|Aiming to Influence the Media From the Inside
LOS ANGELES, 7 JAN. 2006 (ZENIT)
Christians should work to change
Hollywood from the inside, instead of spending so much time criticizing
it from outside. This is one of the main ideas in the recently published
"Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture"
The collection of essays, edited by Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara
Nicolosi, stems from the activity of Act One, a group set up in 1999 by
Christian writers and producers active in Hollywood. Act One aims to
train "artist-apostles" for the movie industry, and to transform it from
within. The essays are written by Act One staff and stem from the
curriculum prepared for the students.
In her essay on the theme of a Christian cinema, co-editor Nicolosi, the
executive director of Act One, observes that producing more films like
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is no easy task. In fact,
Gibson is somewhat of an anomaly, as artists of that level rarely
believe in Christ, and Christians who have a mature faith rarely succeed
in the entertainment business.
The community of the faithful, Nicolosi contends, also needs to rid
itself of the idea of creating a "Christian cinema" in the sense of
making products all by itself for a separate audience of believers.
Instead, Christians need to work with Hollywood insiders, and to learn
from them professionally so as to ensure they are capable of producing
well-made films, Nicolosi insists. Moreover, Christians cannot limit
themselves to producing material based on the Bible and the lives of
saints. "Christians in entertainment don't have to be always talking
about God," writes Nicolosi. "They should be talking about everything in
a godly way."
Christians also need to be more sensitive to the artistic demands of
cinema, notes Nicolosi. Many Christian projects fail because they force
the medium by insisting on an overly theological content. But
entertainment works best when it engages in a dialogue with the viewer,
rather than just being an academic lesson. Thus, rather than "delivering
the Truth" Christians should imitate the trust of the sower who casts
seeds on the ground and moves on.
So, what is a Christian movie? asks Nicolosi. For a start it is
something more than just avoiding bad language and sexual immorality. A
Christian movie should affirm spiritual realities and show viewers that
there is more than the immediate material world. Then, it should also be
imbued with the certainty that we are not alone, but are connected both
to one another and to God.
A Christian movie should also make clear that good and evil are not
equal and should lead viewers away from cynicism toward hope in
redemption. Portraying the values of a culture of life is another
important characteristic. This means conveying a reverence toward the
human person and making clear the uniqueness of each human being.
Knowing how to balance both joy and suffering is also essential, notes
Nicolosi. This enables us to avoid a grief that leads to despair, she
states. And, of course, the product must sell, which means being
attentive to what will appeal to the needs of the audience.
Making a good film
Why is it that heathens tend to make the best Christian films? This is
the question put by Thom Parham in his essay. According to Parham,
scriptwriter and associate professor at Azusa Pacific University, many
of the better films with Christian messages, with a few notable
exceptions, have been made by non-religious people.
The reason that they do better than the Christian producers, whose films
are often unwatchable, is that secular filmmakers are making their
product for mainstream audiences. Christians, he noted, mostly go out to
see the same films as everyone else, so producing films specifically
targeted at them is a mistake.
The film industry is different from the music and book sectors, where
there is an extensive Christian distribution and commercial
infrastructure. But there are no Christian movie theaters or
distribution chains, so films targeting Christians have to compete with
the mainstream products.
Often, Christian filmmakers ignore this reality, and the storytelling
and production aspects are subordinated to the message. "The films are
merely bait to lure viewers to a homily or altar call, and this only
ensures their failure," notes Parham.
"Show, don't tell, is the rule of the cinema," he explains, and it is
important not to confuse art with propaganda. This is well understood by
non-Christian producers, who instead of an overt message often rely on
symbol and metaphor. In this, explained Parham, they are following the
example of Jesus, who often taught in parables instead of responding
directly to questions.
Christians would also do well to remember the dimension of mystery
inherent in the Christian message, and leave space for the imagination
of their audience. Another failure of Christian producers is to ignore
life's complexities, instead of seeing the world the way it is, with its
contradictions and failures.
Of course, notes Parham, there have been some successful religious
filmmakers. Interestingly, most of them come from Catholic backgrounds.
Even though some of them had lapsed from the practice of their faith,
their Catholicity gave them three key elements: an intuitive grasp of
iconography for crafting visual images; a realization of the
incarnational function of art; and an awareness of the sacramental
nature of life.
Christian consumers also have an important role to play, explained
television writer and producer Dean Batali. Instead of urging people to
turn off their televisions, he encourages them to watch TV, and to make
sure they let Hollywood know what they like, and dislike.
Television programs, he notes, can be considered as a delivery system
for ads. The success or failure of a show depends on reaching an
audience that will pay for the products promoted during the ad breaks.
Because Hollywood producers think that Christians either aren't watching
or aren't offended by the programs, they rarely take their views into
account. Batali sympathizes with the viewers who are disgusted with the
foul language or immoral content on many television programs. But he
also encourages them to inform themselves and find out which shows are
good. Some decent programs, in fact, have folded because they failed to
attract sufficient viewers.
Part of the problem also lies in the chasm between Hollywood and
Christianity, Batali observes. He notes that out of 55 writers he has
worked with in his career, only three attended church regularly. And in
many cases TV programs reflect the views of the people who write them.
Ron Austin, a veteran writer and producer, also comments on the divide
between Christianity and Hollywood. Many Christians trying to work in
the entertainment industry encounter some degree of prejudice, he
The typical Hollywood secularist, who might be part of the
countercultural generation of the 1960s and 1970s, will often not have a
fully coherent personal philosophy, but will have rejected religion. And
only too often the secularist has formed a stereotype of Christians as
repressed, provincial and inhibited.
At the same time, many in Hollywood have no credible alternatives to
propose to religion. Austin explains that when he arrived in Hollywood
some 50 years ago, Marxism, or the hope in a world driven by science and
technology, provided a source of ideals. Today, however, these rival
pseudo-religions have failed and the secularist "is needled by an
ongoing crisis of disbelief." What's left, some are hoping, is a field
ripe for evangelization.