Movies as Ministry
Movies as Ministry: Contemporary Christian Cinema
When you mention Christian movies, people in the church often have one of three reactions:
• they effuse enthusiastically;
• they pretend to throw up;
• they stare at you blankly.
Certainly in the USA, Christian Cinema, like Christian Music has been a niche market, reflecting the fact they have a population size to make commercially viable productions. Christian films have often been criticised for their low budgets, poor acting, and inadequate theology, especially from liberal Christians who probably think a Michael Moore film is beyond criticism.
The last decade has witnessed an expansion of Christian film, and the production quality has also increased with many now using professional actors who have been in secular work. The success of the family drama 7th Heaven (1996 - 2007) demonstrated there could even be a commercially successful Christian family drama with a dog named Happy.
When Alex Kendrick began ministry as the Associate Pastor of Media at Sherwood Baptist Church, in Albany Georgia, he saw potential in a movie based ministry and with his brother Stephen founded Sherwood Pictures as a ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church. They began producing stories for film, and involving local members in the production, as well as acting, including the senior pastor.
Sherwood has a long history of involvement in contemporary technology and ministry, including cable television, music recording, and has a wide variety of groups and activities, including sporting and recreational facilities.
Sherwood Pictures have now produced three films; with a fourth film Courageous, due for release in 2011. Each of the films has a received a growing audience, but the latest to be released Fireproof has received extensive coverage in church circles, and has even been shown on Showtime Drama (Foxtel). It would be fascinating to watch ordinary Australians watching this film. I can see a documentary coming up!
There is a consistent message in their films, and arises from their commitment to make encouraging and life affirming films. These films will naturally ‘err' on the side of good winning over evil or despair, and critics may say they are unrealistic and do not address continuing problems, but all of us know situations where people's lives have been dramatically changed by coming to their own understanding of God's grace and love, and growing to love God and their neighbour.
They are films essentially about relationships - with God, our neighbour, and especially our family, and are aimed especially at men, encouraging a re-examination of their relationships, particularly if they are married. There is a ‘church culture' dimension to the lives of the main characters, and the films want people to consider are they also just part of the church culture or are do they have faith themselves?
Flywheel (2003) - "In every man's life there's a turning point
Alex Kendrick plays Jay Austin, a used car salesman in Albany, able to take anyone for a ride, including ripping off his local pastor, and yet he is still frustrated by his life, and his family. The name of the film comes from a part that Jay needs to have to restore a triumph sports car. It is also a running theme, that unless you have a relationship with God, you are missing what is essential to life. The biblical parallel to this story is also clear and well used in parts -Zacchaeus (Luke 19) and I leave tis part for you to ponder.
Facing the Giants (2006, PG) "...With God, all things are possible."
Grant Taylor is a coach of the Shiloh Eagles, and husband to Brooke. He has coached his high school team to dismal results for six years, and the writing is on the wall. They struggle personally as well, as they have been trying to start a family and wonder why God has not blessed them with children. Taylor begins to adopt some bible teaching and encouragement in his coaching, and his life and the lives of the young people around him change. This film is more for sports enthusiasts, especially American football, and there are parts that are a little obscure for an Australian audience, but themes about relationships and the struggle with faith will resonate. There are times when I wondered about some aspects of the theology presented, but the theological overview is oriented to having faith in God, rather than faith in God so you can win games. There have been over 7000 Facing the Giants local movie events in the USA, highlighting the significant role of sport and the increasing move to tap into this within the church scene in the USA.
Fireproof (2008, PG) "Never leave your partner behind"
Kirk Cameron, a professional actor who played Mike in the 1980s family sitcom Growing Pains is Caleb Holt, a fire-fighter and husband in a dying marriage. He would never leave his partner behind in a fire, but personally he fails to even see how unloving he has become. As his life comes to a point of decision, his father challenges him to undertake a 40 day love dare. The book The Love Dare is a companion to the movie, and has been a secular success with over 3.5 million copies in print in twenty languages.
The film touches on the dangers of fantasy about other relationships when one's own marriage is in difficulty, the scourge of internet pornography - the secret adultery that is consuming many marriages, but focusses on the oldest problem - living only for your own needs, rather than the needs of your spouse. All these link to the Fire theme, a firestorm of issues can be set marriages - how can your marriage survive in a society that often says ‘just move on'. This is a pretty hard-hitting film in parts, and one that is best for couple groups, rather than the general church community.
Fireproof attracted more than 4 million movie goers in its commercial release, and was the No. 1 independent film in the USA in 2008, a fact mainly reflecting the sizeable Christian market, but also the growing interest in family films.
There is an Australian connection with the films - David Nixon, Director of the new film Letters to God is originally from Sydney, and was producer for Facing the Giants and Fireproof.
ACC Executive Consultant
Reflections on ‘The Road’
Peter Sellick - On-line Opinion Column, posted Monday 29 March 2010
The film of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road is undoubtedly a masterpiece. The question posed by the author is: what happens to humanity when all material and institutional culture is stripped from them and they are left in a wilderness in a desperate struggle to survive? The answer given is that people sort themselves into the good guys and the bad guys, those who do not eat people and those who do. Life is stripped down to this dark duality.
I was reminded of the film after reading John Zizioulas, an orthodox theologian, on the two ontologies of being. An ontology of being is that ground on which existence is based. Zizioulas names two ontologies, that based on nature and that based on the person. In the former, men are understood on the basis of their biology, psychology and evolutionary heritage. Mankind is essentially a species among other species. This is not a modern conclusion, it was pervasive in all Greek philosophy and in much Christian theology. For example, Augustine defines man in terms of his intelligence and as taking his place in the great chain of being that begins with inanimate objects proceeds to plants, animals, man, angels and God.
The other ontology of being, that of the person, was elaborated, according to Zizioulas, by the 4th century Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa in their Trinitarian theology. They concluded that the three Persons of the Trinity could only be understood in terms of the relations of persons. The Father is Father of the Son and the Son is the Son of the Father, the Spirit was the love between the Father and the Son. This was an ontology of being which did not rely on "being" understood in terms of the things of the world, their nature, but of existence in relation.
Thus the name of God as "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" is not the name of existent beings or subjects but of relations that have the attributes of the Pauline blessing: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." This is not a blessing that proclaims the presence to the believer of a supernatural being but the presence of the grace, love and fellowship of God. In other words, talk of God does not rely on an analogy of "being", of an analogy to things in the world but to an analogy of relationship.
This is basically why atheism in its present form is irrelevant to Christian faith because it can only think of God in terms of the analogy of "being". Of course we all exist as natural beings, the products of evolution, but that fact fails to ground what it means to be human. Such an ontology will lead inevitably to our reduction to the animal.
The next step in this argument is to take the statement that man was created in the image of God seriously. If God can only be understood by language that is based on an analogy of relation and if man was created in his image then our ontology is also based on that analogy. Since relationship can only exist between persons, that means that the proper ontology of man is that of the person.
My reference to The Road illustrates the two kinds of ontology; the cannibals understand humanity on the analogy of nature, they are meat. The ones who do not eat humans understand humanity in terms of person. Individuals are children of God who share God's ground of being; that they exist as fully human beings only in relation. It is obvious from Defoe's novel that Robinson Crusoe is ontologically unstable.
Even though modern Western Society largely understands man in terms of nature, a heritage from natural science, it also displays many aspects of the ontology of person. Individualism stands for the notion that we are not just members of a species but each has a dignity specific to ourselves. While this is derived from the dignity of the person as child of God it does not carry with it a true ontology of the person as being in relation. Individualism is a truncated understanding of what it means to be human.
The notion of human rights is an attempt to produce a secularised understanding of the dignity of each individual but again is cut off from the integral aspect of relationship. There are also contradictions in our understanding of what constitutes the human when we entertain the convenient fiction that the unborn are not persons but fragments of nature. Thus the modern world is a confused mix of ontologies and it is no wonder that we flounder artistically, ethically, politically.
The whole point of the Church is to claim that the true ontology of man lies not in nature but in the "person in relation". While The Road puts this most starkly, in extremis, this dichotomy is fundamental to how we live our lives. Do we regard our spouse as a means of sexual gratification, as an incubator for children, as unpaid labour or as prestige possession? Or do we regard them as "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh"? Do we regard the enemy as a threat or the one we are commanded to love? Do we understand our work as a means of survival in competition with others or as paid contribution to our neighbour? Ethics falls out of metaphysics. When we understand ourselves as persons in relation over and above ourselves as individuals of a species then ethical conundrums become clear.
There is no way to human dignity from an ontology of nature. Even a limp "respect for others" relies on the fact that we live in relation. That is why purely rationalist ethics is so unconvincing. An ontology of nature gives no permanence to the individual. Death and decay are the end point of human life. By contrast, an ontology of the person transcends death. This is not to reduce the significance of death that will one day sweep us all away, but it is to acknowledge that "being" for us is not defined by our consciousness or nature, but in our relation with God that is immortal. In death we become a member of the communion of saints, we may be lost to ourselves but we are not lost to God.
The popular view of heaven as a continuation of life in another place is conditioned by an ontology of nature because it imagines heaven in terms of this earthly life. But if we are true to an ontology of the person we may believe that even in death our relationship with God survives. It is significant that Paul talks about worldly hazard and death not in terms of the loss of bodily function or of consciousness but as the impossibility of being separated from the love of God (Rom 8:38).
It is significant that the new atheists are headed up by biological scientists. These are men who have been trained to only see nature and their understanding of the human is based on an ontology of nature. This is really a return to Geek thought that could only see death and fate as celebrated in their tragedies. The new atheists would have us return to a time in which the only realities are those of nature; power, competition, pleasure and death. The dignity of the individual has no basis in nature, the only basis for the family is that it transmits our genes. This is how life is potentially reduced once the shallow grounding of human rights and respect for the individual are swept away.
The debate about atheism is not about the existence of a supernatural being but about the truth of the ontology of the human as person in relation. If we lose even the vestiges of this then our future looks bleak indeed.
Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.
Do all roads lead to God?
The film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel The Road is a worthy addition to the growing list. Interest in McCarthy grew significantly after his novel No Country for Old Men was adapted for the screen and won the Best Motion Picture Oscar in 2007.
The film has Australian connections, with director John Hillcoat, a well-known artist in music directing circles. Hillcoat's previous film was the 2005 Australian outback western, The Proposition starring Guy Pearce. Guy Pearce has a small, but pivotal role in The Road, and the writer of The Proposition, singer and composer Nick Cave co-wrote the music for The Road.
The two main characters, ‘The father'- played by Viggo Mortensen (most well-known as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), and ‘the boy' - played by Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee are literally on the road, hopefully heading for a better world on the coast. The context is post-apocalypse, though we never learn what caused the destruction. The ground has been scorched, dust and ashes appear over everything, and human beings have mostly become barbaric savages, with little pretence to conventional morals and manners. People scrounge for clothing to keep warm, and sleep where they crash from exhaustion. Death comes cheap, and money cannot buy your life. Gold, silver, jewels - who can eat these? There is no lasting treasure here. For a generation raised on TV images of 9/11 , the Asian Tsunami, Bushfire disasters, Hurricane Katrina, and most recently Haiti and Chile earthquakes, there will be ready identification, but the apocalyptic landscape Hillcoat has created will also remain in your mind simply because it has such a striking absence of colour.
While at one time the boy gives thanks to the people for food they have found, there is no waiting for grace until all are served-the motif for most people is eat or be eaten. One bible reference appears graffitilike near the start of the film (Jeremiah 19: 6), highlighting the slaughter that has taken place. The idea for this came from Hillcoat's experience in looking around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where biblical graffiti had been painted on homes and buildings.
Where is God in this world? Certainly Cormac McCarthy had a view on this and is reported to have said that the film adaptation needed some more of the God references. I found the film to highlight more of a questioning of God, or perhaps even paying a bit of ‘lip service' at times,
and I wondered whether this catered more to the secular outlook, for a society which believes God was never really involved? There are touches of common humanity though, and I often thought the role of the Good Samaritan was never far away from consideration.
The boy is the one who wants to help others on the road, and even offer more than seems reasonable given the circumstances. He is mostly untainted by the evils that humans have succumbed to, and wants him and his father to be seen as ‘the good guys'. His father is caught between offering help, and maintaining the righteousness of his mission, which is to keep his son safe and alive. If others must die so his son can eat, then that is simply how it is. The father says at one point "All I know is the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke." Later when reflecting he says "If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different. And so I have you... I have you." Interestingly, one person they meet is named Eli, and the discussion they have around the campfire certainly promotes the idea of ‘the boy' being special or called, perhaps like Samuel.
The treasure promoted in this film is essentially an affirmation of humanity, and the occasional display of goodness. I found the film version firmly focused on the father and his love for his son. The film emphasised this more than the subtleness of the novel, highlighting the common theme of the sacrificial parent - going the extra mile for your child to ensure their survival.
There is clearly a personal element as well for McCarthy who was born in 1933. The Road is dedicated to his son, John Francis McCarthy from his third marriage, who is a similar age to the character ‘the boy'. I wondered if the film also reflected McCarthy becoming an older man, re-considering his role in life, especially thinking about the values he should pass onto his young son. One dominant theme for the father is need to have a fire burning within and to pass on the fire, again an aspect which people have linked to parts of Jeremiah. The Road production company hired a Christian PR firm to liaise with churches and Christian groups and promote the film in the USA. After the success of The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood knows targeted church promotion is a key road to making even more money. Clearly many critics see strong connections and ideas, and while I agree there are some striking links, connections can also be made with humanist philosophy, perhaps illustrating more the concept that in Hollywood it is better to appear to be all things to all people. In any case, this film will certainly challenge you, some images will remain with you long after the film, and it could also provide an opportunity to discuss questions about love and life, parenthood, and yes faith.
Rated MA (violence, and strong themes, occasional coarse language)
Peter Bentley is the executive consultant for ACC.
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia
Because of the wonderful things he does - Baz Luhrmann's Oz.
A review essay about Australia, Australian film and the Australian people.
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away there was a cattle station known as Faraway Downs.
Good people struggled against evil doers, but in the end goodwill triumphed and everyone became mates, even the women.
Baz Luhrmann's fourth film is full of many fantasy elements, and wonderful moments, and of
course breathtaking Northern scenery. There are no musical numbers, but singing while droving
would have been a little too much. What is this film about?
• Part romance, which is one of my problems with the film. The fanciful love development
between the drover (Hugh Jackman) and Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) is material
best for a soap opera. It reminded me of the even more ridiculous relationship between
the characters played by Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslett, which was the
cornerstone for the epic James Cameron production Titanic (1997). Romance and love
are of course central features of Luhrmann films. One could not watch his stunning
version of Romeo and Juliet (1996) without realising this. Australia has romance as a
central part as well, but I found it not as convincing, and was pleased that the obligatory
love making scene in Australia is so short one could miss it by sneezing. In fact it would
have been best cut, leaving the audience a small element of mystery.
• Part newsreel - even some of the cinematography is a form of homage to the Movietone
and Cinesound newsreels of the past, including the wonderfully done credits.
• Part action film - from outback fighting, droving, to war time devastation, the images are
vast and iconic.
• Part tourism commercial - ‘come to the Northern Territory', especially in the wet and see
the place come alive. Watch contemporary movies in the real outdoor theatre.
• Part Aboriginal Studies I- learn about segregated seating in the outdoor cinema, gain an
understanding of words like ‘walkabout', and hear the basis for an apology to the Stolen
Generations, and a call for reconciliation and equality, with the Australian pub the symbol
for future equal footing.
• Part historical treatise, raising questions about heritage, identity and the cultural values.
Australia is a significant contribution to our popular heritage and cultural appreciation.
The film also illustrates the changing nature of Australia in a period when the most
profound change started, namely World War II. The attacks on Australia by Japan and
subsequent defence dominated by our new partner, the United States, ushered in a new
era, and the post war period became an increasingly post-colonial world. Prime Minister
John Curtin spoke about ‘looking to America', and Australia began to consider its future
away from mother England simply because the USA is the pre-eminent power in the
pacific and able to confront the Japanese. Australia stands at the start of the influence of
American culture, values and power in Australia, but has a firm message about the
Australian character that the new Australia develops and enhances.
• Australia is a film that continues a rich tradition of Australian story telling with a strong
visual orientation. It brings to mind pastoral and pioneering traditions highlighted by early
films such as The Overlanders (1946), Sons of Matthew (1949), and The Sundowners
(1960). I also see a significant link to the first Australian film in colour, which was the
landmark Aboriginal film Jedda (1955). Jedda is the name of Nullah's dog and is homage
to the first major film to star Aboriginal actors in their own right. Jedda was the name
given to the Aboriginal woman character who became the focus for the star of the film,
the warrior Marbuck played by Robert Tudawali. Tudawali came from Melville Island
(one of the Tiwi Islands), but sadly did not handle his new fame well, and eventually
became an alcoholic, and died from burns received in a grass fire.
Also significant for further analysis are key films of the new Australian renaissance, like The
Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Newsfront (1978), My Brilliant Career (1979), Gallipoli
(1981), and the story of Jeannie Gunn in We of the Never Never (1982). All these are important
films in an examination of the development of the Australian film character, and the Australian
legend of mateship. Baz Luhrmann's main acting role in a film in this influential period was in
John Duigan's Winter of our Dreams (1981), a (then) contemporary love story with Judy Davis
and Bryan Brown set in inner Sydney. Duigan is a realistic, often lyrical film maker, perhaps best
known in Australia for his coming of age films: The Year My Voice Broke (1987), Flirting
(1991). Interestingly Duigan's most recent film, Head in the Clouds (2004), is a helpful
comparative film in terms of a romantic war-time drama.
Like Baz Luhrmann's first film Strictly Ballroom (1992) the white Australian characters are
mainly stereotyped caricatures. This is not necessarily a problem, as we probably all know some
of these types they are based on, but it says something about his style and historical
understanding. He clearly wants to capture on screen some of these characters for posterity. He
also wants to show how the Australian character develops when formed by the land and
interaction with the indigenous inhabitants. This is nowhere more evident than the title for Hugh
Jackman's character - he is simply ‘The Drover', and known as ‘drover'. That is who he is and
what he does. He is the everyman Australian- loyal to his mates (who include the Aboriginal
workers), honest and dependable, yet harbouring some deep emotional issues which occasionally
Lady Sarah Ashley played by Nicole Kidman is a standard role. She is the English Rose bound to
wither in Australia unless some cross breeding is introduced. Why choose an English character? I
would have preferred an Australian born woman - someone of equal footing with the drover, but
her character is a metaphor for the changing relationship Australia has with England. Here we
have the last vestiges of the English influence coming into Australia, as the English rose is
shaped and changed into an Australian native flower.
There are some excellent smaller roles, and overall anyone familiar with Australia film since the
1970s will spend their time noting who pops up on the screen. Most of the well-known
Australian actors are there, including Jack Thompson as the intriguingly named Kipling Flynn,
which I presume is a reference to the English colonial basis through Rudyard Kipling, who
landed in Hobart first on his visit to New Zealand and then Australia in 1891, and the Aussie
playboy and film actor Errol Flynn, who also grew up in Tasmania. It is worth noting that
Kipling came back to Australia from Bluff, New Zealand on a ship with General Booth, the cofounder
of the Salvation Army. Kipling would later write a story ‘A Friend in the Family', which
has a Queensland drover as a character, who may have been part-Aboriginal.
Bill Hunter is of course in this film, and at one stage I thought Jack Thompson was playing Bill
Hunter. Bryan Brown plays the cattle baron with his usual ease, and while this character is a
combination of Australian figures, some critics seem to be blissfully unaware of this aspect of
Australian pastoral history, and the fact Australia had these cattle baron figures just as much as
the USA. This is not an American western, but an Australian outback movie.
David Wenham, as Fletcher is the main evil character in this drama, and while mostly
stereotyped sometimes brings a depth to the role that causes one to reflect on his screen presence
by the end of the film.
The Aboriginal characters are the realistic ones, simple, natural, and none is more natural than
that of Nullah, played by Brandon Walters. He acts with the simplicity of someone who has not
been a professional actor and is blissfully unconcerned about performing. His screen presence is
striking. Aboriginal justice features in terms of ‘payback', but also Aboriginal issues are
highlighted in the family relationships and strong good characters presumably raise the issues
associated with the Stolen Generations even more directly.
One of my more stringent criticisms is the portrayal of the religious figures which are more
stereotyped than most. Here we have Father Benedict, and Brother Frank, the custodians of
Mission Island and the overseers of the Aboriginal children taken from their families and tribes.
In one of the most excruciating pieces of dialogue, having escaped the Japanese bombing of
Mission Island and now wanting to leave Darwin, Brother Frank asks a digger for help with the
transport. The digger replies: Well, I'm not Jesus Christ, but I'll give it my best shot."
It is helpful to have one part of Australia's history vividly portrayed - the bombing on 19
February 1942, the first of a series of 64 eventual bombings on Darwin 1942 - November 1943
and a number of other attacks on Northern towns. The real life priest Father John McGrath was
able to report the Japanese planes to the Area Combined HQ, but the message did not reach the
chain of command and the raid was still a surprise. The Island where the Mission is located is
most likely Bathurst Island, one of the Tiwi Islands (along with Melville Island), site of the
Catholic Mission, and it was certainly attacked, though these scenes lead to historical licence - no
Japanese troops landed here, and there was no reason for them to do this apart from the fact that a
certain scene was scripted.
It is also helpful to consider the portrayal of the irrelevance of the church and for the most part
Christian faith. These Australians do not need God - in fact where is the God of the Outback of
people like minister and pilot John Flynn, as opposed to Kipling Flynn? These Australian
characters get by on their own strength, concentrating a theme that Australians are practical
people who get on with their business and do things their own way.
The main religious elements concern the Aboriginal characters that have their ‘magic' like King
George, and their dreaming.
The references in the film to The Wizard of Oz are not accidental. As a musical, it reflects Baz
Luhrmann's musical orientation and appreciation, but there are other links. The Wizard of Oz is
the probably the most widely known and loved American musical. It was ground-breaking for its
time and was part of a rich period of film production.
There are many movie homages to The Wizard of Oz. There is even an Australian film called Oz
(1976 - the promotional title included ‘A rock n roll road movie'). This film was made in the
initial period of the Australian film resurgence, in which a variety of films appeared, many of
which are colloquially part of now what is called Ozploitation. In Oz Dorothy is a groupie who
has an accident in the rock band's van. After bumping her head she is off to see the last concert
of the wonderful singer, the Wizard, along with a brainless surfer, a heartless mechanic, and a
The main characters of Australia are all individual dreamers. Kansas is like the North in
Australia - isolated, open spaces, pastoral places, and distinctly nationalistic. There are even
twisters in Australia to remind one of the dreaming of Dorothy.
Much like each of the characters on the yellow brick road - the Australian characters have a
personal journey in the film as well. Nullah finds the film captivating, and no doubt it fits with
his growing interest in the dreamtime and storytelling. There is a wonderful scene of him sitting
mesmerised watching the film in the Darwin outdoor cinema (he has to put on black face to be
‘fully Aboriginal' as half-castes are not allowed at this screening). He already has a connection to
this film, as earlier Lady Sarah sings the only words she can remember in telling him a story
(which is the only story she can remember). This highlights the ‘rainbow', and he connects
instantly with the rainbow serpent.
While one should not read too much into the symbolic identification, I could not help to
speculate that the three main characters all had an association with those on the yellow brick
road. Lady Sarah Ashley has a bit of the scarecrow and the tinman about her. She needs to find a
(practical) brain and a heart for the land so she can truly become part of Australia. She is
transformed by the end of the film and also clearly in touch with the ‘spirit of the land.'
The Drover is also a bit like the tinman, or scarecrow- he is a one identity person as he has one
job to do in life and that is drove. He also has to find his own heart again, and recognise his love
for his first wife and more, to learn that it is okay to show your love as a man for a new woman.
Nullah has common characteristics with Dorothy the dreamer, and also the Lion. He has to find
the courage to begin his own journey as an Aboriginal boy becoming a man, and the start of this
is the walkabout.
The pivotal King George character played by David Gulpilil is like the Wizard of Oz. People are
drawn to him and he is able to help them on their journey. This is a very different journey to the
one Gulpili was involved in as the star of the fascinating Nicholas Roeg film Walkabout (1971).
While there are questions constantly arising in Australia, there is also much to reflect on in
simple amazement - this is a film that will be studied, along with other seminal Australian works
that attempt to delve into the Australian pysche.
In a way I always find it difficult to review an Australian story as I am still working out what it
means to be Australian, even though I was born in country NSW. I think this is partly because
being born in the 1960s, meant growing up in an Australia in a state of rapid modern change, and
a move from an allegiance to a British heritage to eventually an international type US oriented
culture, brought on especially through the advent of television and American film in the 1970s.
Baz Luhrmann also grew up in this time, with a strong broad cultural influence through film,
music (ballroom dancing competitions - his parents), coupled with an evident appreciation for
Australian family values which are often perceived to be more fully present in rural and regional
It is not surprising that this movie has not been as successful in the United States of America.
Why would Americans bother to see a movie called Australia, especially in a period of economic
downturn? After three Crocodile Dundee films, and countless Crocodile Hunter episodes most
Americans probably think they know all they need to know about Australia, and yes, a crocodile
features in Australia.
On the other hand, I believe this is a movie that Australians will want to see and it will cause
significant reflection as the debate continues in Australia about our national heritage and
foundation, and future. I saw the film at the intimate Bandbox Theatre in Kempsey, NSW
(interestingly not too far away from where Baz Luhrmann grew up), and I was intrigued by the
positive reception and animated conversations that arose as soon as the credits came up. It is
certainly having an impact on older Australians, partly because of the war references, but also
because it provides a nostalgic view of Australia during a time of uncertainty, and we know that
Australia came through the war to victory and prosperity.
John Curtin told the Australian nation during World War II that:
"Our generation will have left its mark before we hand on the torch to our sons and daughters.
Our remaining task is to think and plan so that their world may in truth be a new world. There
can be no going back to the good old days. They were not good days and they have truly become
old. We have to point the way to better days." (John Curtin, 1944 Prime Ministers Conference
JCPML00603/1). For excellent material on John Curtin and this period see:
As many critics have concluded, Australia is not the Australian epic, but what would an
Australian epic look like? What is our modern history compared to that of the USA, with its
defining moments like the civil war. Can the bombing of Darwin really be our Pearl Harbour,
even if supposedly more tonnage in bombs were dropped in Darwin? At least Australia towers
above the latest Hollywood remake on Pearl Harbour (2001), which is probably one of the most
boring overblown films ever produced. Can Australians make lasting melodramas like Gone with
the Wind? Will Australia be watched in seventy years with the same love and respect that The
Wizard of Oz produces? Perhaps it will, somewhere over a rainbow?
© Peter Bentley 20 February 2009
Bran Nue Dae
Watching this film I could not get out of my mind the tune for one of those popular Christian songs of the 1980s, It's a Brand New Day (there are different versions of this), and I don't believe this was incidental. The Christian faith is central to understanding the experience of Aboriginal people in the film.
Bran Nue Dae, the latest movie from Rachel Perkins, who made the acclaimed film Radiance, provides a bouncy and earthy homage to a period that has often been portrayed more darkly.
There are well-known actors, Geoffrey Rush, playing Father Benedictus, the head of the Mission School (in the suburb of Waterford, Perth, and is now the Clontarf Aboriginal College, where the Clontarf Foundation and successful Football Academy for Aboriginal Youth began), and Deborah Mailman as Roxanne, a Kimberley woman. Australian Idol runner up in 2006 Jessica Mauboy is well cast as the bubbly singer Rosie, and Rocky McKenzie shows more variety in acting than other Aboriginal newcomers as Willie. Victorian-born Singer Missy Higgins is the traveller Annie, and Ernie Dingo reprises his stage role as Uncle Tadpole, giving a comical and yet poignant portrayal as a realistic drunk too aware of his place in life.
The story is simple. It is 1969 with Willie in Broome during the last days of his school break, already pining for his new-found love Rosie. His mother Theresa (thank goodness there were limited jokes on this theme), is also a strong Christian figure and a member of the local robe-wearing gospel community, which appears at different times, including the opening church scene. Like Father Benedictus she has high hopes for Willie's religious career. After an incident at the school, he runs off, and is pursued by Father Benedictus, creating a minor road movie, where Willie meets Uncle Tadpole, Annie and her hippie German boyfriend Slippery, and together they go to Broome, though Willie is not sure how he will be received by his mother.
Bran Nue Dae began as a collection of songs, which were turned into a popular and mainly touring stage musical during the 1990's. The key author and promoter, Jimmy Chi (name reflecting his Aboriginal, Asian and European heritage), and the members of the band Kuckles, developed songs reflecting their experience at growing up in the 1960s away from their community, isolated in a mission school, and living with the developing Western rock and roll era, as well as trying to understand what it meant to be Aboriginal.
The influence of the Catholic experience is significant, and the theological aspects are worth exploring. I could see a link with the initial focus on the Ten Commandments as most are broken at some time (at least in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount), and there is the underlying theme about the need to reinterpret the nature of God as taught at the school which is reflected in Willie's search for his Aboriginal roots and his connection with the land through his journey.
The songs are fundamental, and those who listen carefully realise many are full of political comment, but in a wry and pointed way. This is a different portrayal of Aboriginal people from many films of the last twenty years.
Given this was first a stage musical developed in the 1980s, one can see the influences of films which were around during the time when Jimmy Chi was writing it, especially musicals aimed at teenagers, like Grease, and The Blues Brothers, which also contained significant Catholic school references. In the overall script, one could also argue that it is a bit like Dickens writing a contemporary Great Expectations with additional help from Jerry Springer. Secrets are exposed, and confessions abound, and all the connections come out.
This is essentially a light relief film, with bright overtones designed to appeal to contemporary audiences and encourage Aboriginal youth. Even the dynamic opening and whimsical closing credits provide a context for this film, and I understand this-it is not setting out to delve deeply into complex and horrifying issues or treatments of Aboriginal people. There is no opportunity for an in-depth consideration of the elements, though the film touches on many areas including a haunting scene highlighting Aboriginal deaths in custody, and there is perhaps even reference to sexual abuse that occurred in some Catholic schools in terms of one element featured prominently.
While many of the characters are stereotyped, especially the religious figures, there is also a warmth about them which may reflect the ambiguous experience of Jimmy Chi. The film also touches on the themes of the oneness of humanity and the place of Christian and Aboriginal beliefs, which is well illustrated by the scenes of repentance and forgiveness, and even at the end of the film with Father Benedictus saying grace as all the main characters gather for a meal.
WA members will see recognisable areas not only in Perth, Fremantle and Broome, but also along the roads, and all viewers will resonate with the beauty of the Western land.
I was intrigued to learn that Jimmy Chi's hymns are apparently regularly sung at funerals of Aboriginals in Broome, again illustrating what I perceive as a quest for reconciliation and also the interest in redemption and forgiveness which is offered through the Christian Gospel.
Rating PG - Occasional sexual references and language.
The Boys Are Back - Film Comment
I'll be back boys.
A Review of The Boys are Back - 2009 (M)
Arnold Schwarzenegger's iconic line has been given a twist in The Boys Are Back, the new feature from Scott Hicks. Hicks is the celebrated director of Shine, which in 1996 won Geoffrey Rush an Academy Award. While many readers may not see this new film, it is worth considering for the context and issues. There are some quite realistic portrayals, and yet also amateurish, and perhaps even mediocre and unnecessary elements and scenes. It is good technical production, especially with the complementary music of the wistful Icelandic band Sigur Rós and Hal Lindes, formerly of Dire Straits.
Based on a true story ‘The Boys are Back in Town by political journalist Simon Carr, a father coming to grips with parenthood following the death of his wife, Clive Owen plays the lead Joe Warr, who in the film is an English sports writer now living in Australia, because as we find out he got too close to one of his interviewees and "got her pregnant", and then left his first wife and young son (Harry) to what he had hoped would be a long life with his new love Katy. We meet him devastated, and unprepared as he has always been on the road covering sporting events. Not only does he have a soon to be seven year old Artie, (there is a quintessential Australian boy birthday party scene), but he soon has his teenage son arrive, who has a break from his mother and new partner in England.
South Australian readers will be familiar with the areas in the Fleurieu Peninsula, and many of the locations, including the airport, Flinders Hospital (Bedford Park), and towns used include Kangarilla, Hendon, Willunga and Glenelg. Hicks lived in Adelaide from his early teenage years, and now his family now have their own Vineyard. The setting is very noticeably South Australian with Katy's family vineyard actually a real-life working vineyard (Dog Ridge) at McLaren Vale.
There are many familiar actors, with Julia Blake and Chris Haywood playing the parents of Joe's deceased wife Katy. The wife (played by Laura Fraser) re-appears throughout the film, not as a ghost, but a type of affirming conscience to let him know he is doing okay.
The film has many aspects and this is one drawback as it could be seen as partly educational drama and social commentary, and even part farce. Issues abound:
The teenage son feeling abandoned by his father but giving it a second go.
The supportive grandparents grieving for their daughter, but still with their own busy lives, unable to drop everything to care for the grandson, and yet the grandmother clearly believes she would do a better job raising Artie than Joe.
The social dating scene of single parents and the pronounced desire to know what type of relationship one has - is it child helper and cleaner for hopeless messy males?
The use of technology which allows Joe to write stories as if he was courtside at the Australian Open even though he is still at home with the boys.
The depth, of and problems created by a drinking culture in Australia.
The main area explored is that of practical parenting today. It is more unusual to have single fathers in film roles, and the idea follows the traditional one of the father coming to grips with parenting by simply fitting it into his lifestyle.
Warr has a philosophy of Just Say Yes (to your kids). This is outlined in those cute colour alphabet magnets that abound on fridges in houses with children. He finds this works, and the idea of rules, well that is all a bit loose. He advises that "... the more rules there are, the more crimes are committed."
Joe has one overall rule which is basically if he tells you something, then you have to do it. One rule he announces is ‘no swearing, but this is soon and obviously broken. The occasional coarse language and adult references are however mostly not gratuitous, as they are used to illustrate elements of Australian society. At the least, one can easily work out why a certain level of confusion could arise in this family. There are some extraordinary examples of a parent letting a child do something, including driving a car (albeit sitting on his father's lap). I will not even mention the opening sequence in case you see the film.
Overall I felt ambiguous about Joe Warr. In Australia we are supposed to love a larrikin, but there is a limit to the amount of selfishness even a larrikin can get away with, even if clearly he has a deep love for his boys. I found this film tailored for a secular, and fairly Godless country which in terms of the statistics in rural South Australia is far from the truth. Where does Joe seek comfort? Not in any form of faith, and certainly not a church. There is the help of friends and family, but they also provide complications, and often a point of rigid contrast with his freeing attitude. Joe is essentially by himself, or with a drink, or his boys, but they are too young to help a grown man accept his responsibilities. I think it would have created a more positive message if they had all gone to family counselling, and this may have also helped with all Joe and Artie's grief.
This film reminds me of the tendency in some parts of the church to consider pastoral care to be letting people get what they want and even helping them to do things which are not helpful.
Joe comes back and forth, and back again - and the boys do too. I will not say too much but I doubt if there will be surprises. This could have been a much more lyrical film, but its larrikin whimsicalness has an edge that for me provided unease.
Gethsemane - Too ugly for the Church, too pretty for the world!
How would you have reacted to these words from a professional music executive? This is how one band was characterised by someone evaluating their appeal. Gethsemane is a band that moves through different music scenes. They have appeared on many stages, from inner-city hotels to Christian music festivals, like Black Stump, and have received increasing air play time in Australia. They are now trying to approach the ‘Christian' music scene in a different way in Sydney and beyond.
Their music is a combination of rock, soul, blues and funk. Mat Beltran undertakes vocals, with Matt Bourne - guitar/vocals, Corey Sellwood - bass, and Luke Fowler on drums.
In a distinct twist to a modern band, Steve Davis is involved as a poet, and at concerts is available to deliver his own work during musical interludes.
What does it mean to be a Christian Band? Is it simply because the members are Christian? Is it because the lyrics are full of overtly Christian terminology? The Christian music scene is a varied and diverse arena and in the USA, a very large niche market with its own significant awards and recognition.
Gethsemane has spent time working through where they fit in. The secular music scene often sees them as too Christian and the Christian music scene as ‘not quite Christian enough'. A professional from the secular scene even proposed that they change their name to get more gigs. Lately they see themselves as having a definite ministry toward the Church and helping local churches connect with people it normally does not reach.
When one first hears their music it is the depth and almost piercing nature of the works that clearly resonate with their Christian connection.
Why Gethsemane? I was able to speak with the lead singer, Mat Beltran and ask him about the name and his faith.
Mat explained to me that this was the cornerstone - the "point where the hall of salvation hinged". The Gethsemane of Christ made it real for him - the humanity of Christ displayed and the enormity of His decision made Mat realise that he did not need to do anything more. The words of Christ ‘It is finished" have taken on a significant meaning for him personally.
The band members want to share their life and faith through personal songs and lyrics which they hope will connect with people who are searching, and often struggling with life, and addictions. They regularly have people come up to them at concerts, and ask them, what it is about them that is different - what are they saying with their music? Mat and sometimes other members also share their testimony and stories during their performances, especially at Christian concerts.
For Mat, his story is a simple yet deep sharing of his struggles with addiction and how God lifted him up and washed him clean. Mat is at pains to explain that there was nothing exciting about his previous life. He hopes the "horrible elements" will be an awakening to those caught up with temptation now, and also an encouragement to those who have not been down this path to keep following Jesus. It is from personal experience that Mat has found peace in the words of Jesus:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Matthew 11: 28-30 (NIV)
I put to Mat that their music could be seen as a form of pre-evangelism. It provides a connection for people. It asks people to look at what God has done in their life and raises the possibility of a new or renewed life. Their outreach has developed, with beach mission work and people are beginning to appreciate their ability to connect with younger people that the wider church has difficulty reaching.
In 2008, the band went to the USA for an initial exploration of the Christian music scene and possibilities, and there are now plans for a further tour and also different Christian ministry from 2010.
Gethsemane has four releases out: Gethsemane EP; Blood Wine and Spirit; No One; and their latest work: Get Somewhere
Updated October 2009
Photo: Gethsemane performing at Newtown Mission under the Revelation Ceiling: 20 September 2008: Peter Bentley
A Reflection from the poet member - Steve Davis
Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Discipleship
Upon being baptised by John and receiving the Holy Spirit and the Father's declaration of approval, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he spent forty days being tempted by the Devil. After this period of testing passed, he returned to human settlement and commenced his ministry in the power of the Spirit.
It was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness where his faith was tested in adverse circumstances - a wilderness is not a comfortable or easy place to be and it forces you to rely on your faith and God-given capacity to survive and persevere. Jesus' understanding of who he was, what his calling was, and who the Father is, was refined by testing in the wilderness. He was left in no doubt about God, the Devil, and the need for faith and obedience in order to persevere under trial. Then he returnd to civilised society and began to live out his calling.
There should be no surprise for disciples of Jesus when they find themselves at the beginning of some work or activity in line with God's calling on their lives, and seem to wind up in some sort of interior wilderness where their reserves of faith and endurance are tested to what may seem their limits. This would appear to be an almost normal part of Christian life, as disciples seek to follow their Master. Not that it's necessarily inevitable - just very possible that some sort of testing and trial is necessary to strip away all the extras and excesses that can clutter faith and spirituality, and thereby lead us into a greater conscious dependence on our heavenly Father and a greater reliance on the biblical Jesus.
When circumstances lead us into the interior wilderness, life can be painful because this interior wilderness is often characterised by conflicting impulses and emotions, confusion and doubt. In some ways we join Jesus in Gethsemane where we are caught up in the conflict between our own desire to live on our own terms on the one hand, and the Father's will on the other. This can lead to confusion as we struggle to maintain clarity in our understanding of God's calling on our lives in the midst of competing sensations and emotions. In some ways we are confronted with the choice that Jesus had to make - letting go of our calling in order to live life on our own terms, or letting go of our own comfortable certainties to live on God's terms. Our natural mind and our spiritual mind speak with opposing voices and our inner eye becomes confused by the interplay of shadows and light. We can fall into doubt that paralyses our will - doubt about our calling, doubt about our capacities, and doubt about God's goodness. We are caught up in the ages-old conflict between pride and humility, selfishness and love, faith and doubt, and this can be exhausting and painful. It is then that we need to hold onto the hem of Jesus' robe and ask for healing in the midst of our confusion and doubt. Jesus knew with certainty what his calling was and it is his faith we need to end the doubt, it is his clarity we need to end the confusion, it is his strength we need to find peace in the midst of painful sensations and emotions and conflicting impulses. As we find Jesus in Gethsemane, we find peace, light and truth, and the courage to take the next step on our journey out of the wilderness through the of time of testing. We may be convicted of our weakness, but our faith in God's sovereignty and goodness may very well be strengthed as we find the angels ministering to us in the wilderness.
Balibo – An Inconvenient Truth
What is truth? Many people have asked, though perhaps Pilate can take credit for making this a popular reference. I was thinking of Jesus while viewing this film, not because of any religious references, but purely because this film touches on the nature of oral testimony, mainly eyewitness reports delivered years later, and the resultant interpretation by scholars and writers today.
There are many excellent Australian historical films grounded in real events, though containing fictional elements - Breaker Morant, The Year of Living Dangerously, and of course Gallipoli. All these shed light on the new film by Robert Connelly - Balibo, a story, thoroughly grounded in the real life events of late 1975. This period would be well-known to most Australians now, especially through the reports of the coronial inquest into the death of Brian Peters, and by intimate association, the other members of the Balibo Five. Journalists Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie (British citizens working for Channel 9), and Greg Shackleton (Australian), Gary Cunningham (NZ), Tony Stewart (Australian) (all Channel 7), were killed as Indonesian troops invaded East Timor on October 16 1975. The film follows their story through the investigation and reporting of another journalist Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia) who was the last foreign journalist left in Easter Timor at the time of the full Indonesian offensive, and his death is well documented now as being on December 8, 1975, along with scores of East Timorese who were murdered at the Dili waterfront area. East's final words (at least according to the film), were " I'm Australian".
In one sense the main story is that of the journalists, and the side story is the actual country and the terrible troubles that began and continued for 25 years. The viewer gains a glimpse of the impending death toll, though this is not full known, with estimates varying between 50,000 and 200,000, with the higher numbers including people who died through disease and malnutrition. In our more contemporary memory are the events like the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991, and the 1999 UN Sponsored referendum and then Australia's involvement in the peace-keeping efforts.
There is also another level of the film operating as the context for historical reflection is shown through the operation of the Commission on Reception, Truth, Reconciliation and Reconciliation of Timor-Leste, which produced ‘The Profile of Human Rights Violations in Timor-Leste 1974-1999. One East Timorese citizen, a young girl in 1975, and now a mother brings to vivid detail the personal side for herself and her country within the context of East's death.
There is also some reference to the integral Catholic foundation of the East Timorese, through the visit to a Catholic mission school which did take place and helps to show the larrikin and carefree spirit of the journalists. Given the important place of religious faith in East Timor, I would have thought the role of the church could have been considered more, but the context here is the Australians, and unfortunately we do not learn much about their beliefs or even philosophical leanings, apart from occasional comments from Shackleton and East.
In this way, there is a similarity with the film The Killing Fields, which Connelly has highlighted as an influential film. The Killing Fields focuses on the reporting and friendship of journalist Sydney Schanberg with Dith Pran, the Kymer Rouge survivor. In Balibo, it is the relationship between Roger East and the man who was to become the leading figure in exile for east Timor José Manuel Ramos-Horta. Ramos-Horta became the first foreign minister in 2002 when the country achieved its independence, and later Prime Minister and then its second President in 2007.
The film producers have gone to length to show their historical credibility and in the opening credits the statement is made the film is a true story. This is of course true in one sense, though the more appropriate wording of this statement is actually recorded at the end, namely based on true events, which clearly allows for some events to be included which did not happen, like East visiting Balibo, and also for a best scenario based on the coronial interviews in terms of the actual murders of the Balibo five.
The nature of the film (including some aspects or aspersions I did not see in the film itself), has sparked debates in the national newspaper, including comments from former politicians of the time defending their role, foreign policy and diplomacy at the time. The producers have created an excellent film webs site and material in one section ‘Balibo in Depth' - is curated by consulting historian Dr Clinton Fernandes, Senior Lecturer, Strategic Studies, UNSW - Australian Defence Force Academy, reinforcing the overall long-term historical study of East Timor.
Balibo illustrates the nature and depth of sin, and how this explodes during the chaos of war and the institution of terror. This film is a timely and strong reminder of the inherent danger in journalism, especially investigative journalism and ‘reporting from the frontline'. The Committee to Protect Journalists compiles extensive statistics on the deaths of journalists, with 742 confirmed dead since 1992 (as at 8 July 2009), with 72 percent murdered and 18 percent combat related. Of the 742, 93 percent are males, and 88 percent were killed with complete impunity. In East Timor, soon after the pro-independence vote in 1999, two more journalists were murdered, including one Indonesian journalist who was travelling with nine Catholic religious and aid workers at the time. From the resultant examination of the bodies, it was concluded all were killed at close range.
I have no doubt that the Balibo five were murdered by Indonesian troops, rather than unfortunately caught in the crossfire as Indonesian officials had proposed. Looking at the above CPJ statistics, the likelihood of all five being accidentally killed is nil, and in 2007 the coronial inquest provided substantial backing.
Balibo is also a historical window on the nature of technology and communication. Nowadays reporters send their reports via satellite phone or laptop; here it is rudimentary, with the use of the telex, typewriters, and real film in the cameras. One can still hear the interviews of Roger East in interviews with the ABC in later 1975 (highlighted in a recent Hindsight programme. In one report he says "Well, everything's settling down here, or so it seems. I'm quite happy. I think I'm on a very peaceful island." Sobering material.
Finally, I come back to the use of history and go out on a limb, and suggest that following this film's historical methodology could encourage secular popular novelists and atheistic apologists to consider that at least the death and even the resurrection of Christ are very well historically grounded.
Balibo - rated M.
Note: Review also edited and included in ACCatalyst September 2009
Samson and Delilah – a new strength?
Is there any hope in some communities? One of the unfortunate tasks in some modern film making seems to be taking people with you in despair, and then adding more despair until you are made to identify totally with the hopelessness that is at the centre of the director's life. Here, while there are strong and confronting scenes, there is also a theme of hope. It is not a prosperity gospel based hope which is the perhaps actually the bizarre theme in the 2009 Academy Award winner Slumdog Millionaire. No winning the big one for Samson or Delilah, their eventual escape is to a simple life, through love.
Sixty years ago Cecil B Demille released Samson and Delilah with Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature showing a rather more traditional portrayal of strength, love, betrayal and revenge.
In 2009 Rowan McNamara is Samson, a 15 year old mainly focussed on petrol sniffing, who takes life as it comes in a marginalised and ill-supported Aboriginal community. Marissa Gibson is Delilah, a 16 year old carer for her Nana, again caught in the life she has been given, but one who glimpses the good and possible, from her Nana to the love that is in Samson wanting to break out.
There are continuing, but unanswered questions about who or what enslaves people like Samson and Delilah in the 21st century. What is the way out of a cycle of hopelessness? Samson and Delilah has garnered public and critical acclaim for director Warwick Thornton, including the best first feature film at Cannes 2009. He had previously been widely involved in cinematography, and made several short films and documentaries including Rosalie's Journey about the star of the Chauvel film Jedda. The film is well, though simply photographed, and the Australian outback and desert are lovingly portrayed, providing a striking contract to the expensive looking visual depth of the film Australia.
It is a film that uses silence and non-visual communication in many subtle ways, and the main spoken language is in Warlpiri and sub-titled in English.
There are many memorable scenes from the irony of the opening with Charley Pride's ‘Sunshiny Day' beaming forth while Samson awakes and starts his usual day with his head in a tin can, to the juxtaposition of Delilah sitting in Alice Springs offering a shy smile behind two girls wearing pristine school uniforms, with one chatting merrily on her mobile phone. She is like them, and yet so unlike them in experience. Mitjili Napanangka Gibson as Nana is a striking character, but her paintings (her own paints) play a strong role in the film, and provide a real life context and underlying connection for Delilah. There is a telling scene where Delilah sees one of her Nana's paintings in an art gallery with a $22,000 price tag.
It would appear from this film that Warwick Thornton is also considering how the contemporary Aboriginal experience cannot be understood without reference to Christianity.
The cross is a central symbol, from the simple cross in the tin shed chapel in the Aboriginal community to which Delilah takes her Nana to worship in silence, to the placing of a cross in the family home at the end of the film, where Delilah reclaims her place in her country. While no answers are given, the elements of Christian symbolism and consideration of Aboriginal art and dreaming must be related to the influential experience that Warwick Thornton had at Salvado College at the Catholic Monastery in New Norcia (in WA). His mother sent him there as a 13 year old, seemingly have him straightened out, and he learnt to appreciate the regulated and yet simple lifestyle.
There is also some ambivalence about the Christian institutions, as evidenced by the scene where Delilah goes into a modern style church and is met by the young priest. In an interview with Keith Gallasch, Warwick Thornton says of this scene in the Alice Springs church with the priest: "It was interesting, that priest. I'd written this really bad piece of dialogue, you know, "Get out, get out!" It was horrific. I'd always hated it through all the drafts." (http://www.realtimearts.net/article/issue90/9405).
By cutting the dialogue totally, the scene is left open-ended and the audience fills in the blanks, perhaps for most of us feeling the priest is left not knowing what to say to the young girl who has come in. Perhaps the priest could not give adequate answers or comfort to what he perceives was her situation?
Music references abound and these are also a key to understanding and appreciating the film. Warwick's brother plays Gonzo, an alcoholic who is one of the few people to provide some basic human friendship to the pair when they meet up with him in his zone underneath the town bridge. He leaves when he is provided a spot in a rehab centre, and goes off singing ‘Jesus gonna be here' by Tom Waits, illustrating again an ambivalence with organised religion because it is ‘the Christians' who provide this service. He will get his three meals a day, but where does this Jesus bit fit in?
And perhaps most significantly there are the hair cutting scenes which connections which most critics seem to have missed. Delilah cuts her own lovely hair after the death of her Nana, and in the Warlpiri tradition, this shows mourning and humility, a cutting of any vanity. She takes away from herself.
Samson also cuts his hair when he mourns, and progresses into an even lower ebb without any strength or conviction as his addiction takes over his being. It is when he is at his lowest that Delilah is able to help him. She is not the temptress or betrayer of the Bible, but an angel of light, radiating an image of hope and renewal, helping him out of his physical and mental state. One critic Sandra Hall (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May) has written that Thornton "... has Delilah helping the spaced-out Samson to bathe himself - a scene filled with intimations of baptism and regeneration."
There is a welcome innocence about this love and their life that makes one consider the counter culture message of the Christian gospel. In a way, I can see that Thornton is providing perhaps an understated reflection about his own understanding of unconditional love. He does not articulate this in a way we would do in a word based sermon, but he appears to have an overriding need to show a message of unconditional love to his own community and the wider community today.
At the end Charley Pride's song - ‘All I have to offer you is me' closes out the film and captures what they have to offer to each other. They do not have wealth, success, worldly trappings, and Delilah's ‘family home' is certainly no mansion. In the end there is simply a new hope for Samson and Delilah, but we don't know where this will lead, even though the cross has been put in place.
(Samson and Delilah - rated MA, language use and adult themes)
Note: This review won the Gold Award for 'Best review of another medium' at the 2010 Australasian Religious Press Association Awards.
The review was published in the ACC Magazine: ACCatalyst - June 2009.
The judge commented: "Placing the film in both cinematic and religious context, the reviewer astutely and convincingly draws out a Christian appellation of this important Australian film - a perspective as he noted, that many mainstream reviewers neglected."
The Gruen Church?
The Gruen Church?
One of the few TV shows I ‘religiously watch' is The Gruen Transfer. Screening on ABC TV, it is a show about advertising - how it is done, how it influences us and interestingly for a medium stereotyped as devoid of values and ethics, consideration of significant moral questions. It has rated very well, averaging 1.25 million viewers a week, across all adult demographics. Produced by Zapruder's Other Films*, with Executive Producer, Andrew Denton, The Gruen Transfer is named after Victor Gruen, the guy who designed the very first shopping mall. The term describes that split second when the mall's intentionally confusing layout makes our eyes glaze and our jaws slacken... the moment when we forget what we came for and become impulse buyers." (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/gruentransfer/theshow.htm)
It is also a show that complements parts of the emergent church and could be a way of learning about the pervasive influence of the visual media culture in our society. After all, who hasn't seen an ad, or perhaps even bought advertising. Most churches advertise, whether for staff positions or programmes and events. Our church publications rely on advertising for a significant part of their overall budgets.
The panel on The Gruen Transfer is led by Wil Anderson, host and certainly quick wit, always ready to pounce on a comment and turn it to his advantage. He is joined by Todd Sampson, CEO of Leo Burnett, who provides the trendy and emergent connection, and Russel Howcroft, Chairman and Managing Director of George Patterson's Y&R, who shows the slightly older conservative connection. Together they actually demonstrate elements of what some emergent churches are like, an attempt to bridge culture, generational outlooks and moral frameworks.
What are the features that connect?
Firstly there is no communal singing - the ‘congregation' or audience is primarily that - an ‘audience'.
This is partly about being pragmatic as well as contemporary, as it enables one to avoid the whole issue of what music to use in church. In advertising you use music when appropriate, and primarily as background or entertainment, but you do not have to have one form of music for all, as it can target an audience. In ads, music can be critiqued - you can genuinely show your love or hatred and people realise this is a personal issue.
There is time for sharing by the leaders - In the ‘Ads we talked about section', popular ads are considered and people are made to feel part of the overall discussion even though they are not physically contributing. Especially significant is the ‘ad of the Week' and a more considered exposure of significant issues within advertising.
There is a practical orientation designed to illustrate and engage with people at the time - an ad just for you as you watch.
In the segment ‘The Pitch', The Gruen Transfer allows ad agencies creative freedom to take on a hard sell - something usually the opposite of what is culturally or logically accepted. There are two agencies involved, allowing a competitive approach, which is the hallmark of an ad campaign - making a pitch to a client, and these ads are usually lateral approaches. I have been fascinated by attempts to make cane toads the favourite Australian pet, or trying to get Australians to hate Don Bradman, or literally selling ice to eskimos.
In the emergent church these segments could replace the traditional word based sermon - as the group it is aiming at is more visual by experience, and by nature want to feel that the worship is designed for them on that night - no continuing rituals needed as it is one-off messages that make it special.
An issue provides the focus - emergent churches usually focus on issues. The Gruen Transfer has this tailor made as advertising has a serial issue orientation. The issues are often socially oriented, or relevant for contemporary discussion and debate, and also aid continuing discussion long past the screening. Substantial discussion has centred around cigarette advertising, Child Abuse awareness, and environmental themes. There is also an attempt to consider moral dimensions of contemporary advertising.
Many churches are still grappling with moral issues, even if some churches only publicly find morality in certain areas of the other's political world. In The Gruen Transfer on 25th March 2009 there was a helpful consideration of the now Infamous "I'm Heidi - please help me find the man in the jacket" You Tube spot, which as everyone except for those who have never watched TV, used the web, or read a newspaper or magazine, would know was simply a beat up by an ad agency for a new clothing range. This was actually a form of word of mouth advertising. Various styles are used in this way, such as the placement of cigarettes in see-through bags carried by attractive women, or hiring models to spend time in new bars. The discussion of the morality of the Heidi ad provided a vivid discussion about the nature of truth and trust. Most of the panel thought this ad was a type of blatant lie, which went too far, especially as the organisations involved even made fun of the media organisations which took up the ‘story'.
When is an advertisement not an advertisement? For people like me who are naturally distrusting, or at least aware of the concept of total depravity, I actually did not believe it for a second, but then sadly I now rarely believe the crying husband on TV asking for help to find their wife's murderer.
Word of mouth advertising is very important in churches today - in fact they were one of the earliest proponents of this, and it is one of the reasons why churches struggle today as many members find it difficult to promote their own church in a personal way. It is also clear that the trust that churches once automatically commanded has been removed from the equation, and people are more inclined to think of negative impressions when the church is raised, rather than positive community impressions.
Matt Jones, a guest panellist on 6th May 2009, provided insight into the Heidi ad. One could actually work his comments in a mini-sermon - like the Sermon on the Mount for Gen X. In his short explanation of this form of advertising and why it breached contemporary understandings of relationship, opinion and identity he reiterated the foundations for developing trust:
? Say who you are representing
? Say what you think
? Say who you really are
How do you end contemporary worship?
Lastly, when does emergent church worship end? There is often no traditional ending of a service, with a word of mission and blessing, and interestingly there is the lack of a formal end as well in The Gruen Transfer, with credits mingling with a final quirky ad before people morph to their computers for further contact. It is the web community that continues - the show is the starting point, and the web is the next logical step to keeping your audience. The web also allows you to watch the show when you want to, join in and make an ad, re-cap the main points and share material with friends. This is part of the convergence of technology today, and it is something the emergent churches have used well. When away, people can take their church with them.
There is significant debate now appearing about the emergent church, and certainly in the area of worship, there should be debate, and in the area of cultural appreciation, it is worth considering again the impact of contemporary culture on the church.
8 May 2009
* As I explained in my review of God on My Side, the Denton documentary on the 2006 Religious Broadcasters Convention (USA), this is a reference to the most famous short film of all time - the Zapruder family „home movie? of the assassination of John F Kennedy.