The toughest film request
Not many teachers have to deal with discussions about God and faith on a daily basis; but some do. This week, I’ve been invited to present a workshop for those that do, at a conference for Religious Education teachers in Catholic schools. So I thought it was time to explore a question that got me thinking deeply about all this not long ago. I’d received an email from a teacher in an independent Christian school asking what has to be the most difficult film search request. Common questions are “do you have anything on music?” or “what about psychology?”
This was in a class all its own:
I need any films about why it’s not possible to NOT believe in God.
Apparently this was really a question from some Year 9 students, but it did get me thinking, what would I say to a student who asked this? What would I show? Effectively the request was…
Find me a short film to prove the existence of God
This was my response.
I have a problem with the question itself.
What would such a film be like? How would it be so utterly convincing? Even if it was so convincing, would I be convinced? Surely this would be like nothing I’d ever seen before, to be so utterly convincing. Wouldn’t that simply be an advertisement? And who, these days, are convinced by ads anymore anyway?
No. There is no such film, short or long; not in our collection, not in any collection. The problem with the question is that it oversteps the mark. It calls on film art to do what film art can never do – to make the viewer utterly convinced about something. Would we ask this of any other creative work? Is there a song that can do this? A poem? Even a persuasive essay? No. So why do we expect a film can do this? It can’t.
But let’s not stop there because the assumptions underlying it are really important.
WHAT FILM ART CAN DO
I find it easiest to explain this by coming at it from the other way round:
what film art CAN do.
Film art can ENGAGE us.
Here I’m thinking about the kind of short films we collect at Campfire, of which the philosophical/religious films are just one part. All quality films can engage us. They can engage us emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. I credit Julia Overton for this three-pronged ‘value’ statement in her Stanley Hewes address at the Australian International Documentary Conference.
Now of course it can be limiting to segment the way we think about good art in such discrete ways, but it’s helpful way to start understanding the issues at play.
FILMS CAN ENGAGE EMOTIONALLY
It’s the stuff we feel. Using our sense of sight and hearing, film can manipulate our emotions. The are so many examples of this, but one of my favourite short films at the moment for moving the emotions is the winner of the Campfire Award 2012: Most (The Bridge)
Within the space of 11minutes, I’ve heard grown adults crying over this film.
There’s much to say about why we’re moved, but that is a whole other topic of discussion for another time.
FILMS CAN ENGAGE INTELLECTUALLY
To create an argument, we need a progression of ideas to propose a way of thinking intelligently about something. A proposal; a set of propositions. Any basic course of logic introduces the idea of propositions. Here’s a simple example:
a. All men are mortal.
b. Socrates is a man.
c. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
We follow the argument because it is sequential, and we are led through each step to arrive at a logical conclusion. Film is sequential – we watch it from start to finish, so it naturally lends itself to the building of such propositional engagements. We are engaged intellectually.
Good films do not always lead us so directly through and argument. In fact, I’d suggest that the better ones do not reveal their ‘message’ so obviously. That’s what makes them so interesting. I see there being two extremes here in the ability of films to be intellectually engaging:
OVERTLY PERSUASIVE at one end and
COVERTLY PRESUMPTIVE at the other.
Some examples here should demonstrate what I mean.
The overtly persuasive have a point to make, and we go along with them happily. Most documentaries do this in their inherent ‘truth claims’ (again, another tangent… some other time!). There are way too many examples of overtly persuasive films, and I particularly DISLIKE those that beat you over the head with their message (again, we simply call that ‘advertising’).
Instead, some lovely examples of overtly persuasive films are:
The Brunswick Browns, which has a clear and warm environmental message, wrapped up in the simple statement at the end: “we look after them, and they look after us.” It sets out to tell us a happy story, this is the logic, here is the conclusion.
Likewise, A Land Called Paradise, is the logical progression of ideas told in music video form about cultural tolerance. When you hear the messages that Muslims want to say to the world, you’re moved intellectually to consider the argument, and (if the filmmaker has persuaded you well enough) re-think your position about Muslims.
Covertly presumptive are in some ways equally as persuasive because they get under our skin. They make assumptions about the way things are, without explaining why.
Ceasing is great example of this. It makes assumptions about life, death and rebirth from a Buddhist perspective – without ever saying anything overtly Buddhist. It might even resonate with a Hindu worldview. A man rotates, and images swirl over him of a baby, fire, water… it’s very meditative, yet also mildly disturbing. There are many layers to this film that assume (or presume) the truth about reincarnation. There is much to say about this film and rebirth from a Christian perspective too… but that’s a topic for another day.
Whether covertly presumptive or overtly persuasive, good films (as distinct from ads, and Powerpoint presentations) engage us intellectually.
FILMS CAN ENGAGE SPIRITUALLY
How do films engage us spiritually?
Do filmmakers use emotional manipulation? Intellectual persuasion? I somehow think there is more to it than that, and the spiritual engagement can happen both in the making of and the watching of films.
Even for people like me, who believe that there are forces at work in the world that we barely even know how to describe, let alone understand, I am often at a loss. What language do we use to talk about spirituality in film? Aside from trying to analyse it, who can begin to know, or be fully aware of, the agendas there are in this spiritual realm?
For years, Christians have been engaging in the use of film as an artform for spiritual persuasion, particularly for evangelical means.
It’s simply a sign of the times that with the rise of ‘evangelical atheism’ there are now films being used for an anti-religious, or more specifically, anti-Christian, agenda. A recent example from the Athiest society was this:
http://www.parrotshortfilm.com (trailer on Vimeo)
A few years ago there was a feature film called The Golden Compass. I received an email from a Christian friend stating, “Rather than add publicity to this movie of satan, we should pass this information on to other Christians.” While I’m not convinced it’s our role to label this or that film as ‘of the devil’, there is clearly a motive here that went beyond emotional and intellectual. People BELIEVE DEEPLY about the importance of this film, putting it squarely in the realm of the ‘spiritual’.
So the spiritual wars are on – with films being used as weapons, because of their natural power to engage and persuade.
The ‘powers and principalities of this present darkness’ are around us, but I think people can become as obsessed about worrying about them (Christian’s are called to ‘not worry’) as they can about believing these forces do not actually exist. My own conclusion about this is that somewhere in between these 2 extremes is really the best response.
UNDERSTANDING THE SPIRITUAL DIMENSION
It is precisely because we find it so hard to grasp the ‘spiritual’ that Campfire was founded. Aside from all the educational work Campfire does these days, it is the layers of meaning, belief, faith and spirituality that underlies all education. It is THIS that drives me personally, and the organisation generally. We are ESPECIALLY interested in films that create discussion because discussion about films helps us work out for ourselves what we believe (or don’t believe) and learn more about what others believe (or don’t).
You could say that part of our mission at Campfire is to better understand the ‘spiritual film wars’ that go on. We can do this through exposing the agendas and manipulations that go on behind the scenes. But we hope to do more than that, because good art goes beyond manipulation. Great art moves us spiritually towards a greater truth – about self, about life, and yes, even about God.
ONE LAST ‘ASIDE’:
Political advertising & films exploring spiritual themes overtly
I think why the Gruen Transfer has been so successful is that it helps us unpack ads. THIS is what we try to do in helping unpack the meaning and spiritual dimension of films competing for our attention. I wrote a piece about this during the recent Faith and Culture lectures by Raimond Gaiter not long ago.
BACK TO THE QUESTION
So, is there a film about why you cannot possibly NOT believe in God?
In order to give you a proper answer, I need to ask YOU a question.
Do you mean…
The existence of God?
Perhaps I should show you some films about the intellectually persuasive films (and do you like overtly or covertly persuasive films?)
The handiwork of God?
Perhaps I could list the films which depict beauty, art, science, wonder, nature, the complexity of humanity itself.
The effect of God on people’s lives?
Perhaps I could list the films about people’s testimonial accounts of their own faith, the way they have been moved or touched by God’s invisible ‘hand’.
Is there a film that can do this? No. Not ONE film. BUT, here’s a more promising answer, and what drives me in my work for Campfire Film Foundation.
There is not ONE film, but MANY.
In fact there are SO many films, that I might even argue that it would take EVERY FILM EVER MADE to convince me that it is not possible to NOT believe in God.
Our finite minds are not capable of coping with God’s infinite nature. Not even every single film ever made, edited together, screened back to back, would demonstrate to me the unfathomable dimensions of God and the nature of God.
A CONCLUSION… OF SORTS
So where do I start? Show me a film, and I’ll show you the deep, spiritual layers embedded within it. I’ll go further than this: show me a film and I challenge you to convince me that it does NOT come with some kind of spiritual baggage for good or bad – either in the way it has been constructed or the way we as human beings choose to view and analyse it.
It was this that led us, in writing a preamble to Campfire’s constitution… and I conclude with this:
We recognise that nothing is “religiously neutral” and that people bring their own beliefs and cultural experiences to Campfire Film Foundation. Campfire Film Foundation has been founded in the belief that filmmaking is never something apart from faith, but is ultimately directed by our own answers to the question of where our ultimate source of all reality and life lies, regardless of whether or not we believe in God. From this starting point, we seek to open up discussion between people of all faiths, including those who see themselves as having no faith.
What do you think? Can God be proved through film, any more or less than through science, politics or any other human endeavour?