Crusade

07.20.11

Indie Films’ Religious War

From superchurch satire ‘Salvation Boulevard’ to the atheist film ‘The Ledge’ and Sundance fave ‘Higher Ground,’ an abnormal number of movies this summer rail against evangelicalism. Marlow Stern speaks with filmmakers and experts from both sides of the debate, including Vera Farmiga of ‘Higher Ground’ and Kirk Cameron of ‘Fireproof.’

They can magically transport us to the halls of Hogwarts or leisurely navigate the curved contours of a Victoria’s Secret model, but movies also serve as a mirror to our times. And, in a 78.4 percent Christian country that was last run by a man on a Blues Brothers-esque mission from God and whose potential next president, Michele Bachmann, says that same deity is speaking directly to her, the line separating church and state has become blurred, spurring a coterie of independent filmmakers to take aim at the Christian right.

“It’s the beginning of the presidential election season, especially with the rise of the Tea Party and people being more outspoken about their faith,” said Mark Moring, senior associate editor of Christianity Today, the country’s leading evangelical magazine. “So faith will be more in the conversation in the coming months.”

The Ledge, released July 8 and directed by outspoken atheist Matthew Chapman, fired the opening salvo. In the film, a detective (Terrence Howard) is trying to talk down an atheist, Gavin Nichols (Charlie Hunnam), from the ledge of a high-rise building. The movie then flashes back to Gavin’s affair with Shana (Liv Tyler), a former drug addict who was “saved” by her future husband, Joe (Patrick Wilson), a fundamentalist—and homophobic—Christian. When Joe learns of the affair, he says Gavin must jump from the ledge and sacrifice his own life—thereby challenging his views on the afterlife—or he’ll kill Shana.

“Both the character of the fundamentalist and the character of the atheist are far from perfect as human beings,” Chapman told The Daily Beast. “I have sympathy for both characters, and I happen to think that faith in and of itself is not a solution to anything. It softens the intellectual fiber of a country to be so dominated by that way of thinking, or not thinking.”

Chapman has garnered a reputation for his anti-Christianity views, having written extensively on the creation-evolution argument in the U.S., and is the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. His film’s depiction of an atheist hero so angered Catholic League President Bill Donohue that he released a one-page statement criticizing the film’s “utterly predictable” characters and called for the movie’s boycott.

After corporations bought up the major movie studios in the 1970s and ’80s, limiting their creative autonomy and introducing a corporate ethos of mass appeal, it fell to independent cinema to produce divisive “social commentary” films. Studios woefully mismanaged films with potentially divisive religious themes, such as Soul Surfer. Directed by Sean McNamara, the movie is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb), a teen surfer who loses her arm in a shark attack. With the help of her faith, her family, and her perseverance, she overcomes her disability to become one of the world’s top teenage surfers. Made with the help of Affirm Films, a Christian production company, Soul Surfer was released on April 8 and distributed by Tristar Pictures, a subsidiary of Sony. The film sparked controversy when a trailer “leaked” onto the Internet emphasizing the film’s Christian themes, but included a shot in which the title of the Bible was digitally removed. Hamilton’s family cried foul, claiming that producers had urged the filmmaker to tone down the film’s Christian themes.

“I don’t know if somebody leaked it purposefully, but we all looked at that trailer and were like, ‘That’s not our film!’” McNamara told The Daily Beast. “So we hired a trailer company and made a different one. But [no studio flacks] got upset about it, so we were like, ‘OK was this purposefully leaked?’”

Salvation Boulevard, released July 15 and directed by George Ratliff, is another indie film that throws jabs at Christianity, albeit in black comedic form. Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan) is a superchurch minister who exploits his congregation financially in order to build his utopian “City on a Hill”—that is, until churchgoer Carl Vandeveer (Greg Kinnear) witnesses Dan accidentally shooting a renowned atheist. Dan frames Carl for the crime and turns his entire devoted following against him, setting off a string of increasingly bizarre events. “Just from experience of people I grew up with, basing so much on something someone has seen to the point where they base their whole life on it, it leads to a lot of false premise moves that are very darkly funny,” Ratliff told The Daily Beast. “The movie is not trying to turn people into atheists, it’s trying to be a comedy set in that world, where people can start talking about that world. It’s an icebreaker.”

Ratliff grew up in Amarillo, Texas, and observed the “cultural force” that was evangelicalism sweep through the South during the 1980s, to the point that by the time he graduated high school, nearly everyone he knew had become fervent believers. He released a documentary in 2001, Hell House, about a Texas-area Pentecostal church’s haunted house that replaced ghosts and monsters with girls having abortions and people committing suicide. The timing couldn’t have been worse—the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 13, two days after 9/11, and failed to find an audience.

There’s a duality to it, Vera Farmiga says of religion. It can be a knife in someone’s back, but it can also be that knife that cuts bread.

“I don’t think any studios are taking it on. It’s still a hot topic to them. But I feel like it’s the biggest force in American culture right now,” said Ratliff. “It’s amazing to me [all these films] didn’t happen earlier. It’s 10 years too late, in my opinion. But I’m glad they’re all there. It might not be good for any of us that it’s all happening at the same time, but I’m glad it’s happening.”

The recent groundswell of anti-Christianity indie films may also be a pointed reaction to the breakout success of Fireproof, a 2008 Christian movie starring Kirk Cameron that grossed more than $33 million from a $500,000 budget. Like Soul Surfer, the project was developed by Affirm Films, and marketed heavily to the Christian community. And Cameron, who rose to fame starring as little Mike Seaver on the TV sitcom Growing Pains, has emerged as an influential ambassador in the evangelical community. “Fireproof was more than a fun flick for moviegoers… It gives people real-world hope and excitement in an age of nuptial boredom and defeat,” Cameron told The Daily Beast. “I can’t know the motives of the producers [of anti-Christian films], but I do know that millions of people are looking for movies with the strong Christian values that reflect their own.” Sure enough, in September, Affirm and Sony Pictures will release Courageous, a Christian film about a group of policemen struggling with fatherhood.

Not to be outdone, on Aug. 26 the indie film world will release Higher Ground, the directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga, about a woman who embraces, doubts, and ultimately abandons her evangelical community. Of all the new films questioning evangelism, it is the most measured and least proselytizing. “I have a deep respect for all religions, and I think the bottom line of it all is just finding a life of deeper meaning and purpose,” Farmiga said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “There’s a duality to it. It can be a knife in someone’s back, but it can also be that knife that cuts bread.”

Martha Marcy May Marlene, which opens in September and drew raves at Sundance, centers on a girl (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who flees a dangerous religious cult. And last but not least is Kevin Smith’s Red State, about a cult of fundamentalist Christians who kidnap and torture a group of boys.

The anti-Christian sentiment isn’t limited to the big screen. Sex and the City executive producer Darren Starr is developing an ABC drama called Good Christian Bitches, about a woman who goes back to her hometown following a divorce, only to become the subject of ridicule among her churchgoing community. And proud nonbeliever Ricky Gervais (BBC’s The Office) is scripting an atheism-themed show about the afterlife.

“I think the mockery is a reaction not so much to Christianity itself, as perhaps to stereotypes of Christians that pervade the media and national consciousness: loud-mouthed (and close-minded) right-wingers, Bible thumpers, blind hatred for Obama,” said Christianity Today’s Moring. “These are the fringe folks, the ones who make the news, the ones who are seen and heard because they want to be seen and heard. And they’re easy targets for mockery—and for the most part, I say bring it on. Those who make a mockery of our faith, of what Christianity ought to look like to a watching world, deserve to be mocked.”