hope in which God’s miracles are not necessarily blatant, but could be a bit more subtle, and in their own way, just as good.
How wonderful and thought-provoking would it be to imagine the missing pieces of the lives of these and other characters whose existence is surrounded by injustice yet seem to have little voice? What kind of meaningful impact could these stories of victims have for others? After all, the irony and the beauty is that even in the midst of these tragic, little-told stories, God still manages to demonstrate grace, protection, and ultimately love through these circumstances and through the people in them.
In next month's entry in this series, we'll loook closer at the Biblical narrative and consider what overlooked Bible stories might be especially fit for this kind of victim-focused story-telling.
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.
 McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins. 69.
 Sachs, Jonah. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell--and Live--the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Harvard Business Review Press. 
 Roberts, Delores. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Orbis Books. 5.
 Lowry, Brian. “American Crime Finale Brings Sobering Close to Brilliant Second Season.” Variety. March 9, 2016.