Today, AVClub posted a surprisingly strong piece called “When they just plain believe”: Are indie films unfair to Christianity?. Even bringing the topic up makes it a foregone conclusion that the answer would be ‘Yes. Very yes’. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear will have found it impossible not to notice the babyish attempts at blasphemy coming out of Utah this past January. The only thing it takes to call it out is somebody who isn’t afraid to tell the truth. New York critic and Filmspotting comrade Allison Willmore is the first to speak to what people of faith and media consciousness have known for years: that the faithful are too often villainized in movies, and especially in the “Indie film” world. She turns her crosshairs directly at Sundance when she writes:
“If faith only shows up as a means of keeping people down or as a way for someone to hide an underlying cruel/greedy/lying/delusional nature, if the idea that a character can be sincere in his or her beliefs and get something from them is impossible, then indie film becomes the equivalent of the smug belligerent atheist kid on campus who’s always trying to organize debates about the existence of God with Christian groups, and who ends up coming across as just as annoying as any sanctimonious proselytizer.”
Willmore is right to call out indie filmmakers as couch potatoes in their comfortable living room of Sundance, and challenge them to act like the outside-the-mainstream investigators they say they are and do some serious work into investigating people of faith before throwing darts at them onscreen. But while her diagnosis is good, her prescription falls just shy of the target. Don’t get me wrong, no Christian will fail to appreciate her article, but there’s more to be said about films, art, art communities and faith.
The prevailing spirit among liberal media-makers is to bestow the title of, if not ‘righteousness’, then at least ‘rightness’ on the voice that opposes all forms of uncritical devotion, conviction, and belief. It could be rightly said that most films to explore the issue of religion at Sundance raise up doubt as virtue. Such is certainly the case with Vera Farmiga’s character in Higher Ground, one of the more palatable faith-bashers to come out of Sundance in January. The hero is an outspoken loner, a struggling minority whose self-realization is inhibited by a dangerous hegemony of religious conviction. Unfortunately it came out at the same time as Red State, The Ledge, Tyrannosaur and Salvation Boulevard in an unprecedented wave of anti-Christian sentiment. So when the believer becomes the minority, liberals start hankering for a comfortable plug for the little guy to make for darn sure they’re not becoming the narrow-minded philistines they are so wont to lampoon. But the unexamined problem that this so-called ‘compassion’ inadvertently betrays is the very rot at the heart of liberal humanism and the media it produces. Sundance’s latest strain of ‘reverse discrimination’ against evangelicals is not an attack on Christianity, but the latest installment of modern humanism’s perennial attack on belief itself.
Conscientious liberals are always on the lookout for who’s currently lying perforated at the bottom of the fish-barrel. The fact that it was Christians in the cross hairs this year isn’t a particularly unique injustice for Willmore, and the fact that it’s humanists doing the shooting makes for an even tidier read, since it’s easy to legitimate an argument by framing it in the comfortable shape of self-critique (and there’s few things liberals value more than introspection), but what’s gone missing is the real pickle: that the leading voices of modern media have lost the ability even to recognize their own convictions as ‘beliefs’ and therefore will, must always treat sincere belief with suspicion and hostility. They praise films whose thematic content is little more than the zero-sum of a perfect balancing act of differing perspectives and disdain those that are more fond of one perspective than another. For a liberal humanist, the best person to be is one who constantly weighs all the options equally and the only moral imperative is one that speaks against the evils of moral imperatives.
For the film director breed of humanist found at Sundance, the sin of the faithful is not the content of what they believe, but that they believe it strongly and unquestioningly. My conversations with well-meaning liberals about religion tend to come around to statements like this direct quote: “I think any belief is evil when taken to its extreme”. It’s a catch-all mantra for so many so-called “intelligent” explorations of faith in the movies. The medicine for such an evil human tendency as faith, are cushy narratives to affirm the comfortable activity of believing in nothing (and by ‘cushy’ I mean violent, gritty, emotionally conflicted and sexually deviant).
But believing in nothing is not really an act, it’s the absence of an act. It’s a negative reaction that demands a positive assertion (of belief). The need to champion uncertainty requires an evil embodiment of certainty, and that’s where we get these villains-of-faith. Bad guys as laughable as Patrick Wilson in The Ledge, Michael Parks in Red State, Eddie Marsan in Tyrannosaur and Pierce Brosnan in Salvation Boulevard are not the results of the content of their faith, but boogeymen that arise from the act of being faithful. These straw-men cause the conscientious liberal to sniff the air for that telltale scent of discrimination and determine that somebody (no matter how unpopular) is not getting their fair shake. They never realize what’s really in the air: a disturbing lack of respect for faith itself and its seed of strongly-held belief, which is the true elephant in the theater at Sundance. In a sense, they can’t even abide their creative brethren to express their belief (that belief is evil) because it is so easily detectable as a belief. Exaggerated characters like Abin Cooper of Red State do not arise out of careful critical analysis of Christianity. He came from Kevin Smith’s conviction that strongly held belief leads to extremism and bigotry, which is itself a strongly held belief. So critics have called out his bigotry in the form of one-sided stereotyping, and the cycle to avoid any cogent statement and defense of a belief (any belief, even a paradoxical belief against believers) continues. Being a true nonbeliever is like a snake eating its own tail.
So what is the proper antidote to this perpetual, paradoxical and unsustainable war on faith? Certainly not producing films that are more sensitive. We’re all gagging on that. The answer is to realize what a film is. All films, and especially outspoken indie films, are themselves sermons. The media world will be better and in a sense fairer when we all realize that. The socially conscious indie film is nothing more special than a dramatically constructed argument from one perspective challenging another. It’s the same sort of stuff you’ll hear from a pulpit, just usually firing in the opposite direction. But neither liberal storytellers nor the critics that review them can abide the idea that they might actually have made an assertion (e.g. that strong belief is evil) and be expected to defend that assertion. Instead they will content themselves with self-deprecation and slip easily back into the role of a reactionary. The ideal film must still be one that comes from a standpoint of non-belief, and consider issues as objectively as possible, as if this is the natural state of humanity. What nobody is able to see is that such a film comes at the issue already with the deck unfairly stacked. An objective hermeneutic, or at least one that automatically discounts faith as an appropriate aid in interpreting reality, stacks the case against the faithful. Of course it will make cartoon villains of believers. Unless critics and filmmakers alike can become comfortable with the idea that a film might hold to an assertion, a statement, an argument, a belief (even if it is a belief that religion is evil) no faithful folk will ever be treated fairly in The Sundance Club.
Another way to really open up conversation is to allow films and directors a bit more leeway in exploring the content of people’s beliefs (meaning: what they actually believe in). Indie films are quick to paint horrifying portraits of evangelicals, but considerably more squeamish when it comes to putting the Bible itself on trial. Doing so would undoubtedly be a bit more uncomfortable and lead to films that are a great deal more offensive, the very thing liberals are so loath to be, but it would serve to force filmmakers to be a little more informed about the ideologies they deal with in their films, though it would also require diving into an activity as unsexy as theology (Lord knows that won’t sell tickets). If you’re making a movie about Christianity rather than Christians and you want to be fair, you gotta do your homework.
A call for temperance regarding indie films’ portrayal of Christians is kind, but it also functions as a cover for liberals’ self-consciousness toward their own contradictory philosophy: a strong belief against strong beliefs. Unless festivals like Sundance and the critics that review them can get comfortable with films as statements of belief, believers will never be accurately represented.