Entertainment

01.31.14

‘Alone Yet Not Alone’: Inside the Conservative Christian Movie the Oscars Ousted

A right-wing sugar daddy, two groups of evangelical filmmakers, a famous composer, an Oscar nod, and an Academy backlash: the strange story of a Christian movie’s 15 minutes of fame.

On Wednesday, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took a near-unprecedented step when they rescinded the Best Original Song Oscar nomination for “Alone Yet Not Alone,” the theme song from an unknown independent movie of same name.

The Academy decided that Bruce Broughton, the song’s composer, had run afoul of the organization’s rules by emailing fellow members of the Academy’s music branch about his submission. Broughton, who composed the soundtracks for films like Tombstone and The Rescuers Down Under, was the governor of the music branch from 2003-2012, and is currently an executive committee member. Academy rules require that the voting process to be “fair and ethical,” and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs declared that Broughton’s use of his influence inside the organization had created “the appearance of an unfair advantage.”

Broughton said he was “devastated” by the decision. “I didn’t ask for anyone to vote for it, I just didn’t want the song to be bypassed,” he explained when questions first arose about his possible use of his influence to secure the nomination. Hollywood Reporter columnist Scott Feinberg agreed, criticizing the Academy for not making clear what rule Broughton had broken.

But for all the frenzy of press the disqualification has provoked, that it was nominated in the first place was perhaps even more surprising. Alone Yet Not Alone was produced by a team of conservative evangelical filmmakers with virtually no Hollywood connections. Almost no one in the press or the entertainment industry has seen it: the movie had a week-long “qualifying run” in September, and is not being screened for critics ahead of its opening on June 13, according to Rogers & Cowan, the PR agency representing the film. Its nomination, which Broughton and the film’s creators have described as a grassroots victory, was a coup for the right-wing evangelical filmmakers who have been quietly building an alternative industry to produce movies colored by deeply ideological views about American history and politics.

Based on an evangelical book of the same title, Alone Yet Not Alone tells the story of a family that emigrated to the United States during the French and Indian War, fleeing religious persecution in 18th-century Germany. Under overwrought narration that strains to replicate the classic “in a world” tone of action trailers, the movie’s preview shows the settler protagonists clashing with Native American antagonists—beautiful, blonde Europeans brutalized by angry, dark savages. The title refers to the situation of the two female leads who are captured by “Injuns” (“alone...”) and ask God to rescue them (“...yet not alone”).

‘Alone Yet Not Alone’ Trailer

Video screenshot

The film’s cast and crew reads, as journalist Katie Botkin put it, “like a partial who’s-who of dominion-mandate Christian entrepreneurs.” It brings together players from several different strands of the right-wing evangelical filmmaking world: one based around Patrick Henry College, a conservative liberal arts college in Purcellville, Virginia; and another group closely tied to Vision Forum Ministries, a far-right evangelical patriarchy movement based in Texas that recently imploded when its founder, Doug Phillips, confessed to an “inappropriate relationship” with a younger woman.

The Virginia group, known as Advent Film Group, is not officially affiliated with Patrick Henry College, though its first major production, Come What May, was filmed on the school’s campus near Washington, D.C., starred the school’s founder, and featured numerous Patrick Henry students as crew members. Directed by Advent founder George Escobar, Come What May recapitulated several themes of the evangelical homeschooling movement, centering on a “courtship” (a parent-controlled romantic relationship) that takes place between two members of Patrick Henry’s Moot Court team while they stand for their convictions by using a certain-to-lose anti-abortion argument in a competition.

Escobar is also a producer, as well as a co-director and writer, of Alone Yet Not Alone, whose cast and crew features a sprinkling of people associated with Advent Film Group. Brett Harris, a graduate who was well-known in the evangelical world well before he attended Patrick Henry as co-author of the popular teen book Do Hard Things, plays the character Owen. Several other former Patrick Henry students also worked on the film’s crew.

The nomination of the movie’s title song for an Academy Award was an accolade that filmmakers from this fringe conservative Christian world could hardly have dreamed of.

If there’s an even deeper shade of red on the conservative evangelical spectrum, it’s in central Texas, where Doug Phillips has, since the early 2000s, been creating a bizarro-Hollywood for radical right-wing filmmakers. Until his fall from grace in late 2013, Phillips was a leading figure in the “quiverfull” movement, an umbrella term for a patriarchal ideology that eschews all forms of birth control and encourages its followers to produce large families. In 2004, Phillips’ Vision Forum Ministries launched the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, an annual confab for films made by young homeschooled Christian filmmakers and heavily favoring movies with political themes, like opposition to feminism and socialism. (The festival has been suspended in the wake of Vision Forum’s closure.)

Alone Yet Not Alone seems to echo the Vision Forum brand of spiritualized American nationalism, and Tracy Leininger Craven, the author of the book from which the screenplay is adapted, has written several books that reinforce a conservative view of gender roles. Craven’s “Beautiful Girlhood Library” series are advertised as celebrating God’s blessing of women who “are faithfully walking in their calling as wife, mother, or daughter.” Leininger is the daughter of James Leininger  a Texas multimillionaire who is a major booster of Rick Perry, and has been called the “sugar daddy of the religious right.” The two protagonists of the film, Barbara and Regina Leininger, are based on family ancestors who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Barbara is played by Tracy Leininger Craven’s sister, Kelly Greyson, and their father is said to have financed the movie’s approximately $7 million budget.

James Leininger bridges the gap between the Virginia and Texas groups: over the years, he has been heavily involved in Vision Forum, and also sits on the Patrick Henry College board of trustees. According to reporting by Jen Fishburne, a San Antonio woman who runs a “survivor” blog to document “tyranny and abuse” by Doug Phillips and Vision Forum, Leininger was a founding director of the group in 1997, and donated a building and a large house to Phillips. The address for Enthuse Entertainment, the production company behind Alone Yet Not Alone, is a building owned by one of Leininger’s businesses. As the blogger Libby Anne reported, two of Phillips’s children have roles in the film, and it premiered at the Vision Forum’s 2013 film festival.

This same web of connections that led to the film’s creation also contributed to its nomination in the Best Original Song category, if the judgment of the board of directors of the Academy is to be believed. George Escobar told WorldNetDaily that Ken Wales, an executive producer on Alone Yet Not Alone, as well as producer of past films including Amazing Grace and The Revenge of the Pink Panther, brought Bruce Broughton on board.

Broughton, who knew Wales from the first feature film he worked on, collaborated with Wales and the lyricist Dennis Spiegel in hopes of creating a song “as memorable, powerful and timeless as the famous hymn, ‘Amazing Grace,’” Escobar said. The song was completed before the film was shot and eventually recorded by Joni Eareckson Tada, a conservative Christian author and radio host who has been a quadriplegic since a diving accident in 1967.

“Alone Yet Not Alone,” Performed By Joni Eareckson Tada

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The nomination of the movie’s title song for an Academy Award was an accolade that filmmakers from this fringe conservative Christian world could hardly have dreamed of, considering that their films have mostly been limited to low-budget productions with obvious conservative agendas. But it was that very unlikelihood that intensified scrutiny about how the song got its votes. Not surprisingly, the movie’s supporters bitterly chalked up the Academy’s decision to another assault from their liberal persecutors.

“Shame on you Motion Picture Academy for taking the low road, saving your own butts and doing this to one of your former Governors and Head of the Music Branch,” Belinda Broughton, the wife of the song’s composer, wrote on Facebook

“This is STUNNING news,” Escobar added, posting a link to a story announcing the Academy’s decision. “An injustice. Read. Share. Pray. Forgive.”