God’s Work in God’s Time | Christian Independent Filmmaking

As a Christian involved in filmmaking, what do I think about success and failure?

[This article was originally posted on HOSFU, a Christian Indie Film site. Unfortunately, that site is now shut down and some of their pages are dead. So I thought I would re-post my article here. It received a lot of comments when I posted it so I think it’s worth throwing into the blogosphere again.]

The question: As a Christian involved in filmmaking, what do I think about success and failure?

God’s Work in God’s Time.

Do you ever find yourself anxious to see the fulfillment of something you feel God has promised? In our particular context as filmmakers, we are part of projects that can be huge, complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Personally, I’m working on a film project that began almost ten years ago and we expect to have impact for twenty more. “The Enemy God” film took us four years of preparation and fundraising, accompanying years of terrible political opposition from a foreign government, the collapse of a well-respected ministry, and then we finally were able to shoot it! Then it was on to post.

I can’t tell you how many times some well-meaning Christian told us that it was obvious to them that God ‘just wasn’t blessing it’ or that ‘if God were in it, the doors would just open’ and our lives would be easy. Over the years, though, we have seen miracles that have matched the obstacles. Now we are distributing the film, and the challenges continue – awards and lots of pats-on-the-back, followed by being flat broke and with a few cold shoulders from people we thought would be the biggest fans.

American Christian culture tends to interpret God’s will by what we term, “open doors.” We all get excited and praise God for amazing stories where an underdog Christian film finds popularity and, even better, box-office success. We tend to say things like ‘God is really blessing this film and we’re seeing lots of fruit from it.” And the converse is also true; if things don’t seem to be progressing, we may interpret it (or be told) that what we are attempting is not His will. If a project doesn’t gain great audience numbers, perhaps God isn’t blessing it. But is this a true way to discern things? In our Christian film community here, what do we think about success and failure?

Here are some thoughts I have had from long years with both in my ministry.

–       Sometimes, things that are in line with God’s will and purposes take more time than we expect. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness” 1 Peter 3:9. Place yourself in the shoes of a devout Jew during the 400-year period between God’s last spoken prophecies in through the prophet Malachi and the appearance of Jesus the Messiah. You know the promises, are devout in your prayers for Messiah to come, and you believe that is it God’s will to save His people and to draw the nations to Himself. Yet there is a delay – long delay. Many generations die waiting. Do you think others talked a lot of trash about such beliefs? Like Job’s friends, religious people often have religious answers that seem to make sense and to be based in truth about God. However, like Job’s friends, their answers just happen to be wrong.

–       It is possible for Godly people to spiritualize activities that are done mostly by our own power and effort and skill. What I mean is that very talented people are capable of creating impact, even godly impact, without much dependence on God. I’m not about to point fingers or name names, because I understand that it is difficult for me to fully understand my own motivations and the source of the power and skill I try to demonstrate. Sometimes I am fully aware of God’s presence and overwhelming power as He performs tasks through me. Other times, I have to admit that I am not so sure. I believe I am being faithful, but I can lose the clarity about who is accomplishing a task. What’s more, I know I have worked ahead of (or sideways to) God on many occasions. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this to be true in my life. My conclusion, therefore, is that I will be slow to judge both the “success” and the “failure” of work done in God’s name by my brothers and sisters. I believe it is possible for us to be ‘successful’ by some measures and in God’s name while entirely missing His point or intention. Likewise, it is possible for us to utterly ‘fail’ at something by any reasonable standard and still be doing exactly what God intends. That’s a mind and faith-bender!

–       We can learn from Christians who come from other cultures. Non-western Christians are more patient, in my experience. They are willing to wait, even in the face of overwhelming hurdles and delays, based on their understanding of God’s purposes. Americans, especially, have a culture of achievement and an innate desire to make things happen. It’s in our cultural DNA, inherited in some way from the explorers, pilgrims, and pioneers who have gone before us. We are almost unique in our independent, up-by-the-bootstraps-and-against-all-odds, attitudes. Most other cultures have more of a relational orientation and a value of community rather than the individual. This means they take a longer view and judge by other criteria than individual success in a single activity. They may even look down on individual accomplishment because it is not connected with progress of the community. We Americans have an almost religious aversion to this kind of talk; to say anything against individual initiative and success is certifiably Marxist or worse. Yet, in relational, community-focused cultures that have also embraced the gospel, I have seen and experienced what I would consider a healthy perspective on how the Kingdom moves forward. For them it’s not primarily through the faith and guts and risk and sweat of individuals. It is often by the patient faithful watching and slow, plodding obedience of the community following God together. What we might see as ‘closed doors’ they may explain as just the normal working out of the supernatural conflict that has been in process almost since the beginning of time itself. They take a step back, check on what they know about God, and keep walking forward. They don’t over-analyze or switch paths easily or quickly.

All of these ideas are ones I ponder as I work through my own film ministry here in the US and overseas. I wonder what your experience has been, or what your perspective might be on this subject? Have you experienced any of what I’m talking about?

Too Harsh? Or…

…movie reviews: ______ didn’t have people living Christian lives. Therefore, ______ stinks. Also, there is swearing.

I saw this tweet yesterday from @cinexcellence: “WORLD magazine movie reviews: ______ didn’t have people living Christian lives. Therefore, ______ stinks. Also, there is swearing.”

I’ve been on the receiving end of good and bad reviews for my film work. In some cases, Christian reviews do seem to take this rubber-stamp, reactionary approach. In other cases, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by reviews – from very conservative audiences – that let me know that they understood the film, what we were trying to accomplish, and why it contained ‘objectionable’ elements. [“The Enemy God” has nudity, violence, drug use, occult practices – the whole deal – within the context of a highly redemptive and God-honoring story.]

My favorite is when we get something like a ‘highly recommended’ but a 2 out of 5 rating. The ratings are based on content elements that may offend people. But the film is excellently done and compelling! I think that’s an OK place to be.

One of the Most Unique (and Engaging) Movies Ever Made

I felt as if I was living inside the body of a Yanomamo tribesman. Honest — this movie is stirring.

It’s always nice to hear endorsements of your work from people you really respect. Doug Lucas is is very involved in cutting-edge training and information related to seeing the gospel transform every culture. He publishes a weekly e-mail update with news of all kinds at Brigada.org. Here’s a review of our film, The Enemy God, that Doug wrote recently.

“Yai Wanonabalewa (The Enemy God)” has to be one of the most unique movies ever produced… and it’s now been released on DVD.

Hear me well: This is an intense film… It is sometimes graphic, sometimes heart-wrenching, but always engaging. My advice for professors of seminary classes looking for something related to spiritual warfare, anthropology, world religions, and Cross-cultural communications: Run, don’t walk, to order a copy. To anyone working in folk religions, you finally have an inside view to what goes on “inside their heads.”

I can’t even put into words the “point of view” from which the story is told… because it seems to be totally Yanomamo… cross-cultural. I felt as if I was living inside the body of a Yanomamo tribesman. I spent much of my time fearing what might come next. Honest — this movie is stirring. If you have a missionary working among tribal peoples, this will give you a new perspective on prayer and its potential to make a difference. Don’t expect a heart-warming, feel-good story like something from a Disney kids’ film. Expect to be sobered. Expect to experience a perspective you’ve never felt before.

Read the whole article from Brigada.org here: One of the Most Unique (and Engaging) Movies Ever Made.

Anatomy of a Scene: Mother – Interactive Feature

Watch a short clip from a film with the Director’s commentary. In this case, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho’s “Mother”. I love these NYTimes interactive features. I think they really take advantage of the potential for electronic publishing, especially for cool things like film analysis.

Click here to watch and listen: Anatomy of a Scene: Mother – Interactive Feature – NYTimes.com.

Of course, this is a film that almost nobody has seen, but I like the way the director tells the story and builds the tension in creative ways with interesting camera angles and pacing. What do you think?

THE ENEMY GOD – Movieguide Review

TEG Poster

“This is one of the great stories. It is a highly recommended movie.” – Dr. Ted Baeher, Movieguide.org

Read the whole review here: ENEMY GOD – Christian Movie Review.

Dr. Ted Baehr of Movieguide is a fan of the book Spirit of the Rainforest. That book recounts some of the same historical events found in our film, Yai Wanonabälewä: The Enemy God. The same community of Yanomamö in Venezuela came to us almost ten years ago to ask us to make a film about  their lives and the spiritual freedom that they have found.

It is very gratifying to us to have his official, public, review of the film. We feel he did a very honest and insightful review of the film, from a specifically Christian point-of-view. What I like about Dr. Baehr’s reviews is that he digs deep in any film, secular or “Christian”, and examines worldview and the context for content that may be challenging or offensive to some.

As always, we are looking for ways to spread the word about the film. The world is crowded with content. Some of it is worthy, other, not so much. If you read this and read the Movieguide review, help us spread the love!

[Of course, you can buy the DVD for yourself right here: BUY THE DVD]

Patience, a Gift No One Wants to Earn

Our film just received a great review from a well-known critic. I can’t publish it yet because they’re proofing it and haven’t told us of a release date. But, I want to give just a hint (from a very comprehensive review) here:

THE ENEMY GOD is a low budget but very well made movie. It cares deeply about authenticity and achieves that goal with the set direction, the battle scenes, and the portrayals of the Yanomamö. … The script is powerful… THE ENEMY GOD is much better than most Hollywood movies.

This is one of the great stories. It is a highly recommended movie.

The main reason I’m posting this today is because I have been reminded of the value of patience and persistence. We’ve been working on this film for almost 8 years. That’s crazy! And it will never be a blockbuster commercial success; we know that.

When we got the e-mail with the review today, we passed it on to our Writer/Director, Christopher Bessette. He deserves the accolades. And here’s what he wrote back to me, in part:

You know that you and Matt have made a completely unconventional movie. It is cutting edge because no one has done something like this before. People don’t realize it yet – but the film will have longevity because of it. Like it has been said before they will be looking it up in 200 years in the history books. People don’t realize it now but slowly and eventually it will grow and grow and they will.

Zaven (Katchaturian) from the Arpa Film Festival told me personally that they were considering giving the actors awards but then they began to question as to whether or not they were watching reality or drama.  When they realized it was drama they gave me the award. That was very kind of them… and it is a God thing for sure, but trust me… eventually it will come to pass that greater masses will realize what this means.

Isaiah 55:11 – God’s Word will not return empty but it will accomplish that for which He sent it.

God is with us!

What Christopher’s note reminded me of is that, just because I’m tired of working one more day to make this film a reality, writing more e-mails trying to get attention for the story, Twittering and Facebooking without huge followings, God is working through the film. Matt and I began it with the assumption that it was totally out of our league and was something God needed to do. He did, and continues to make His story known in wider and wider circles, where it is still unknown.

Do we have the patience and perseverance to see things through? Sometimes I think I know when God is saying to just quit something. Other times, I depend on His Spirit to confirm that, even though the breakthrough hasn’t yet come, it doesn’t mean that God has changed His mind.