As video-on-demand and streaming platforms have swept the film industry by storm over the last few years, one of the great success stories has been the transformation made in the field of documentary filmmaking. If in the world of theatrical releases, documentarians struggled to get their films seen, the age of streaming has made documentary filmmaking more accessible and more popular than ever. The proof is in the product, and the last few years have produced some of the most rigorous and the most formally exciting documentaries ever made, from films The Act Of Killing to Leviathan to the work being done by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.
But if conceptual ingenuity is one way to distinguish your film from the crowd, the social issue documentary is one of the oldest documentary forms, and much of the novelty of following advocates as they fight for their issue has been lost in the sheer ubiquity of the genre. But while documentaries that take on liberal issues usually favor a conservative approach not just to form, but to whose voices are actually heard, then the new film The Armor Of Light offers a look at the issue of gun control with fresh eyes.
Namely, we experience this film through the eyes of two evangelical Christians determined to make a change in this country’s gun policy—Lucy McBath, the mother of Florida shooting victim Jordan Davis, and Reverend Rob Schenck, a pastor whose connection with McBath moved him to action. The Armor Of Light is about the issue of guns, but it is also a document of Christian life in America at this heightened moment of political discontent.
Faith has been politicized to such an extent in this country that it’s become hard to perceive someone’s difference in beliefs as the result of personal reflection and not political maneuvering. Surely, everyone involved in making The Armor Of Light was hoping to effect change in the conversation around gun control, but what makes the film more than a political pamphlet is the integrity and the curiosity with which directors Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes approach the topic of faith.
Mixing personal interviews with moments of public action, there is nothing spectacular about the conceptual form of this film, but in the images there is a respectful piety. The interviews are beautifully lit and the subjects are given the time to speak with personality, humor and complexity about their beliefs, whether those beliefs are secular or religious. Though we spend most of our time with Reverend Schenck and Lucy McBath, the film is equally generous to the people who disagree with them, and even when the beliefs of pro-gun advocates seem outlandish, the filmmakers go out of their way to let their subjects speak.
Keeping the film cloistered within the evangelical world, Disney and Hughes find a wealth of thoughtful and diverse approaches to life as a Christian citizen of the United States. Reverend Schenck comes to the issue of gun control from the perspective of being an active anti-abortion campaigner. Lucy McBath agrees with Schenck's pro-life stance personally, but not as public policy. The evangelical Christians who oppose their search are well versed in their faith, quoting Bible passages, and suggesting complex moral hypotheticals that might test their faith.
This is not an us-versus-them approach to a political goal, the way it might have been if this film had been made by a firebrand filmmaker like Michael Moore. Instead, The Armor Of Light is a film that attempts to understand and appreciate the full humanity of its subjects. “There are no simple answers,” Schenck offers at one moment, and the film around him is a testament to honoring complex thought and conflicting ideas.
It occurred to me while watching The Armor Of Light how rare it is to watch an argument where every party is listening to each other. There is nothing in the ideology espoused in this film that we haven’t heard before, or that you couldn’t find expressed in print from either side of the political fence, but it is exceedingly rare to find these perspectives earnestly in dialogue with each other. I went into The Armor Of Light expecting preaching, but if the film spends some time at the pulpit, it’s the time it spends listening that lingers.
At one point, Reverend Schenck discusses the moment of his Christian awakening, and recalls being present in a room of believers whose quiet faith made him feel the presence of God. Regardless of whether you are Christian, non-Christian, agnostic, atheist, there is in The Armor Of Light a sense that the filmmakers are searching for that same presence. Call it God or call it humanity, but The Armor Of Light is a film that approaches its issue from a perspective of faith.
In a speech toward the end of the film Reverend Schenck calls gun control a theological and philosophical problem, not a political one—and what The Armor Of Light so gently suggests is that a solution will only come when we can find faith in the actions and intentions of other human beings.