Windrider: Faith Intersects at Sundance

lebrating 25 years of discovering new stories told with raw honesty, the Sundance Film Festival invites moviemakers and movie lovers to experience the art of cinematic storytelling. There’s a lot of faith on display both on and off the screen.

Ed and John Priddy of Priddy Brothers (www.priddybrothers.com) have taken notice. They have a passion for the art of film and the signs of faith surrounding its making and within its message. Having their own faith encouraged and challenged by attending Sundance, they conspired with Craig Detweiler and Will Stoller-Lee to found the Windrider Forum. In its fifth year, the forum brings students and professors—from Fuller Theological Seminary, Biola, Taylor, and Point Loma Nazarene Universities–into conversation with independent filmmakers and professionals.

One of the best ways to learn about filmmaking is to watch great films; Sundance provides a unique classroom for that. Interpreting the message of the films is another matter. How do we discern the nature of the faith, if any, displayed within the film? In what is that faith rooted? And in what ways are God and the truths about Him revealed? The Windrider Forum provides a safe place for an immersive educational experience: engaging with culture-makers of the cinema among a community of believers.

Our Bias on Taking Chance

The author of Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century, Detweiler prepared us for the upcoming week: “If the Hollywood studio system can be said to dispense the wisdom of happy endings where justice prevails, offering some comfort to the afflicted, then the wisdom of Sundance tends to present the opposite: afflicting the comfortable.” He urged us to open ourselves up to these films as they might give voice, like prophets of old, to the cry of our culture. Perhaps we may awaken to hear as God hears.

I resonate with the general view that many Christians tend to approach movies either by measuring them up to their preconceived notions of what is Biblical or by consuming (and dismissing) them as mere entertainment. Detweiler quotes C. S. Lewis from An Experiment in Criticism for a corrective insight: "The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” In a like manner, many concepts of the Christian faith elude our understanding until we immerse ourselves into its stream.

The first film up for discussion made the day even more patriotic than it already was: during the morning’s class we watched the inauguration of President Obama, then went to see Taking Chance. Starring Kevin Bacon, it is the true story of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl who volunteers to escort home to Wyoming the remains of Private Chance Phelps whose life was taken during the war in Iraq. We watch the preparation of the body, we watch the transportation of the casket, its deliberate verification at each checkpoint, and the respect shown for the dead soldier who gave his life in battle. We watch the funeral service and the grief of the family. We feel their loss and the sacrifice made for our country.

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Interestingly, some of the younger students later confessed that they found the film plodding, slow and languishing within the limited linear storyline of a casket traveling across country. The professors and some of the older students, however, felt the movie was deeply moving. Certainly more could be said about the limited viewpoint of the film, how it seemed to unquestioningly reinforce the meaning of Phelps death as a sacrifice for our freedom. Regardless, the film forced us to confront one death resulting from war. Perhaps those younger students had taken into the film a certain bias toward how they believed a plot needed to progress. Perhaps surrendering their desire for more layers of action was a chance they were unwilling to take. And perhaps languishing for 85 minutes on death was the point.

During the Q & A following the film, one woman in the Sundance crowd commented, “I’m against all the recent wars that America has been involved in; so I admit I had a preconceived opinion about what I was watching. Yet, I found the personal story so moving, I cried almost all the way through. You transcend political statements. Everyone needs to see this beautiful film. I hope it gets picked up and shown everywhere so that if people see it, there won’t be any more wars.”

In walking back from the theater, Detweiler talked to some of his students asking for their reaction to the film. “Do you see how subversive the film was?” he asked. “That women probably represented the majority of the people in the audience. She brought a bias into the film that had her at odds with the subject matter. Yet the film was able to navigate around her bias. She connected with the family within the story, indentifying so much that she caught the truth of the human condition and was confronted with death, something we often avoid or deny in our culture. That’s subversive storytelling!”

And that’s immersive education at its best!

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