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Thursday, March 5, 2015

RISEN FROM THE DUST: "Freetown" Breathes New Life Into Mormon Cinema

Some time ago there were prognosticators who were crying that Mormon Cinema was dead. After an initially successful run with films like God's Army, The Other Side of Heaven, The Work and the Glory series (especially the second), Brigham City, Saints and Soldiers, The Best Two Years, and Single's Ward, the Mormon audience eventually began to turn away from their initial interest in Mormon filmmakers who were telling Mormon stories. There were many theories as to why this was. Perhaps the novelty wore off. Perhaps the genre got over saturated. Perhaps Mormonism had only so many stories to tell.

I believe another theory is more likely: Mormon audiences are not as stupid as certain filmmakers first assumed.

I once attended a lecture by Richard Dutcher, before he left the Mormon Cinema movement he founded, and the LDS Church he had once championed. Dutcher said something which I found both distressing and illuminating. Dutcher mentioned that he was once talking to another Mormon filmmaker who spoke derogatorily about the Mormon audience. "We could $#!* on a plate and they would eat it," the other filmmaker bragged. Dutcher, rightfully, was disgusted by this declaration, as he was aiming to make high art with his Mormon subject matter, and had a much higher opinion of Church members' discernment at the time. As we saw with Dutcher's films, he was one of Mormon Cinema's best auteurs at the time, and his approach was vastly different than some of his contemporaries in Mormon Cinema.

I kept that comment in mind as I saw Mormon Cinema spiral downward into a crass series of opportunistic movies that seemed to make fun of the culture and religion rather than thoughtfully exploring it; or, on the other hand, earnestly and unabashedly celebrating Mormonism, but without the talent and production value to do such an approach justice. After the first intriguing wave of legitimately good Mormon films, we had this run of pale imitators and cynical money grabbers that ran the once smoothly running vehicle into a wall. This, to me, was the real reason Mormon audiences stopped supporting the fledgling movement of faith based films: they knew when they were being made fun of, they knew when they were being used, they knew when their intelligence was being insulted, they knew when they weren't being taken seriously.

For with all our faults and failings, Mormons do take our faith seriously. With a faith that requires as much sacrifice and rough treatment as ours does, we have to take it seriously, if we want to remain within it. So when their pearls were thrown before swine, Mormons withdrew their financial and moral support from the Mormon Cinema movement. Thus projects like The Home Teachers, Church Ball, and Sons of Provo bombed, not because Mormons weren't interested in hearing stories about their people any more, but because they were smart enough to know when a filmmaker was being insincere, mocking, or opportunistic.

Even Richard Dutcher, the man who kindled my great hope for Mormon Cinema, gradually lost a lot of trust from his audiences as his films, though serious and well made, seemed to take an increasingly cynical approach to Mormonism. I wondered if I was being paranoid when I saw his film States of Grace. It is perhaps his best film, and a personal favorite, but the first time I saw the film I felt like this was his swan song for his dying faith.  Others seemed to sense this as well, as States of Grace, despite its quality, did not draw Mormon audiences back. That premonition about Dutcher, unfortunately, proved true, as we lost one of our great artists when Dutcher renounced his faith and is now more comfortable pronouncing atheism and secularism in his interviews and his films. I wish Dutcher all the best, for he is a truly talented, sincere, and good hearted man, but I still mourn his loss in a movement that is very dear to me. 

However, there seems to be a resurgence for Mormon film lately, as other filmmakers, who are both talented and who take the faith seriously, come to the fore. Despite some complaints I have about some elements of the scripts, T.C. Christensen's professionally made films 17 Miracles and Ephraim's Rescue showed that Mormon films can still kindle interest in LDS audiences and bring them back to the theaters. Ryan Little's Saints and Soldiers franchise continued to showcase his solid filmmaking (take particular attention to Danor Gerald's superior lead performance in Saints and Soldiers: The Void). Christian Vuissa's films continue to be elegantly simple, warm hearted, and well wrought (I am particularly fond of Errand of Angels and Plates of Gold).  

Yet the most impressive run recently has come from Garrett Batty's films The Saratov Approach and, premiering last night at the LDS Film Festival, Freetown. With these two films, Garret Batty has taken true stories about Mormon missionaries and has crafted them into spiritual thrillers that have substance and beauty, contrasted with real world problems, grit, and even violence. Far from the starry eyed missionaries we often see portrayed, these missionaries deal with being kidnapped in Russia, or being caught in genocidal wars in Africa. Juxtaposed against this harsh background, the films' message about the reality and beauty of faith is all the more stirring for that contrast.

As much as I loved Saratov Approach, it was seeing Freetown last night that truly rekindled my hope in Mormon Cinema. Far from being the wheezing gasps of a dying genre, Freetown is now representative of the height of LDS Film. We'll see if it is able to capture a robust Mormon audience once it is released on April 8, but in terms of quality, it is by far the best Mormon film I have seen.

First off, it must be said that with Freetown Batty was smart enough to ensure the quality of a certain element of film that is often, oddly, overlooked: the screenwriter. I come from a theater background, where the playwright receives a strong emphasis. Thus I am often a little shocked by how Hollywood's screenwriters are overlooked, mistreated, and belittled. Television is a different story, where the writers are more and more heralded and are often bestowed with an extra title of "Producer"--but with full length film that is often not the case.Yet when I heard that Batty had hired one of Mormonism's best writers, Melissa Leilani Larson, to co-write the script with him, I knew the film would be strong at least on that level. Hopefully, other filmmakers will take note and continue to seek out the best writers in our community (and we do have some very fine writers), instead of cobbling a script together among producers and directors who have not been trained in the craft. Writing by committee has been a cardinal sin of too many failed films.

Fortunately, Freetown avoids that fate. Larson's writing is one of the many strengths of the film. There is nuance, subtlety, yet power in her writing. The film never seems overwrought. Larson never gives into the temptation to be overdramatic, despite the fact that the subject matter could have easily veered her in that direction. Instead we get these beautifully intimate moments, even in the most severe of situations, that focus on her characters' inner lives, their doubts, their faith, their flaws, their vivid triumphs. The dialogue is often deceptively simple, revealing so much with so little, that you feel your breath quiet a bit to get the full effect. In choosing Larson, Batty solidified a voice in the film that is soulful and wise; tragic, yet hopeful; and achingly lovely.

Fortunately, Batty and producer Adam Abel were smart enough to make as wise of decisions with the rest of the crew and cast, as they were able to in choosing a screenwriter.

With plenty of dramatic landscape, from beautiful nature scenes to the patchwork poverty of African towns, the film utilizes its on-location filming in Africa to powerful effect. Jeremy Prusso's cinematography is both epic and subtle, as he draws dramatic effect from even the most small and quiet of moments, while still being able to give a kind of substance, professionalism, and grandeur that eclipses previous Mormon films.

Robert Allen's musical score was a notable presence that infused the film with a quiet spirituality, while still incorporating the cultural color of Africa.

Speaking of Africa, I am so pleased that the film chose to use native African actors in the cast. The cast were as professional and honest as you would see in any Hollywood film--perhaps even more so, in some cases. Sublimity of nuance and emotional subtlety are shown in actors like Henry Adofo in the role of Abubakar (mission leader? branch president?), who risked his own life to get the missionaries across the border to safety, despite his own doubts that he harbors; or Phillip Adekunle Michaelwho plays Gaye, a missionary whose tribal origin causes an identity crisis that is a central aspect of the film. I have a hard time thinking of a weak link in the cast, as all of these African actors bring a wealth of experience to their roles that complement so weighty a story, while never losing the light touch and humor that makes the film so human.    

That leads me to one of the most remarkable aspects of the film: it is perhaps the film in Mormon Cinema's canon that most transcends its local, Utah origins, and thus makes Mormonism appear as a powerful, international force of faith, rather than a provincial, American religion. The fact that the only white characters we see are the mission president and his wife (who probably have no more than five or ten minutes of screen time) is telling. This shows that Mormonism is no longer just a white American's story. Mormonism is a global force now, and perhaps it is the white Mormons in Utah who most need to hear that message. We need to start thinking bigger, and not focus on the little community disputes around us, and thinking that somehow reflects the global Church. Jokes about Jell-O, or political rants that only effect Americans, should no longer be represented as the Mormon story. The Mormon story now has global impact and should have a global representation.

There is a moment in the movie that has particularly stayed with me. As the rest of the elders sleep during their night time drive, fleeing from the Liberian genocidal civil war behind them, the one still awake elder discusses his conversion story with their driver and Church leader Abubakar. The elder mentions his struggle when he discovered that the Church he joined once had a racist past where black members were once denied the priesthood and the blessings of the temple. The elder soulfully and wisely discusses God's grace, how God wants us to progress, encourages us to change, and applies that to the Church and to himself.

As a culture and a worldwide faith, change and progress have been necessary growing pains. We've had to repent, to shuffle off our cultural sins of the past and move on. Freetown is a touchstone, a reflection of that change we've gone through as a Church, and gives us hope for more change down the road. We don't have to be afraid of that change. In fact, in many cases that change ought to be embraced and celebrated.

Thus, in my opinion, Freetown shines on the hill as a bright hope, not only for Mormon cinema, but for us a global family of faith. That pure message of faith and progress that the film conveys has come at a timely moment. Batty, Larson, Abel, and all those involved in the film should be warmly thanked and congratulated.           


1 comment:

  1. Loved your comments and insights about LDS film. Truly LOVED seeing FREETOWN last night too. Powerful and honest.