Delivering to the tribes

I will argue that ‘evangelical Christian’ is a term that can hardly have meaning any more in America. I think there are many tribes of people who share some common beliefs that make them Christian, but there are many other passions that make them very different when it comes to creative things like music, art, and film.

I’ll use a term that is used regularly among missions folk and one I also hear guys like Seth Godin using – tribes. These are identifiable groups of people with certain affinities. They like the same music, food, hobbies, politics, religion, etc. Something or many things join them together. For the new world of marketing, guys like Godin tell us that we must think in terms of tribes. There is almost no such thing as mainstream anymore; everything is niche. Some niches are larger than others, but there will never again be a cultural effect where the whole country stops to watch an episode of a TV sitcom. A few lowest-common-denominator shows like American Idol can come close, but they don’t compare with I Love Lucy or the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in gathering audience share. A big hit now means something entirely different than it did in the 1960’s.

There are more and more films being created by Christ-followers that are not what anyone would call ‘mainstream.’ That is, they don’t fit into the mold of family-friendly, didactic, films that get a lot of attention among evangelicals in America right now. The call has been, “Let’s stick it to Hollywood” by creating G-rated, wholesome entertainment that can mobilize audiences who want to “…stick it to Hollywood.” And there has been some success with movies like Facing the Giants and Fireproof as the models. However, I wonder what influence these films have had outside of the core audience of a certain kind of evangelical Christian. I will argue that ‘evangelical Christian’ is a term that can hardly have meaning any more in America. I think there are many tribes of people who share some common beliefs that make them Christian, but there are many other passions that make them very different when it comes to creative things like music, art, and film.

For instance, I have Christian friends who genuinely like the films I mentioned. But I have many Christian friends who are softer in their support. They tend to support them because they don’t want to say anything bad about the message or the good people who produce the films. Then, I also have Christian friends who are not shy to say, “I think those films just suck – from an aesthetic point-of-view.” They would never go to see them. They eagerly await quality films from whatever source, non-Christian or Christian. And their standards don’t make exceptions for the good intentions of the filmmakers.

I, too, want to be careful not to be in a negative mode. I want to be about casting vision, not casting stones. I hope to be following obediently what I am called to do, just like every other filmmaker who is looking for direction from God. Films that speak more directly to Christians, to teach and encourage them, have their place and I am involved in making them. I also know that there are some people who are not following Christ who are touched deeply by those films. I applaud what the folks at Sherwood are doing to encourage marriages, present good morals, etc.

But what if that’s not the audience that I feel called to have a conversation with? The main rub of all this is that the Christian film industry, just like music and books, is a business like any other. Success is measured by things like sales. Broad, easy-to-reach audiences are favored. I’m OK with that and understand that, coming from many years in marketing communications work.

Here’s the point (finally!)

In the broader world, there are systems, companies, and channels that exist for the smaller ‘tribes.’ Think PBS, Landmark Theaters, the many indie film distribution companies, cable channels, etc. These understand niche audiences for documentaries, public service programming, classical music, jazz, dance, and culture. They have found a way to nurture creative human expression and yet make the system work. Some are non-profit by design; some are for-profit but lean and mean to survive. But they do survive and they do speak to definable, targetable audiences. This is what I am looking for within the world of Christ-followers.

Where are the indie, underground, alternative, film labels for films that fall into the cracks, but do have an audience that can be reached? Where is the equivalent of PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts? When the mainstream Christian record labels ignored the harder-edged grunge, speed-metal, hardcore, techno-industrial bands that were populated by Christians, the bands and fans created their own labels, concert tours, and fan networks.  They survived and got the music out. Or think of artists like Sufjan Stevens, David Wilcox, Anathallo, and others who write out of their faith. Most will never be the cash-cow that the Steven Curtis Chapmans, Mercy Mes, or Third Days are for the big record companies, but they inspire tribes of music lovers who are deeply Christian but deeply not into what they hear on the Christian radio stations. More importantly, they speak much more broadly to alternative music lovers who don’t yet follow Christ – there’s a tribe that can be identified.

Music seems an easier nut to crack for indie distribution. It’s usually cheaper to produce. Cheaper to distribute. Comes in small packages that can be easily passed around (even with torrent sites, it’s an effort to share feature-length movies). People will have thousands of songs on their iPods, from hundreds of different artists. But it seems less likely that they’d have thousands of movies or even short clips on those players. Bands also make their money by touring rather than by CD sales. You don’t often hear about indie filmmakers touring with their film in an old van. Could happen, but it’s not the norm.

What if there was a Miramax, Zietgeist, or similar ‘label’ for indie films with a Christian worldview? It could run a web site where people could come to chat about film, ideas, art, music, and learn about new stuff. It probably would not aim for taking films to wide theatrical release. It would focus on segments of audiences like bands do with their music. Not everyone likes reggae, techno, punk, or country; and not everyone is drawn to thrillers, romantic comedies, or foreign-films. But, if you could identify the tribe and let them know that you had something they might like, you could gather them. If it is low mass, tribe-driven, and innovative I just think it could survive.

If this exists, I would love to know. My sense is that that films that can deeply touch people who are currently not being touched need a champion, a home, to be nurtured, and to be delivered. We need to be with those tribes and I think our stories need to find a place among them.

Movies I Wish I’d Made – “Ushpizin”

Ushpizin (2005, New Line Cinema) is a combination of great characters, deep and authentic spirituality, humor, and a fascinating world. I can’t think of more I’d ask for.

First in an irregular series. I’m trying to identify the kinds of films that resonate with me in a special way. I don’t mean that these are my only favorite films, but they represent the kinds of films that reflect what I want to do and are usually films I think I could make if given the opportunity.

dvdimage_ushpizinUshpizin (2005, New Line Cinema) is a combination of great characters, deep and authentic spirituality, humor, and a fascinating world. I can’t think of more I’d ask for. The story takes place in modern-day Israel, Jerusalem, to be exact. The story centers on a couple who have become Orthodox in their Jewish faith later in life. The husband, we learn, has a past where he was less than religious. They struggle with obedience to God and their rabbi. They wonder why God has dealt them the hand they have – poor, childless – despite their attempts to be right with Him. When a friend from their ‘old days’ shows up during the Feast of Booths, the reality of their faith and their new life is severely tested.

Here’s the official blurb from the DVD release: Marks the first film made by members of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community in collaboration with secular filmmakers and provides a touching and unique look at the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews as they question and explore their faith. Breaking the barriers between cultures, the film holds a universal and human appeal that transcends any religion or belief. Writer and star Shuli Rand (“Moshe”), winner of the Israeli Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor and the Best Actor Award from the Israeli Film Academy, stars with his real-life wife, Mechal Bat Sheva Rand (“Malli”), as husband and wife whose love is tested and faith is challenged when a secret from the past reveals itself during the Jewish holiday of Succoth.

I appreciate the unashamed sincerity of the faith of Moshe and Malli. The film gives a glimpse into the lives of modern ultra-Orthodox Jews as they seek a path in a modern world. The film shows an appreciation of ancient faith and traditions that are rich with meaning and provide actual answers in crisis. I believe the film is a celebration of authentic faith that is rooted in tradition but not made obsolete or anachronistic. This couple really does believe and trust God. They really do doubt and almost lose it. They fight. They pray passionately and from their hearts. They sin. But none of this feels clichéd to me, nothing syrupy or simplistic even though it is often simple and straightforward. It made me wonder if someone could do a remake of this story but set it in the U.S. Could someone do evangelical Christian characters that are sincerely, deeply people of faith and make it so natural and genuine? I don’t remember seeing it yet.

I wonder if it works because it is set in Israel and there’s something different about Orthodox Jews. Can they seem more authentic because they are just so different than I am? I feel like you could almost use entire dialogue scenes verbatim and place them in the mouths of Christians in America and it would be real. But would it work? I don’t know. I just know that, when I watch Malli pray and sing praise songs in her kitchen and as she pours out her heart with love to God, I just think of her as a sister, not as a Jew. Her faith challenges and encourages me.

So, I heartily recommend Ushpizin. You can get it on NetFlix and probably anywhere else. It never had much commercial success in the U.S. because you have to read subtitles, but it’s an easy follow and flows beautifully.

Working In Middle Spaces

Here’s a common question: “Is your film (music/dance/art) for Christian or non-Christian audiences?” Conventional wisdom (very wisely) preaches that you need to pick your audience.

Here’s a common question: “Is your film (music/dance/art) for Christian or non-Christian audiences?” Conventional wisdom (very wisely) preaches that you need to pick your audience. I think many Christian artists tend to instinctively draw a dividing line between those who are ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ when they craft their stories.

I think that the dividing line(s) can easily fall in other areas. For instance, if I am looking at my audience, I may choose to treat some viewers who are Christian and Secular as one group, joined by other interests. I may also exclude some viewers who are Christian and Secular from my core audience, because they have different interests. Maybe this isn’t a surprise to you, but it feels like there is pressure away from this in what may be considered ‘mainstream Christian’ media channels.

The Enemy God Poster
The Enemy God Poster

Here’s where this hits me. We have a film story, Yai Wanonabalewa: The Enemy God, that comes from a profoundly Christian worldview but also is of interest to audiences who don’t hold to that worldview. So when we screen the film and introduce it to people, we get a lot of interest from both sides because they share a common interest in things like indigenous stories, spirituality, independent film, etc. They don’t, however, always share a commitment to a Christian worldview. The opposite is also true. Some audiences who share the basic worldview of the film may not like it and some who might be passionate about indigenous issues may reject it for various reasons. So, when someone asks me about my film’s audience (and if the questioner is Christian) they usually give me an odd look when I say we are aiming at both Christians and Non-Christians with our film. It’s as if we are hopeless fools who just don’t get it, or are just too un-disciplined to make a hard choice.

Really, I would argue, we are aiming for a different ‘tribe’ – one who may not be joined by religious belief, but by other passions. And the faith elements are able to mix and provoke like a good parable. I would like to suggest and encourage you to be disciplined to focus on an audience (and not try to say, “it’s for everyone!”) But I would also encourage those of you who are creating stories that work in what some call ‘middle-spaces’ of our culture. We need visual stories that gain a hearing in every sub-culture and ‘tribe’. And, sometimes, we discover that we are able to encourage people who share our faith claims, who are wandering around in those same middle spaces, looking for someone of faith who will speak to them as well.

We are about to screen The Enemy God here in Denver at the Starz FilmCenter, hosted by the Denver Film Society. (press release below) The cool thing for us, by God’s grace, is that we are playing alongside films that deal with alternative lifestyle issues, native american issues, thrillers, religion, etc. It’s a privilege that many films that come from a Christian worldview don’t get. So we are hoping to make the most of it and the conversations that are provoked. In some ways, I feel that we have stumbled our way in to these things. I hope the conversation encourages or does something else to you!

Starz FilmCenter Press Release

Navigating the Indie Festival Circuit

A friend suggested that I share a bit about my experiences in rolling out a feature-length dramatic film on the independent film festival circuit. I have just returned from a screening of The Enemy God at the Arpa International Film Festival.

A friend suggested that I share a bit about my experiences in rolling out a feature-length dramatic film on the independent film festival circuit. I have just returned from a screening of The Enemy God at the Arpa International Film Festival. The festival was held at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, a landmark location. While this is definitely not a major festival, I think it is pretty typical of most of the thousands of smaller festivals in which really-independent, un-connected, filmmakers will find themselves. And I think there are some good lessons that we have learned since our film has been on the circuit.

Arpa Int'l Film Festival Poster
Arpa Int'l Film Festival Poster

Very briefly, our film is a dramatic, feature-length film that is set in the Amazon rainforest. It tells the true story of a Yanomamö Indian shaman and the supernatural struggles for the survival of his people. It stars a cast of indigenous actors and is filmed in the K’ekchi’ language. From that description, it is probably apparent that our does not have “blockbuster” written all over it. However, we believed when we began the project and have discovered that there is an enthusiastic audience for the film, when we can get people to see it.

Here are a couple of observations I’d like to throw out to you from our festival experiences:

1. Speak truthfully, and you can speak to people who may not normally be eager to listen to you.

Our film deals with spirituality and indigenous culture. The point of view presented is definitely one that embraces the positive change that has occurred among the Yanomamö who have embraced a Christian worldview. This means that they gave up many of their former beliefs and traditions. We expect lots of backlash from secular audiences because the idea of a person from a traditional culture giving up some of that culture is not politically correct. However, our commitment to the Yanomamö (who came to us with the idea for a film) was that we would help them speak with their voice rather than come in and tell their story from the perspective of outsiders. This made for a very difficult film, but in the end we have been welcomed in to festivals that are decidedly not Christian. Ten of twelve festivals that we have been a part of are ‘secular’ or ‘spiritual’ in a more broad way. We have received many nominations and a number of awards at these festivals. At a festival that was entirely about Native American/Indigenous filmmaking, our film was invited and celebrated by an audience whose normal view of white Christians is one of resentment and distrust because of past wrongs. But because they trusted us and believed that we were sincere in our storytelling we were able to enter their world and gain a hearing. We also made the effort to listen well and to honor their stories.

2. It is possible to create art that can live in the middle space between the secular and spiritual and have positive influence.

Alex K., Festival Director, and Tom Khazoyan talk with film fans at the Arpa Festival
Alex K., Festival Director, and Tom Khazoyan talk with film fans at the Arpa Festival

You may feel as though you are stuck outside of both worlds. Sometimes I think that the real truth is, if you try to walk in the middle you spend your time getting attacked from the left and right. While it can seem easier to work from the extremes, there are many of us who want to wrestle in the gray areas. With our film, we began with a story that had universal themes, but a definite Christian worldview. As we wrote the script, we were committed to being entirely truthful, but also to make a film that engages the viewer’s mind and speaks with a unique voice. Only a few ‘secular’ critics have had a problem with the message of the film. Perhaps they tend to compartmentalize what they see and probably spin it the way they are comfortable. Ironically, we have had criticism from Christians who feel that our film does not give a clear gospel message. [It does not help that we have demon worship, drug use, violence, and naked women in our film!] However, most Christians have embraced the film and the challenges of it. One festival actually put us in their “distinctly gospel” category – not the one we thought best fit our film. The bottom-line for me is that we have found ourselves in the fascinating middle of cultures. That is a place some “Christian films” find hard to penetrate. I’m glad we are here.