Film and Media
The Sweetest Country?
Sweet Country (2017, MA - for language, violence and adult themes)
I reviewed Warwick Thornton’s first film Samson and Delilah in June 2009. Sweet Country is his second film as Director and was released in January this year. Warwick is an indigenous man from Alice Springs.
Sweet Country is a rough film (particularly in the language aimed at Aboriginal people), though it is also a film of surprising beauty. Among the violence and also vile treatment of the Aboriginal people, there are scenes deliberately and slowly arranged that are reminiscent of Albert Namatjira paintings - the natural beauty of the country is breathtaking. Warwick Thornton has also used ideas from the traditional western to convey this beauty and the story. John Ford films set in Monument Valley come to mind in this Australian western.
The story is set in 1929 and follows the shooting of Harry March, a white settler by an Aboriginal farmhand Sam Kelly (played by Hamilton Morris), who then goes on the run with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). A small posse is formed to bring Sam back for a trial, but Sam eventually gives himself up to help his pregnant wife and the trial ensues.
The ‘sweet country’ that Bryan Brown’s character Sergeant Fletcher talks about, is the sweet land that he believes is just right for raising cattle and living a good life, but there is also an irony to the title as the characters question whether it can ever be really a sweet experience for any of them.
I want to quote a section of my review of Samson and Delilah as it is evident that Sweet Country has central Christian content as well.
“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 to have him straightened out, and he learnt to appreciate the regulated and yet simple lifestyle.”
The Christian faith is quite central again, with Sam Neil’s character Fred Smith a gentle Christian man who sees the Aboriginal workers on his farm differently from his neighbours. “We're all equal here. We're all equal in the eyes of the Lord.” There is a moving scene as they all join hands to give thanks for their food. In another scene, as part of the posse to track Sam (to make sure he comes back alive), one of the men bemoans that they don’t even sing around the campfire. Fred then starts singing ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so’, much to the amusement of the other men.
The town itself has no church, but that will change as one of the future images shows that what is raised up is not what the viewer is led to expect, but a church.
The clearest religious context is near the end, and while I do not want to give too much away, it is the positioning of the rainbow while hope is questioned that provides the answer. There will always be love and hope if people truly follow God.
The second part of the film concerns the trial. Matt Day is Judge Taylor and in this town, the courtroom is the travelling cinema. The travelling cinema man had been screening The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), a choice that is not incidental to the director’s theme. It was intriguing though to see people in the same deck chairs, but now as the courtroom ‘audience’, perhaps a nod to contemporary reality TV shows?
There is undeniably a focus and comment on the rule of law (from our British heritage) during the trial, and I leave it to the viewer to ponder this aspect.
Thornton closes out his second film with a song, this time a Johnny Cash version of Peace in the Valley; yes an irony, though it links well with the final scene that raises the continuing question about the relationship of the people of the land with the contemporary time they are in.
Peter Bentley is the National Director for the ACC
Battle of the Sexes - updated for the 21st century
Battle of the Sexes (2017, PG)
I thought it would be helpful to provide a comment on this film, though I caution potential viewers as there is active portrayal of (same) sex practice. It is a sign of the times that this film received a PG rating. For those who are unfamiliar, it is mainly a dramatic re-telling of the off-court competition between tennis champions Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (a No. 1 player in the 1940s) and then their actual match. I was interested in this film because of the Margaret Court connection. Australian actress Jessica McNamee plays Margaret Court. The most intriguing aspect is the secondary story that involves Margaret Court, as she played the first ‘battle of the sexes’, the match in May 1973 that Bobby Riggs won 6-2, 6-1. Margaret continues as a character, but is primarily a foil for Billie Jean King.
Riggs continually taunted Billie Jean King with the idea of a major telecast deal, and a match was eventually arranged and held in September 1973. It was telecast with an estimated audience of 90 million, a very large number for the day. Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billie Jean are simply amazing in their roles.
The film is certainly well made and a fascinating biopic of the 1970s and male and female dynamics and relationships, but the obvious, though not unexpected aspect is that it is also a promotional film for same-sex relationships, and thus a revisionist interpretation that essentially mocks people in the era for being so narrow-minded. This is nowhere more evident in that the actual role Margaret Court is assigned in the film is that of ‘lesbian spotter’, and her prime target depicted is Billie Jean King. Battle of the Sexes is certainly a topical film given that Billie Jean King weighed in on the Margaret Court controversy over Margaret’s comments on same-sex marriage this year.
Peter Bentley is the ACC’s National Director
A New Era of Viewing
Many Australians have now embraced the new viewing era with comprehension. Gone are the days when most of Australia tuned in at a certain time to watch a certain program and then would discuss, critique or bemoan the program the next day.
Now with all TV stations offering catch-up service (streaming), even the 6 pm or 7 pm nightly news is on the way to becoming a rare event for any family or couple to watch together.
Paid streaming services like Netflix, Stan and Foxtel Now, allow immediate access to a wide variety of material, and increasingly are making their name with their own TV shows.
Netflix is one of the most widely used. It is likely that at least one member of your family has Netflix and now can binge-watch TV series after TV series, let alone movie after movie. One of the intriguing aspects is that like Foxtel, these new services provide a range of films – a type of broadcast smorgasbord, with offerings for everyone. I have listed below some of the Biblical and Christian films, and films with a Christian theme available on Netflix. The US service has many more films on offer, but at least the Australian service has made a start.
Kings’ Faith (M): a teenager leaves a gang and is cared for by Christian parents who face some difficult personal choices.
A Matter of Faith: A contemporary evolution v creation debate on a university campus.
David and Goliath: A slightly awkward telling of the traditional story.
The Ark: the building of the ark is told by BBC1.
Born to Win: the title belies the focus as a teacher’s faith is challenged in a school for special needs.
The Blind Side: A Christian family support a young African-American in his football career.
The Preacher’s Son (M): an illuminating adult look at a fictional African-American local church dynasty and their failings and past (and present) sins. An eye-opener into the combining of politics in American society and the church. The wife of the Minister has the title ‘First Lady’ in the church.
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler: the story of a Polish social worker who saved Jewish children during WWII.
Soul Surfer: The story of Bethany Hamilton who lost her left arm in a shark attack.
Christian TV – in a new way
Many readers would be aware of the dedicated Christian TV channel, the Australian Christian Channel (Yes, another ACC). As noted above, many people now use a form of pay TV – Fetch is a common one and ACC TV is available on Fetch or Foxtel.
However, the Australian Christian Channel is now more than just a channel, as its website provides live TV and on demand/catch-up. You can also download the ACCTV App and watch when you want to on your tablet or phone, or Apple TV. For more information see: https://acc.tv/
Moving from DVD base to Digital
Heritage Films (marketing through Movies Change People) continues to provide a theatrical release arrangement for churches and groups, and a DVD based service, and has now developed digital on-demand and streaming to meet the needs of a new era. See their website: https://www.movieschangepeople.com/
During so much change in broadcasting, it is good to see Christian organisations again at the forefront of technology; just like they were at the start of the film industry in the early 20th century.
Denial (2017, M)
Denial is also a film based on a book, but in this case the non-fiction work "History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier," by Deborah Lipstadt, the US historian who had to defend herself against a libel charge by David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier when she gave a lecture in England. In English law the burden of proof is on the accused, so the defence focussed on the facts of the Holocaust and by relation, proving that Irving was a liar. It is a well-made courtroom drama, with fine performances, though Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt has very much a supporting role as the legal eagles dominate the film. Deborah Lipstadt has often been asked about ‘free speech’ and among many comments, I thought it was helpful to consider the following quote from the film.
“Now, some people are saying that the result of this trial will threaten free speech. I don't accept that. I'm not attacking free speech. On the contrary, I've been defending it against someone who wanted to abuse it. Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want. What you can't do is lie and expect not to be held accountable for it. Not all opinions are equal. And some things happened, just like we say they do.”
A Man Called Ove
A Man Called Ove (2015, M)
This Swedish film was recently released in Australia and has had a continuing run at some selected cinemas (I have been wondering if it may continue a run like As it is in Heaven (2004) – this ran for well over a year in Sydney, mainly by word of mouth).
I thought of briefly mentioning Ove as there is a similar and distinct philosophy about life and religion to the very popular As it is in Heven. I am sure that some people will see A Man Called Ove as a (mostly) a charming and even eirenic film, but there are some questionable aspects, notably the theme of suicide. Ove consistently tries to kill himself, but is always thwarted, usually by the interruptions of neighbours, who are perhaps ‘angels of mercy’. Overall, though the film promotes the idea that being good is the most noble way for a person to live. Ove himself, hopes that when he does die, the church will be packed, and this clearly links with the concept of the ‘good man’- people giving honour to him for what he has done.
Star Wars: 40th Anniversary
Star Wars (1977, PG)
Or as it is known now, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ….
Well, I thought it was suitable to comment on a film that was realised in the same year as the inauguration of the Uniting Church. I find it harder to believe this film is now 40 years old. It was a distinctly new and ground-breaking film, heralding in a new age of technology. Amazing special effects and it of course started a franchise and provided a toy and related-goods marketing bonanza.
There is a distinct religious and philosophical stream to Star Wars that is centred around ‘the force’, and this in many ways resonates with a popular view of religion that believes there is some higher force than ourselves out there that will provide help when we need. Other themes include people being tempted and won to the ‘dark side’, and some coming back to the ‘right side’ There is also the idea that a simple good person will eventually prevail over a nasty evil person. Music is central, just like it is in our churches. In popular culture terms, who would fail to recognise the Star Wars introduction? And perhaps befitting a focus for some on individual fantasy, it led to people including Jedi as their religion in the Australian census (approximately 65 000 in 2011).
In the SILENCE
Silence, 2016 MA 15+ (Australian rating)
Silence is a strangely beautiful and yet alarmingly horrifying depiction of a quite savage period in Christian history. The context here is the period after the first ‘opening up’ of Japan in the middle 16th century, and then the reaction, and the desire to purify and rid Japan of foreign influences (not only Christian, but associated). Possibly thousands of Christians were martyred during this time, with one of the most well-known being the crucifixion in Nagasaki on February 5, 1597 of twenty-six Christians including six European Franciscan missionaries and three Japanese Jesuits. Persecution continued into the 1630s and the film itself is set in this later period following a major rebellion that had some Christian context, though was also related to other factors. The film itself provides an eye-opener into the never-ending methods of torture and killing that mankind develops at times when they desire revenge and destruction.
The film is based on the 1966 book by Shusaku Endo, and directed by the influential and controversial ‘actors’ director’ Martin Scorsese. Apparently, it was a nearly three-decades long personal project to bring the film to fruition. This film is oddly reminiscent at times of Terrence Malick films with the soft voice-over and lyrical filming. Like Scorsese, Malick focusses on people exploring their beliefs in extraordinary times.
Intriguingly Andrew Garfield, who played the main Christian character in Hacksaw Ridge, plays one of the Jesuit priests Father Rodrigues, who goes in search of his mentor Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), partly to find out if there is truth to the rumour that he ‘apostatised’? The film also follows the struggles of Father Rodrigues and his companions. This is the ‘silence’ connection – even in the times that there is seemingly silence by God, God is there. As Father Rodrigues observes, “It was in the silence that I heard Your voice.”
There are certainly some theological questions raised due to the Catholic context (especially in related to confession and prayer), but these need to be considered in the strong pastoral context where the priests gave totally of themselves to serve their people. There are also incredible moments that we all hope we would never have to personally face:
What would you do in a situation where;
- Your life will be spared if you deny your faith?
- Others will be spared if you deny your faith?
- You are tortured simply for having a Christian symbol in your possession?
- You repeatedly deny Christ and yet are so burdened you repeatedly seek forgiveness?
There is another whole theme in the film about the hidden or ‘secret Christians’, and readers may be aware of this context in China after the expulsion of missionaries in 1949, in countries in the former Soviet Bloc, and in middle eastern countries today. The ‘secret Christian’ remains a theme throughout the movie right to the incredible end.
The early 17th century was a very public period of confrontation for the local Christians, and yet it was also an isolated period for Japan itself. In contrast to today, it was of course a time without social media and the broadcasting of martyrdom. This is very much an adult film, but one that I believe will lead you to think deeply about your faith. It will have a short season at the cinema, but given the length of the film, it may be best watched at home with a group. Then you can take a break at an appropriate time, perhaps even spend some time in prayer and reflection, before preparing yourself for the final part of this quite searing and intriguing drama.
Peter Bentley is the ACC’s National Director
Christian Faith in Action
Hacksaw Ridge (MA 15+, 2016)
The story of WWII Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss, has now received full treatment in a major Hollywood production by Mel Gibson (though much of the official publicity refers to him simply as ‘the director’ of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ – clearly Gibson is still being ‘rehabilitated’ before being returned to the Hollywood directing elite).
This film received an R rating in the USA for its violence and war depictions, and MA 15+ in Australia, recognising its adult content. It would of course be difficult to avoid the use of violence given the context. I refer to the citation for Doss’s medal that reads in part: … for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty from April 29 – 21 May 1945, while serving with the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, in action at Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands. Private First Class Doss was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machine gun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. …
Doss is portrayed as a ‘conscientious objector’, but I think the term ‘conscientious supporter’ is more accurate as he supported the war initiative and was willing to be a medic. He was very aware of the dimensions of evil on the axis side and believed that the war was justified. Doss refused to kill though, or to carry a weapon and this was based on his conviction as a Seventh-day Adventist, stemming especially from his mother’s bible training, views and own experience. Doss believed God guided him and gave him strength to serve in these almost unbelievable situations. He was willing to lay down his life for another, and was wounded three times during his service.
It is as Mel Gibson has highlighted, very much an Australian production, not only with the location filming, but Australian actors, including well-known actors Sam Worthington (Captain Glover), and Hugo Weaving (Desmond’s father) and Rachel Griffiths (Desmond’s mother). Desmond Doss is played in an understated and sincere manner by Andrew Garfield a US born English actor.
Hacksaw Ridge is simply quite overpowering, telling a story that is somewhat hard to fathom at any time, and I believe can only be understood from a Christian viewpoint.
Risen - He is Risen Indeed!
Risen (M, 2016) is a helpful film to view and well worth viewing at the cinema (and hope it may have a longer and wider release), or buying the DVD when out or viewing via (legal) download. It is one of those films that causes you to think long after and if you watched it with friends, hopefully, consider together some of the themes it raises.
Joseph Fiennes stars as Clavius, a Roman Centurion and perhaps ‘ancient day fixer’. He is continually given problems to solve and soon after dealing with another zealot and followers, he is tasked by Pontius Pilate (played by Peter Firth, the lead from the BBC spy drama Spooks) to find the body that had vanished from the tomb or find out what happened to Jesus after his burial. Pilate is concerned about any implications for further rebellion or trouble.
Frank Morison (pseudonym of Albert Henry Ross) is well known for his book - Who Moved the Stone? (1930 and reprinted every few years) and this film has a similar investigative base, in that certain possibilities are examined. Written by Paul Aiello, this is a solid and intriguing 'Hollywood style' film. The script is respectful of the context, allowing the ideas developed to flow into telling the story of two men: Jesus and Clavius.
The director Kevin Reynolds has made several well-known Hollywood films, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and The Count of Monte Christo (2002) which highlighted Jim Caviezel’s physical acting in a major role. Caviezel would go on to play Jesus Christ in The Passion of the Christ (2004). There is a certain orientation in Reynolds’ movies toward the outsider or rebel character, and this continues with the somewhat worldly-weary Clavius, as the film explores his past and the challenges to his worldview that this new task provides.
The film was also known as The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but perhaps to give a simpler and less religious title, Risen was chosen for release. One interesting factor in the development is that is the film is seen as an "unofficial sequel" to The Passion of the Christ. It has certainly not had the same amount of publicity and controversy, but then The Passion of the Christ was a Mel Gibson directed film.
Peter Bentley is the National Director of the ACC
Church in the Spotlight
The Church in the Spotlight
“There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.” (Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News, 1920, p.13).
Spotlight (2015, M) is not a film about heroes. In an age of bizarre and distorted reality television programmes and tweeting that can provide 15 seconds of fame or infamy, this is simply a film about people doing their jobs.
The Spotlight team are a specialist team at The Boston Globe. They combine extensive journalism experience with contemporary research skills and writing ability. Their collaborative work is like a Supreme Court decision - where one person often writes the majority report or article for the 'team', though in the Globe case they are more united.
As many readers will now know, the film is about the work by the Spotlight team in 2001 and 2002 to expose the nature and extent of child sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Their work provided an impetus to further work by other reporters and also the development of official investigations not only in the USA, but in other countries including Australia. The Spotlight team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. You can read their original reports on the Globe website. They make illuminating reading, not only for their investigative style but also detailed and lengthy analysis. The different technological era also stands out. This is pre-broadband and there is still a reliance on primary research, analytical skills and interviewing, all elements that are illustrated well in their very ordinariness and yet integral foundation to the eventual publishing.
When the idea of Spotlight is explained near the start of the film to the new Globe editor, it seems almost quaint to our way of thinking today. A small team of experienced and focused journalists consider a subject or area, often spending months if not a year researching and writing before publishing. At a time when people want instant results and opinion where is the opportunity for sustained investigation such as this? Given the large staffing cutbacks in many newspapers, this form of investigative writing is a prime example of professional journalism that is under threat. The film highlights the continued need today for independent journalism that is able to build on the tradition of asking for and receiving no favours from any quarter, including their own publisher.
At one point in the film when the scale of the abuse is uncovered the question is raised by one of the journalists investigating: Why did we not know? Someone must have known? It was evident that even in the Globe, certain stories were known, but they were not connected or followed up on in a sustained way.
At the 2015 Australasian Religious Press Association Conference, Dr John Harrison (Senior Lecturer, Communications and Arts UQ and former UCA Queensland Synod Communications Manager) commented on this matter and used the term ‘Incurious’ to describe media people in the era in Australia when this was happening. It is a helpful word; the idea that the church and many journalists of the time were seemingly not interested in knowing what was happening and the extent that was happening – perhaps it was too challenging for the continued and ‘normal’ operation of the church and culture. This context was the opposite of the idea of inquiry, and revealed an indifference that was part of a wider culture of ignoring or even suppressing information. As noted, the Globe did not follow through on reported cases, and this was not because the Globe was substantially staffed by people of Catholic faith, or at least nominal Catholic faith, but rather the overall culture did not encourage a sustained critique of dominant institutions and authorities.
Other aspects considered in the film include priestly celibacy and relationships, and there will be no doubt be considerable debate and discussion, especially in Catholic circles.
This is a fine film in the newspaper film genre, and continues the gritty depiction of real events in the pressured and changing journalistic environment as seen in earlier films like All the President's Men (1976), and the more recent Nothing but the Truth (2008). The director Tom McCarthy is also an actor, having played a significant role as an ethically compromised reporter in the concluding season of the television drama The Wire that focussed on The Baltimore Sun. McCarthy picked up many helpful pointers in that ground-breaking drama, and it is good to see a film considering ethics and values without unnecessary preaching. I will not list all the actors as this is an amazing ensemble cast and wonderful to see how they work together.
Spotlight is a sobering film for church members and ultimately contemporary even though it is set 15 years ago. We are all led to consider our response and allegiance – is it to the 'institution', or to the one holy Catholic and apostolic church? It is also illuminating as to why there has been a wider societal change in terms of the trust of and general perception of priests and ministers. As one of the survivors says:
“They say it's just physical abuse but it's more than that, this was spiritual abuse. You know why I went along with everything? Because priests, are supposed to be the good guys.”
Spotlight is an example of how good writing and telling a story well can lead to real change. It avoids the self-righteousness that can sometimes come out in films from Hollywood that are too didactic, and in this way helps all viewers to examine their own lives, faith and incurious ties.
Peter Bentley is the National Director for the ACC