Film and Media
Saint Judy is a newly released on-line film based on a real-life legal case in the USA. The movie focusses on one case tried by Immigration lawyer Judy Wood, who is earnestly played by Michelle Monaghan (who was in the TV series Messiah that I recently reviewed). This case became a test case changing US law on asylum seeking by women, as the context was a woman Asefa Ashwari (played by Leem Lubany from Bagdad Central), who provided education to girls in a Taliban controlled area in Afghanistan.
It is not a simple story as Judy’s own life is complicated, and there are multiple points being made, but it does have elements of simplistic storytelling. While I enjoyed parts, this is oddly a film that has some things in common with the ‘preachier’ type of Christian film, though it highlights the first word in the title of the film in a more secular or popular way, rather than Judy herself or her apparently deeply held Christian beliefs. On another point, there is the occasional use of what I deem gratuitous language. This could have been easily edited, and the reason for its use escapes me apart from adding a bit of earthy colour that could perhaps be related to the real-life character? The script reduces some characters, including well-known character actors like Alfred Molina to stereotypes providing sound bites, rather than providing a more nuanced picture and insight into this significant case and the overall complexity of asylum seekers today.
I struggled to understand the philosophy underpinning the film in the context of why Judy does what she does, apart from her devotion to and service for her clients, versus other lawyers who seem to focus on earning more money to buy another expensive car. While I understand the producers did not set out to make a traditional faith-based ‘Christian movie’, the theme of helping the refugee and outcast seek justice could have easily been woven into a straight forward theological foundation, rather than a seemingly at times a political foundation.
Same Kind of Different as Me
This warm-hearted film was released online in Australia (due to the changed screening circumstances - see link at end) and will provide encouragement to look at the way people can be changed by common grace. The story is well-known in the USA. A couple befriend Denver (played by Djimon Hounsou), a homeless man, and a growing love and support for each other leads to a foundation that has raised multi-millions of dollars for homeless support.
The USA context is striking with the impact of the KKK providing the initial background to the story of Denver’s life and illustrating the history of the South and the issues that had continued since the civil war.
Greg Kinnear is Ron, the unfaithful husband, and film’s narrator, who is given a second chance by his wife Debbie (Renée Zellweger). She does not want him to win her back with presents, but wants him to change, and enlists him to serve in the local homeless mission. Here, while providing help, Ron renews his marriage and life as he connects with the most unlikely person he would have ever thought he would have connected with.
It is no coincidence that the movie night film at the mission is It’s a Wonderful Life.
Christian references abound, though this is not a typical ‘Christian film’, especially with the range of Hollywood actors involved (two Oscar winners as Jon Voight plays Ron’s estranged father). It is certainly a film one could see with family and friends and it will prompt discussion about faith, love and hope.
‘Little Women’ - Revisited Today
Little Women (PG, 2018)
This Little Women is the latest film based on the Louisa May Alcott novel. Though made and released in the USA in 2018 to recognise the 150th anniversary of the novel, this film is now having a commercial release in Australia in early September 2019 (and before the launch of a re-made traditional version). What makes this version distinct is that it has a modern setting and the four sisters are all women of the 21st century. The key question is still there though - what do you want to do in your life?
Marriage is still the context, rather than a relationship, and in a way today this consideration of faithful male - female marriage is a counter-cultural approach to the individualistic trend of looking to your own fulfilment.
There are some whimsical moments, including a really lovely cat, and aspects that will resonate with people in Australia, even though it is an American setting. Cracked phone screens are as much a symbol of this age as communication through text. The role of fantasy and fable are brought into a modern setting though without the usual focus on horror or desecration. I liked the references and context of books and reading and particularly the consideration that modern reading should still be in a printed book format because of the different dynamic of personal communication.
It is a helpful and gentle family film in a time when the idea is developing that there is no need to have a family or perhaps even be part of one. In this film there are positive models of women and men. The father is now a military doctor and is often away, and the mother and children all have love and support for him and each other, and together exemplify a faithful bond of unity.
I see this Little Women primarily as a good film for mothers and daughters to see together and talk about - it could lead to deeper conversations about what is really important in this short life we are given by God.
Billy Graham: An Extraordinary Journey
Billy Graham: An Extraordinary Journey (2018)
Many readers would have attended the 60th anniversary gatherings held earlier this year (2019) that were arranged by the Billy Graham Association (BGA) in recognition of the impact and long-term ministry of Billy Graham. Soon after Billy Graham’s death (February 21, 2018), the BGA released a documentary to provide an ‘official’ film of Billy Graham’s ministry calling. The documentary is now available via streaming services.
This is a personal journey, and features Billy Graham from his early years and at different and pivotal points of his life and with members of the Graham family.
His wider connections and ability to relate to a wide variety of people is a feature. In the USA and in other places, his regular appearances on radio, and then TV talk shows brought him into contact with many people who would never have attended a crusade. The ecumenical foundation of his crusade gatherings, and his general support for integration are prominent in themes, but of course the central focus is on his calling to preach the gospel.
There has been some debate over the style of the documentary and criticism that it was not a critical or academic documentary, though I think this misses the point as that was not its purpose. It is a relatively short overview (about an hour) and serves the purpose of being a visual eulogy for the countless millions of people that Billy Graham connected with, and clearly could attend the actual funeral. People are invited into the life of Billy Graham and towards the end of the documentary the actual funeral service is featured. I found the documentary to be quite illuminating and humble in its approach, with a focus on giving thanks to God for the life of one person who was called to tell others in this very public way about his lord and saviour Jesus Christ.
(Another interesting film, though not BGA produced is Billy: the early years (2008) - this was reviewed in an early ACCatalyst: March 2009.)
A.D. The Bible Continues
The ‘sequel’ to The Bible (2013) TV series, was originally shown on Australian TV with the title A.D. Kingdom and Empire in 2015 and is now available on some subscription channels. Even though the series is based on the first ten chapters of the Book of Acts, the latter title is a more accurate a description as it is more a biblical Game of Thrones than a historical docudrama rendition of the Bible stories. The last episode of The Bible series provided a shorter consideration of some key parts of the Book of Acts. The A.D. series has 12 episodes, with the first two connecting with the previous series The Bible and acting to remind or introduce viewers to the context of the new Christian community with a focus on the death and resurrection of Christ.
This series is similar to the SBS aired Vikings in terms of its historical accuracy (lack thereof) and use of truncated time-lines and re-arrangement of historical figures to suit an overall story, rather than a series based solely on the biblical text and historical sources. There is a good amount of creative licence (they are filling in 12 hours or so of material), but there are also some good scenes of biblical message and interaction. The main issue for me is that it suffers from the curse of contemporary television; the reality TV show, and so focusses on personalities and individual perspectives, rather than providing a holistic theology of the bible. Too often, (especially in the later episodes), the main characters are reduced to emotional caricatures in the attempt to personalise them. Essentially it is Hollywood-style television aimed at a nominal Christian audience and culture.
If you watch, have your bible ready and take the opportunity to review and work out what is biblically based and where the creative licence comes in.
New Life is having a limited Australian release in early December 2018 (it was produced in the USA in 2016). It is promoted through Movies Change People (Heritage Films). New Life is not a Christian film in the defined US tradition, but a film in the ‘Hallmark’ style tradition of stories about life, family and love. It raises questions about life and being in the context of the friendship and love of two childhood friends, and links into other more well-known commercial love story films. New Life is a sweet film for today, and while not overly dynamic, it has some moving moments and is certainly a film you would feel comfortable inviting people to view and discussing the themes of life, death and living.
While I don’t want to outline the ending, I found it quite intriguing for this day and age and have wondered what people’s reactions to this will be.
Actor Drew Waters directs the film, and the main female character Ava Kennedy is played by Erin Bethea, who will be recognisable to many Christian film watchers, particularly as the lead in the 2008 faith-based film Fireproof.
I leave you with the defining narrating comment from the film, by John Patrick Moore, an Australian actor who plays the main male character Ben Morton:
There are mountain top experiences in our journey through this world. Those rare and lucid moments when everything seems right, and anything is possible. There are those ordinary days when we may not be thrillingly aware of what lies in the future, but we know it's still out there. There are also those strange times when things do not add up or make sense, when we seem to be forgotten, when heavens are brass, but it's all the moments, good and bad that make up life, and the most important thing to do with life is to live it.
I’m in Love with a Church Girl
I’m in Love with a Church Girl (PG, 2013)
I admit I was intrigued to see this film (available on Netflix) mainly because of the title. It is a professionally produced new style of Christian film in that it is aimed at a broader audience than the typical church group, namely the wider US nominal Christian audience.
Miles Montego is a former drug dealer, and now wealthy investor and event organiser, though still with strong ‘street’ connections. At a party held by his stockbroker and the stockbroker’s wife, he meets a group from the wife’s bible study, including Vanessa Leon. Miles is interested in Vanessa and soon they are seeing each other as friends and this leads to questions about where the relationship is heading. Vanessa clearly outlines the importance of having a husband who has a relationship with God. Miles is so keen on Vanessa he starts to attend church, read the bible and talk with other Christians. He meets Vanessa’s parents, and there are some strong scenes with her mother who is clearly not as keen on Miles.
Stephen Baldwin plays a DEA agent who has been trying to catch Miles out, but is also intrigued at the change in lifestyle and then his connection with the church. The film is based on the director’s own story (Galley Molina), who actually wrote the material as a book in prison. Molina was keen to also have well-known American Christians like Adrienne Bailon (who plays Vanessa) and Stephen Baldwin to bring a strong sense of authenticity to the Christian roles.
While there may be a few ‘twee’ moments, this is an encouraging and faithful story, and illustrates how someone’s life can be transformed by the gospel, and the role that ordinary people play in sharing the gospel.
Come Sunday: Film Review
Come Sunday (M, 2018) is a fascinating and well-made film about the challenging and sobering story of Bishop Carlton Pearson (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor - the lead in 12 Years a Slave). Pearson established and grew a large church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was one of the leading African-American preachers in the ‘fundamentalist’ tradition established by Oral Roberts, having been mentored by Roberts during his ministry training. Oral Roberts is convincingly played by Martin Sheen.
The film follows the basic story of Pearson’s ministry and influence and the dramatic (almost overnight) change of belief where Pearson basically explained to his congregation one Sunday that he had had an ‘epiphany’ and woken up no longer believing he could reconcile judgment with a loving God. Leaders and members of the church tried to explain, rationalise and wrestle with his thoughts, but it was soon evident he was promoting a form of universalist reconciliation, and soon there was a large exit of members. Pearson was declared a heretic by his colleagues in the Joint College of Africa-American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004, and moved onto different churches and arrangements, including Unitarianism and New Thought faiths.
The film is in need of some editing for length and repetition, especially as it is a bit didactic in the sense that the director is trying to make Carlton Pearson into more of a martyr for the liberal cause than he patently deserves. I leave you with some of Pearson’s words.
“I’m an atheist who is a theist,” he chuckles. “I still believe in God but not ‘a’ God or ‘the’ God. Just God.”
Soldiers of the Cross
At the start of the twentieth century the Christian religion dominated the religious statistics in the census returns. In 1901, about 97% of the population identified with a Christian denomination or Christian cause. The new century ushered in a new parliament and a new identity and saw the consolidation/and or coming together of the established denominations and traditions and the continued development of newer religious bodies. One of the newer groups was the Salvation Army and while Australia had a Christian heritage and high nominal Christian identification, the Salvation Army viewed the country as a mission field and they embarked on new ways of reaching people with the Gospel.
Salvation Army work started in Australia in 1880, fifteen years after the movement had begun in England under the leadership of William and Catherine Booth.
Since it was a new mission focussed organisation it was perhaps, more open to experimenting with new forms of technology. Before film, the Army used the medium of magic lanterns, which projected images on glass slides, including optical special effects. These productions were often used with music and lectures or sermons to provide a sense of cohesion and illustrate the message that was presented. The Salvation Army viewed these new technologies as a gift from God, and the step from magic lanterns to film was a natural one for the Salvation Army.
The leading person behind the Army's venture into film production was Major Joseph Perry, an Englishman, who came to Australia from New Zealand in 1885. Perry was an early user of photography and magic lanterns and was a logical choice to take charge of the Limelight Department in 1892. The Limelight name came from the light source in the projectors - gas-heated lime blocks. Perry was encouraged in his cinematography work by the new Australasian Commandant Herbert Booth.
At first the Department projected films made by other organisations, but Booth and Perry saw a need to expand the range of subjects and show the work of the Salvation Army, and consequently the Department moved into its own production work.
Their early success of short scenery-based films soon prompted plans for a large-scale epic production that would establish the Army's reputation and focus people's attention not only on individual salvation, but the work they believed that Christians needed to do to save the world. This epic, written and presented by Herbert Booth was Soldiers of the Cross, premiering at Melbourne Town Hall on 13 September 1900.
Soldiers of the Cross is sometimes referred to as the first Australian feature film, though it was more an early form of PowerPoint, being a dramatic lecture, combining stills and illustrations, film, music and commentary. The production concentrated on the heroic stories of Christian martyrdom, including the deaths of Stephen and Peter, and countless other Christians who would rather face an earthly death than recant their faith or worship a false God. One purpose of the film was as a recruitment tool for the Salvation Army. I wonder how a new film version of Soldiers of the Cross would fare in Australia today?
Peter Bentley is the National Director of the ACC
Erring on the side of Better? CPX Documentary 2018
For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse than you Ever Imagined is the new film from the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). The documentary has been several years in the making and involved considerable travel by members of the CPX team, including Dr John Dickson, Justine Toh and Simon Smart and many interviews with leading scholars and figures throughout the western world. The director Allan Dowthwaite would be known to many Christian viewers in Australia through his work on earlier series with John Dickson, The Christ Files and The Life Of Jesus.
The ‘main’ For the Love of God film is a 90 minute ‘cinema cut’ and released for viewing in selected areas through the FanForce arrangement from May, and then there will be extended material available in a series of episodes on-line. For more information click
For the Love of God is a cerebrally stimulating film, and clearly aimed at a thinking section of society (not just people attending church) and can be seen as a modern form of apologetic. It is quite accessible overall as the presenters are engaging and clear and the questions answered by the range of expert commentators are well-thought out and helpful. The style is non-linear, and ranges over history, ending in Australia.
Areas of consideration include the crusades (I don’t think I have to say which category this fits into): Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church (and the worse - the German church in general), Father Damien of Molokai, Christians caring in Roman times (how different they were to the culture of the day especially in the care of new-born babies), ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the treatment of women, including perceptions of witchcraft, and the Myall Creek Massacre in NSW and the treatment and perception of Aboriginal people. There is challenging and sobering material to reflect on, and a film that will stimulate many conversations about God and faith, helping us to reflect again on the centre of our faith Jesus Christ, who we are called to truly follow, rather than our own agendas.
The website has a quote from Nick Spencer that I think sums up the whole idea of the project (Nick Spencer is a Christian writer and commentator based in England with Theos. His recent book is worth reading: The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values)
“It hasn’t always been used on the side of the political or cultural angels - but to think you can understand our idea of right, democracy, human dignity, the scientific revolution, even the welfare state without understanding Christianity … you’re making a big mistake.” Nick Spencer
Review by Peter Bentley, National Director for the ACC