Changing the World, One Movie at a Time
- 2009 20 Mar
For better or worse, movies have become one of the primary driving forces behind our modern culture. In fact, in a relatively short period of less than one hundred years, movies have grown into one of the most successful claimants upon the time of our society. And—perhaps predictably—movies have gone from simple stories that portray life to dramatic and often bizarre themes that are then all too often acted out in real life.
Why is the medium of film so pervasive and influential? And more importantly, can Christians—and particularly Christian homeschoolers—do anything to take this highly effective, but often misused medium of entertainment and claim it for Christ?
The people behind the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival think we can. Recognizing the potential of Christians in the filmmaking industry, Doug Phillips, President of Vision Forum Ministries, began the SAICFF in 2004 to provide both motivation and opportunity for aspiring Christian filmmakers to participate in what is now a burgeoning community.
Jonathan and I had the opportunity to go to the SAICFF this year. In this article, I’ll describe what we found there, why homeschoolers are such a formidable part of independent Christian filmmaking, how your family can get involved in the movement, and perhaps most importantly, what the Christian independent filmmaking industry can teach us all about impacting the world for Christ.
Immediately upon entering the festival, we could sense the standard of excellence and quality that pervades the modern Christian filmmaking movement. The attitude was optimistic and expectant, and the atmosphere around the convention center was almost like a family gathering. People exchanged greetings with friends, stories were shared, and new friendships began.
Possibly the single most remarkable aspect of the festival was the diversity of the films that were entered. Joshua Eddy, a homeschool student of 15 and an aspiring filmmaker, was impressed. “I think it’s really cool,” he said. “I mean, we’ve got an epic Dark Age medieval thriller, we’ve got a comedy musical western, we’ve got Lego animations.” Joshua’s father, Mike, agreed. “It can’t go anywhere but up!” he said enthusiastically.
The Von Trapp Children (great-grandchildren of the Von Trapp’s in The Sound of Music) gave several concerts throughout the festival. I had the opportunity to speak with Melanie Von Trapp for a few moments, and her comments seemed to get right to the essence of the entire festival: “I think that it’s amazing that these people have put together an event to help bring about films that bring hopeful messages. That means a lot to us because of our family history. The Sound of Music … was an awesome message that they put in that, and it reached so many people and changed a lot of lives.”
And changing lives for the better was indeed the overarching theme of the entire 2009 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.
In his address at the opening ceremonies, Doug Phillips made the point that the filmmakers and other attendees at the SAICFF were not there just to escape from the world’s entertainment or even to simply have a good time. That was obvious as we talked with filmmakers and other people at the festival. These are people who have a fervent desire to make a real difference in the world and reach people with the gospel.
During our time at the festival, we spoke with Stephen Kendrick (producer of Fireproof) and heard two presentations by Dean Jones. Both of these gentlemen are intensely interested in bringing people to Jesus. Nor were they alone, as several of the films we saw had distinctively evangelistic themes.
Additionally, there were other films which reached out to Christians to inspire them to courage, vision, and a pure, upright lifestyle. In short, the films at the festival were not merely entertainment with a quick sermon thrown in somewhere; they were developed from the ground up to inculcate a Biblical worldview.
It was also encouraging to see the quality of the films. Deservedly or not, Christian movies have long had the reputation of being poorly produced, with unconvincing acting, thin plots, and unlikely scenarios. But nobody can see the films currently being produced by independent Christian studios without being impressed at their high standard of excellence. Much of the acting (often by unpaid volunteers) is equal to Hollywood productions, the special effects are convincing, and the story lines are believable.
One caveat: When my brother and I were growing up, our parents carefully screened movies before watching them as a family to make sure they met our family’s standards of what was appropriate for young eyes. Every family’s standards are slightly different, so I would suggest using appropriate caution even when selecting Christian films.
Among some conservative Christian circles, movies have gained a status almost amounting to anathema. And that’s not surprising—the films coming out of Hollywood have gotten progressively worse and continue to degrade yet further. But does this mean Christians should have nothing to do with the movie industry? We asked several directors, producers, and other individuals the question, “Why film?” Here are a few of the insightful answers we received:
“Film is clearly one of the most influential things we have in our culture today. If you look at the arts, music alone is very powerful, very persuasive. It goes beyond the mental filters to your emotions and into your heart, whether it’s used for good or evil. Then example is very powerful … We can hear stories and that’s great, and our minds can imagine things, but when you see it in front of you, you see an example, and that’s powerful. And then story is powerful. Jesus told parables, characters with different personalities.
“Well, a movie wraps all of those powerful influences together. You’ve got story, you’ve got example, good or bad, you’ve got music in there, you’ve got emotions that can be emoted through that. So it is a very, very powerful tool.
“Now, that’s me logically describing why, but when we look at our culture, we can also see that. I had the privilege of having breakfast with Bill Wichterman in the West Wing of the White House, and he [was] a liaison to [President Bush]. And he explained to us how movies and media and culture are upstream from politics. He said those things are influencing the laws in our nation. And that when our nation is heading towards immorality in their media and in their movies, it causes the whole generation to follow suit, and then our laws and policies follow as well … television shows follow movies … music, so many things. Even the dialogue, the fad phrases of teenagers, oftentimes come from movies, lines from movies they’ve seen.
“So why film? Ultimately we believe God’s called us to do it, but we see why He’s called us to do it.”
Stephen Kendrick, Fireproof, www.FireproofTheMovie.com
“Ken Ham has been featured in numerous films over the last 20, 30 years practically, and most of those have been of documentary format … so the embellished lecture-style film has been very important in our outreach. Film has been more effective, although we’ve put out I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of audio CDs, and with a lecture you would typically think of an audio CD being fine. But actually with DVDs, because we’re able to embellish what the speakers are saying visually, we’re able to do animations, we’re able to cut in b-role footage to emphasize what the speakers are talking about, whether it’s a DNA strand, or a mountain in Turkey, or the Grand Canyon, or whatever it is, just having that visual impact helps the young person or whoever the audience is to remember the point of the film much more clearly.”
Dale Mason, Answers in Genesis, www.AnswersInGenesis.org
“Film is an effective medium for communicating a message because of its power to reach into your heart and mind. It’s absolutely incontrovertible, beyond debate, that film is an incredibly powerful tool. Most people are more likely to quote a line from a movie than they are to quote a line from a sermon. When you view a film … it reaches your sense of vision, and your sense of hearing, and your imagination as well. And it transports you into a world that the filmmaker creates, and he can define left and right, up and down, and right from wrong. And he defines all these things inside that world, and you actually enter this world; it’s like an immersing experience, and you lose track of absolute reality. And what we want to do is, we want to make films that are presuppositionally based on scripture. So that means when you enter the world of the film, it’s going to be as true to the truths of the Bible as the Lord gives us grace to make them. And hopefully while you’re in that world, you will be both entertained and edified in the sense that truth will be reinforced and exhibited through the story and will encourage you to keep pressing on in your faith, or encourage you to embrace the faith, in the real world.”
Chad Burns, Pendragon: Sword of His Father, www.PendragonMovie.com
Another important question is why the Christian filmmaking industry needs to be separate from Hollywood. After all, the Hollywood studios already have the money, talent, equipment, and resources to make high-quality films. Wouldn’t it be better to try to work within Hollywood to produce decent films?
Doug Phillips calls this the “Infiltrationist Synchronist Position,” and while he acknowledges that his own position is the minority view, he does not believe infiltrating Hollywood is an effective method to impact the world through film.
“You could go to many famous people around America who could tell you why it’s so important for Christians to get into Hollywood,” he explains. “And I’m saying, get out of Hollywood. The problem is that Hollywood … is philosophically rooted in a worldview which is in opposition to us. It is a religious enemy of Christianity ... the best that [Infiltrationists] hope to do is to make horrible films not quite so bad. Maybe if we remove a little bit of nudity, take out a couple of bad words, what a victory for the gospel. That’s not much of a victory at all … I still don’t want my children to watch those films. So you took out the junk—the film still hasn’t changed its philosophical message. It just isn’t quite as horrific as it was a minute ago. Well, that’s really nothing to aspire to.”
Curtis Bowers, an attendee at the festival, also agrees that independent filmmaking is the only way Christians can make a difference through the medium of film. “I think [independent filmmaking] is the only thing that makes sense. We’re not supposed to be yoked together with them anyway, and you’re never going to change the people until they accept Jesus Christ, and then they’ll come over to our team anyway and they’ll be with us instead of against us … for the last forty years Christians have tried it the other way and it hasn’t worked.”
Mr. Phillips explains that a “replacement industry” is needed in order for Christians to accomplish great things through the medium of film: “We are about the business of encouraging Christians to do God’s work, God’s way. That’s our mission.”
While acknowledging that there are a number of independent Christian filmmakers who are not necessarily affiliated with the homeschool community, Doug Phillips also believes that “The up and coming movement, in other words the next generation of filmmakers, it’s at least 75% home educators. The next wave, the next generation, is absolutely being dominated by home educators. It’s not exclusive to them, but it’s very, very strong.”
Why are homeschoolers such a massive contingent among Christian filmmakers? Mr. Phillips continues: “Home education is inherently … a freeing to the creative mind which is held captive to Christ. Home educators have the ability … to stretch themselves in ways that people who are under the bondage of a traditional humanistic model of education, a classroom model, do not have.”
John Moore, homeschool graduate and director of The Widow’s Might, adds that the interaction he had with his parents was vital to his career in filmmaking. “The whole homeschool experience revolves around a constant dialogue between parents and a child. And so you become very good at that interaction that you need with adults. Everybody talks about the need for social interaction, but in an industry, in a profession, it’s more important to understand interaction with adults and professionals than it is to understand interaction with peers.”
Also citing family life as a reason homeschoolers are admirably suited to filmmaking, Doug Phillips says, “Our families are part of what we’re doing. Our families are each pitching in. That means it’s more cost-effective, it means it’s more vision-oriented, it reinforces the essence of what family life is all about. So there’s a beautiful complement between filmmaking and the family for many people here.”
What’s the Future?
Everybody we talked to agreed that the 2009 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival was a watershed for independent Christian filmmaking. The quality of the films was so high, and the level of dedication so remarkable, that it truly marks an epoch within the movement.
But there are obstacles ahead. Independent Christian filmmaking runs directly counter to the agenda of many in Hollywood. Not only that, but with Fireproof having recently broken all records for the top-grossing independent movie in America (Christian or otherwise), it’s clear that independently-produced Christian movies are beginning to cut into Hollywood’s profits as well.
Doug Phillips thinks it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood takes notice of what’s going on and attempts to destroy or absorb the Christian independent filmmaking movement. “I think they will do that by money, by buying Christians out, by tempting them with the golden calf,” he said. “I think they’ll tempt them with big personalities and stars and money and all sorts of things like that, and I think a lot of people will succumb. That may be part of the attrition that we’re going to have to live with as we press forward, because we live in a sinful world.”
But the future is still bright: “For those that have eyes to see and ears to hear, we are going to forge our work outside of Hollywood and we’re not going to quit . . . we are going to be indefatigable.”
The 2009 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival was an enjoyable and inspiring experience. But to us, the most exciting thing was seeing families who are daring to do big things for God—and whether or not the rest of us ever touch a video camera, that’s something we can all aspire to!
Published on March 23, 2009
Matthew Lewis is a homeschool graduate, self-taught web developer, and Jack-of-all-trades at Home School Enrichment, which he helped start with his family in 2002. You may email him at matthew@HomeSchoolEnrichment.com.
This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2009 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Get more great homeschooling help by downloading our FREE 8-page report entitled “The Secret to Homeschooling Freedom” by visiting http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com/resources/report.htm