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 quickly to others that something significant was happening among those who were gathering. 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, with the back of the couch serving as a second tier of seating. Blankets and pillows cover the hardwood floor where most people end up sitting for several hours.
A warm, welcoming atmosphere fills the apartment as people begin to trickle in. For practical reasons, dinner has now been replaced with snacks and boxed wine. Conversation between individuals shifts from how life has been for the past week to anticipation for the engagement with the text lined up for the night. Finally the host of the group stands up and calls some order to the room. She speaks a few brief words of welcome and introduces the text as people vie for a decent seat. 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.
“Doc Night,” as the group refers to it, is a sacred space for this group of twenty-somethings crammed into the room together. Each week they engage with a documentary film and discuss its implications for the way life is lived. They push past the easy review of “Did you like the movie?” to the deeper, more profound question of “What does this movie have to say about me/us?”
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.”
While calling this informal gathering a house church may cause a measure of discomfort for some, it needn’t. Documentary films, like all good art, produce a unique opportunity to hear the voice of God through engaging story.
When you consider the striking resemblance between many modern houses of worship and movie theaters, it is not such a huge leap to think of Doc Night as a house church. In fact, in many larger cities around the country, you can find church communities that actually meet in movie theaters. Long rows of seating, facing a screen, where people file in and speak quietly to one another while they anticipate what is to come. Does this not describe both the church- and movie-going experience for many?
On the one hand this can be spoken of disparagingly as yet another example of how our consumerist, entertainment-based culture has crept in and degraded our sense of what church is all about. While this is no doubt partly at play in many situations, there is a fuller, deeper connection that must be acknowledged. 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, an encounter with the real presence of God can be had. The biblical narrative is filled with God speaking to his people through unexpected sources: burning bushes, donkeys, the godless Chaldeans, and Egyptian texts, just to name a few. These stories within the larger story open our eyes to the reality that the sacred/secular line used to validate or discredit voices is not a line that God has any use for. God is working in and through all kinds people, in all kinds of places. No matter the source, all truth is God’s truth—even if it comes through a silver screen.
While many in the church are comfortable with the idea that the biblical text helps us understand and access the truth found in culture, fewer are willing to agree that this hermeneutical f low can be reversed: the texts of culture can shed light on the biblical text. Pastor and author John Van Sloten refers to this text-to-text conversation as co-illumination. Yes, we need the biblical text as a rich source of specific revelation, but we also need the texts of culture and the rest of creation in order to more fully grasp the transcendent nature of grace. The biblical text helps us access the truth found in culture, and culture helps us access the truth found in the biblical text.
But there is more still to this idea of Doc Night as house church. Not only can God speak to his people through many different mouthpieces, including that of documentary film, but the genre of documentary film also serves as a particularly rich form of prophetic voice to our culture and world. By their very nature, documentary films speak of realities that open our eyes to truths otherwise unknown. The filmmaker’s camera becomes an extension of our own eyes, giving us the chance to have eyes that see so much more than we could otherwise see.
Engaging with artists and their stories is a powerful way of adding a new angle on an idea, concept, or event that is not accessible to us through our limited personal experiences. If we have spent our lives living in the privilege of the middle- and upper-class part of society, it is impossible for us to know what it feels like to walk a different path. We cannot appreciate the struggles and beauty of a different way of life we have never lived. Art and story open a window for us into others’ experience. Art provides us the opportunity to see the world from another angle.
A deep desire to see the world more fully is what drove C. S. Lewis to read literature from a wide variety of writers and sources. He states in his essay An Experiment in Criticism, “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” Every voice mattered to Lewis. Each perspective provided him an opportunity to see more clearly. It was an insatiable appetite for perspectives that caused Lewis to state, “Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books.”
Lewis was not claiming that all books are great literature and are therefore worth reading. Rather, he was making a statement about what great literature does for the reader. While this is certainly true of literature, it is not exclusive to it. He could have just as well been speaking of any number of art forms, as nearly all forms of art are somehow engaging someone’s story. In the end, it is an interaction with someone else’s story that gives us the chance to see the world more fully. Painting, sculpture, music, and poetry all find their power in the stories they are rooted in and seek to convey.
There may be no medium that artists speak through 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 a 79-minute walk into the world of competitive arcade-game playing. The “characters” in this film are as quirky and devious as any character found in the most popular dramatic films of our day. But this isn’t just a film about middle-aged men playing Donkey Kong for hours on end in their garage. Kong is a story about humanity. It pulls the curtain back on our desire to be good at something, our deep longing to be known and celebrated, and our brokenness that plays itself out in pride. It is easy to call these guys video-game geeks and to laugh at how strange and small their world is, but I bet many of us have an obsession that is just as much a venue 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, some large and others very small, that have much more to teach us than just the particulars of a certain subculture’s way of life. These films speak to us about what it is to be human.
Documentaries do more, though, than show us other people’s points of view. They also shine a light on parts of our world, our culture, and our lives that have remained hidden or ignored. In these films, the filmmakers become prophetic voices to us all.
It was The Devil Came on Horseback that 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, it seems safe to assume that at least one commonality had emerged: we all knew that Sudan needed to be a priority in our lives. As we left the theater we were handed a list of things we could do. I went home and for the first time in my life inquired about the mutual funds my wife and I had invested in for our 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, in some way, funded a genocide.
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, not simply so that we can make a better profit and live more comfortably in the future, but 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 changed my life. It led me to repentance.
Other documentaries have had a similar impact. For example, Food, Inc. and King Corn changed the way I buy and eat food. When you consider that there is likely no other ritual or practice we humans engage in more often than eating a meal, this kind of change is no small thing. We all have our patterns. We all have our favorite brands. We all have our favorite dishes at our favorite restaurants. As creatures of habit, it takes an enormous amount of force to move us off of these things onto something new. Major companies spend billions of dollars a year trying to inf luence us and our patterns. It’s not easy to do. Some might say it takes an act of God to get people to change. I would agree. And one of the voices he is using comes from the mouths of documentary filmmakers.
A friend of mine was out for dinner with his wife at one of their favorite spots recently. When the server asked for his order, he lowered his menu and ordered something other than the dish he always gets. His wife gave him a puzzled look. His response was simply, “The Cove.”
The 2010 Academy Award–winning film The Cove exposes the annual practice of slaughtering dolphins off the cost of Japan, which has taken place for years. This butchering of wildlife has devastating effects not only on the ocean life it is destroying but also on the humans who are often unknowingly eating this mercury-infested meat.
You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of PETA to feel this is wrong. The film was able to focus international attention on Taiji, the location of the cove where the annual slaughter takes place, resulting in a temporary ban on killing bottlenose dolphins in 2009.
Sometimes God speaks to individuals, and sometimes he speaks to nations. In both cases, the voices of the prophets are used to awaken us to the reality we are living in. Their voices speak to us not the lies that keep us stuck in our bondage to comfort and convenience but rather the truth that will set both us and others free. 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.
Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, describes the voice of one prophet like this: “Jeremiah did not in anger heap scorn on Judah but rather articulated what was in fact present in the community whether they acknowledged it or not. He articulated what the community had to deny in order to continue the self-deception of achievable satiation. He affirmed that all the satiation was quick eating of self to death.”
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 call us to reexamine our way of life. This, of course, is what repentance is all about.
But not all documentaries provide a clear action step. Some films, rather than getting you off the couch, pin you to it.
No documentary made me want to scream at the screen more than The Garden. In the middle of South Central LA is a community garden that has nourished a corner of the city in a multitude of ways. Not only does it provide space for low-income people from the city 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 in the film, I wanted desperately to do something. But there was nothing I could do for these people.
This story is over. The battle has been lost. This film is a tragedy.
The life of a follower of Jesus is certainly one that stands opposed to evil. There are times when fighting injustice is possible and when 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 Tilman 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.
Finally, the role of the prophet is to awaken our imagination to what could be, or better put, to orient us toward that which is and is to come. The prophet calls us to live into a reality not yet seen. As Brueggemann describes it, the prophet’s role is to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation. In writing about the prophetic role, he says that it “is not to ask…if this freedom is realistic or politically practical or economically viable. To begin with such questions is to concede everything to the royal consciousness even before we begin. We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.”
Maybe one of the greatest cinematic examples of this prophetic way of speaking can be found in the film Yes Men Fix the World.
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, also known as “The Yes Men,” are called “culture jammers.” While this is not a name found anywhere in the Greek or Hebrew scriptures, it is essentially what every biblical prophet was. Andy and Mike have committed their time to subverting the empire of Western corporations by pretending to be senior executives from those companies while appearing on national and global television news programs. At one point, Andy posed as a Dow Chemical spokesperson on a BBC news show and declared that Dow would clean up the catastrophe at Bhopal, India, the site of the largest industrial accident in history. People all over the world began to celebrate, while people all over Wall Street panicked. Dow’s stock drop equaled a two-billion-dollar loss that day. What the world was craving, the market would not allow.
The final scene of Yes Men shows Andy and Mike’s team handing out copies of the New York Times that were filled with headlines of hope and restoration—headlines they had fabricated before distributing the copies all over the city. As readers survey the stories, some react in disbelief, while others begin to cry at the mere mention of the possibility of wars ending and peace and justice having the last word. The stories seem to touch something deep inside a number of the New Yorkers going about their usual business that morning.
In his insightful book Simply Christian, N. T. Wright refers to humanity’s innate desire for justice as an “echo of a voice.” This is the voice that, despite all the chaos, pain, and horror that fill the evening news broadcasts, beckons and lures us to think that justice is real and that it will have its day. It pleads with us to imagine a world where things are as they should be. Again, as Brueggemann states so well, “[The prophet] has only the hope that the ache of God could penetrate the numbness of history.” The Yes Men are working to do just that.
Whether you like their films or not, people like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have brought the genre of documentary film to the mainstream. Their “docbusters” have shown that these types of films can capture the divided attention of American filmgoers. This, coupled with companies like Netf lix and cable channels like HBO being dedicated to bringing more and more documentaries to broader audiences, means that this wonderful way of telling story has a rich future ahead. And, while all films are not great films, the great documentary films that are being made are effectively reaching us with the a prophetic voice that is calling us to repent, weep, and imagine ourselves into a fuller way of living.
Next time you’re deciding which film to watch on a rainy Friday night, consider taking in a great documentary film. If you have eyes that see and ears that hear, you may just find that while you’re eating your popcorn, you’re also hearing the voice of God.