catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 21 :: 2011.11.25 — 2011.12.08


Popcorn and prophets

They gather downtown each week in the small living room of an upstairs apartment. It started out as one friend opening her home to a few others for a meal and the opportunity to engage a text through conversation. Word spread to others that something significant was happening. The small group of seven soon turned into a gathering of more than thirty. Couches meant for three or four people now hold six or eight; blankets and pillows cover the hardwood floor where most people end up sitting for several hours.

The night I first visited this group, the conversation centered on our tendency to present a false self to the world around us, the erosion of relationships many are experiencing despite having hundreds of “friends,” and the difficulty of the call to love our neighbor.

The text for the night: the 2010 documentary film Catfish.

Gathering weekly to discuss a film certainly does not make this group unique. What does make it unique, though, is that its host, Andrea, refers to this gathering as a “house church.”

At their best, both film and a Sunday morning worship service are opportunities to have an experience that transforms us. In both places, if we have eyes that see and ears that hear, we can encounter the real presence of God. The biblical narrative is filled with God speaking to his people through unexpected sources: burning bushes, donkeys, the “godless” Chaldeans and Egyptian texts, to name a few. These stories within the larger story open our eyes to the reality that the sacred/secular line is not a line that God has any use for. No matter the source, all truth is God’s truth — even if it comes through a silver screen.

There may be no artistic medium that more directly engages story than film. And among the film genres, none move their chips more fully onto story than documentary films. Documentaries are an experience of voyeuristic delight in the world of other places, peoples and events. With keen eyes for story, a well-pointed camera, and often a little luck, documentary filmmakers deliver a look into realities most of us would otherwise never see or even know to look for.

Documentaries often take us into the strange realm of subcultures that fill our world. Take, for example, The King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters. The film is more than a 79-minute walk into the world of competitive arcade-game playing: it is a story of humanity. While watching quirky, middle-aged men, we see our own desires to be good at something, our longings to be known and celebrated and our brokenness revealed as pride. Rather than laughing at these video-game geeks, the film brings up our own obsessions, where our desires and brokenness are revealed. (Garden tours, anyone? Scrapbooking? Or what about Sudoku?) Kong asks us why we push ourselves to be great at something. It wonders what our value and worth are attached to.

The King of Kong, The Parking Lot Movie, Exit through the Gift Shop, Anvil: The Story of Anvil and Good Hair are among the great films that open our eyes to segments of our culture that have much more to teach us than the particulars of a certain way of life. They speak to us about what it is to be human.

In these films, the filmmakers become prophetic voices to us all.

The Devil Came on Horseback first opened my eyes to the story of Sudan. Sitting in a theater in Park City, Utah, surrounded by Sundance Film Festival attendees from all over the country, it occurred to me that most of us in the room had little in common, aside from a love for movies. But after watching the film’s images and hearing the stories of the oppressed people of Sudan, at least one commonality had emerged: we all knew that Sudan needed to be a priority in our lives. I went home and, for the first time in my life, inquired about the mutual funds where my wife and I had invested for retirement. Scrolling down the list of company names, I came across two that I recognized from the film: large energy companies that were funneling money to the rebels in Sudan in order to drill for oil. The list of people with Sudanese blood on their hands is long, and I confess that my name is on that list. I picked up the phone, called our broker, and moved our money out of the fund. I now pay attention to the companies we invest in, because human life is more important than higher revenue. The Devil Came on Horseback was a documentary film that helped me understand this, and it led me to repentance.

The voices of the prophets are used to awaken us to the reality we are living in. There is another way of living, another path down which we should walk — one that is often narrower and less traveled. It is this path that the prophet points toward and beckons us to consider.

This is the work of the great documentary filmmakers. They focus our eye on realities that leave us with the choice either to continue on with our lives as they have been or to turn to a new way of living. The Devil Came on Horseback, Food, Inc., King Corn, Gasland, Invisible Children and Call + Response are just a few of the many great documentaries that urge us to reexamine our lives. This, of course, is what repentance is all about.

However, some films, rather than getting you off the couch, pin you to it.

No documentary made me want to scream more than The Garden. In the middle of South Central L.A. is a community garden that has nourished a corner of the city. Not only does it provide space for low-income people to grow healthy food; it also acts as a community center. The chilling tale of what took place on this plot of land stirs up questions about justice, property rights, immigration and the state of local politics. As this bit of paradise in the midst of hardened streets was lost right before my eyes, I wanted desperately to do something. But there was nothing I could do.

This story is over. The battle has been lost.

There are times when fighting injustice is possible and that is exactly where we should join God. But there are other times when the only possible and appropriate reaction is to mourn what has been lost. There are times when we are called to stand with God and to name evil for what it is: That Which Ought Not Be.

The creators of The Garden, Long Way Home, The Tillman Story, Reporter and The Art of The Steal each in their own way lead us to a place of weeping with those who weep. And, when we weep with the oppressed, we weep with God.
Next time you’re popping your corn and picking your flick, consider letting the voice of one of the great documentary filmmakers of our time into your world. You may just find that you encounter the very voice of God.

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