Wednesday, February 3, 2010

LDS Film Festival 2010

Instead of doing a whole series of reviews like last year, I'm going to report just once on the festival, although certain topics will probably come up again in future posts. The reason is that I felt obligated to finish that series before seriously doing anything else, and since it took most of the year to do it, I was pretty limited (artificially, I know) in what I could post about. So in order to relieve my own psychosis and hopefully retain a bit more interest from readers, I'm taking the short route.

General Impressions

I love the LDS Film Festival, and this year I was privileged to participate in ways that were new to me. In addition to participating in the 24 hour competition and attending all day every day (except for the opening screening Wednesday night), I contributed as a volunteer member of the staff, providing the AV gear for the filmmaker presentations, recording those presentations, and introducing all but one of the sessions. The reason I didn't introduce that one is the other new opportunity I had. A few days before the festival, Katherine Morris invited me to give a presentation and be on the panel for the LDS Film Forum. It came as a bolt from the blue because I don't really consider my contributions to be of any significance to anyone but me, but as the topic was Mormon Film and New Media, and as I'm the only "active" poster on this blog at the moment, I can understand in retrospect.

So I had a chance to see things from a different perspective this time, which was good. Thanks, Katherine, by the way, for giving me that chance. I'm still not totally over the surprise, but it touched me in a sacred way that you could not have anticipated and I hope I managed to meet your expectations.

Getting back to the point, all I can do is give you my personal impressions of the festival this time around. As I said, I love it. I look forward to it all year. This is the event that inspires me and keeps me going when everything seems set against my efforts as a filmmaker. Even when the films confuse or disappoint me, I still come away more committed.

That was certainly the case this time. Some of the films both confused and disappointed me. That's partially because I found less "LDS-ness" in some of them than I had hoped. I realize that on this blog and in academic circles we have tended to take a very broad definition of LDS film, including films that were made by Mormons, regardless of content. The festival itself certainly does not choose films according to how overtly Mormon they are. I'm not saying that should change, but I did feel that, particularly where narrative films were concerned, more of those films I saw were more secular, less influenced by LDS beliefs, and more generic than in the past. They reinforced the other definition of Mormon film that I read somewhere. To paraphrase: regular movies, only made by Mormons, and not as good (if you know where this comes from please remind me, I couldn't find the source).

Now that's not a universally (or even widely) applicable statement, especially the "not as good" part. The production value of the films is, I think, on a steady incline. Even those that don't go for a Hollywood look are becoming more and more polished. And the lack of Mormon influence in narrative film was limited, too. Many of the short films were strongly Mormon, and some special screenings like The Book of Jer3miah were profoundly so. More on that later. Others, like Humble Pie, presented their Mormonness more subtly. I also need to say that, of course, I didn't see every film playing at the festival. I can only speak to those that I actually saw.

Nevertheless, one of my general impressions this year from both the films and the presentations is a growing movement away from content that is easily identified as being influenced by LDS beliefs. That shouldn't be read as an accusation that these talented people are abandoning the faith. I don't mean that. It's a personal choice and there's room for growth on both sides. I just happen to think there's a great opportunity to move in the other direction right now.

Jer3miah, Williams, and Already Over

Many people at the festival were doing just that. Jeff Parkin and Jared Cardon's The Book of Jere3miah took some pioneering steps in both its content and form. For those unfamiliar, Jere3miah is a web series, complete with an immersive transmedia experience, including an alternate reality game for those who have the interest and the time. The entire first season was screened at the festival, which amounted to the equivalent of a feature length film.

In addition to expanding our paradigm of what Mormon film on the Web can be, Jer3miah rather boldly depicts the extent to which the LDS belief system can and should influence its adherents. The series unapologetically makes things like the voice of the Holy Ghost and scriptural guidance as much a part of everyday life for its characters as food and automobiles are for Americans. Doing so in a quasi-fantasy world is both a risky and a safe move. Because the supernatural happenings in the series require a certain suspension of disbelief, the eternal powers behind those happenings and the characters' responses to them can be easily included in the show's mythology. So non-LDS viewers might dismiss them as fantastic as quickly as they would the forces that empower any comic book superhero.

On the other hand, extraordinary actions like a Holy Ghost inspired slaying of an enemy (ala Nephi and Laban) by a seemingly average BYU student might spread a rather damaging impression of Mormons, particularly in a time when religion-based terrorism is undeniably real.

However, the success of popular TV serials like Heroes, Supernatural, and others has paved the way for this kind of extremity, and American audiences at least have shown their readiness to accept it. Including Mormons in the crowd of people who acknowledge and follow other-worldly whisperings might just as easily open doors and hearts as close them.

A less dramatic instance of increased Mormon content for a filmmaker was Kristal Williams-Rowley's short film offering, The Missing Song. Last year, Williams-Rowley's Mind the Gap deservedly won the short film competition, and while her film this year was less refined, it centered around a young woman's struggle to overcome spiritual paralysis born of her despair of finding an eternal companion. The straightforward discussion of very young Mormon women's feelings about marriage made this film stand out to me as one of the most uniquely Mormon works I saw.

Perhaps one of the most exceptional films I saw (by which I mean the one that was the greatest exception to what I expected), was the Fackrell brothers' Already Over, a music video that would have seemed more at home on an MTV college station than at the LDS Film Festival. The tone of the music was hard, heavy, and rough and I felt uncomfortable watching it, but at the same time I sensed the filmmakers' desire to depict a theme of struggle, captivity, and redemption. It was lyric and visual. This is the kind of thing I love to see, because it requires thought and makes extensive use of metaphor. Perhaps the multi-tiered application of metaphor was the most Mormon thing about it - or at least scriptural, if not uniquely Mormon, but an effects-heavy sense of restorationism did come through to me.

At the same time, Already Over represented one of the most direct uses of a form that is very popular outside the Church, but not generally well received within it. Dark-eyed, tattooed singers, a woman dressed in a way that temple ordinances would never allow, dark and intense imagery, and a heavy mood, even in the hopeful parts. All of these things made me wonder at first why of all the festivals out there, this film's makers chose this one. It seemed like a blatant attempt to push the envelope, but the depiction had an element of brutal sincerity that I don't often see, even in non-LDS themed films made by Mormons. I want to see more of what this film did, but less of the way it did it, I think.

I may be accused of being too generous to this film, but this kind of movie breaks my heart. There's just so much good to be said about it, even if there's an equal amount of bad.

Documentaries

One area in which the LDS Film Festival may never cease to be strongly LDS is the documentaries. With appearances by or subjects like household names John Bytheway and Janice Kapp Perry, and with contributions by Mormon arts and scholarship heavyweights Richard Bushman, T.C. Christensen, and Lee Groberg, the documentary selection is bound to feel very mainstream Mormon. There are always a lot, and I never get to see very many of them because of the presentations, but I did catch a few this year.

The first, I Am from Nowhere, was a beautiful story of the Lemko people, who almost no one has ever heard of. This tale of a lost people's cultural revival after decades of oppression, dismissal, and genocide is touching and extraordinary on its own, but if you replace the word "Lemko" with "Mormon," I think the film carries some portentous advice about the loss of cultural identity (and other things) that Latter-day Saints would do well to heed.

Rei Hamon: Man of Nature is a tribute to a skilled New Zealand nature artist who drew his inspiration from the way the natural world enhanced and aided his relationship with his Heavenly Father. This convert to Mormonism's story is told mostly by his closest family members and friends, and gives some great insight into a remarkable life, as well as what faith can mean to an artist.

One I didn't catch at the festival but saw afterward on DVD was Brandon Smith's Sacred Walls, which explores the symbolic meaning of temple exteriors without delving too deeply into sacred ordinances or attempting to dictate an official interpretation of these edifices' architecture. The simple style is consistent with the film's message that the most significant meanings of all sacred symbols are as individual as they are real. Smith's other film about the connection between Mormons and Masons also screened this year, but I haven't seen it yet.

Filmmaker Presentations

My volunteer assignment prevented me from fulfilling my desire from last year to see more of the screenings and hear fewer of the talks, but spending six to seven hours each day in a conference setting was fulfilling nonetheless.

Most of the presentations focused on the completed or in-progress works of the presenters, with the most notable exceptions being the LDS Film Forum and the session with frequent presenter and judge Michael Flynn. Flynn's words about passion and the nature of the film making beast were reminiscent of his presentation last year, with new material focusing on his work adapting several well-known LDS books to film, including a very detailed look at the process of finding support and funding for one of those projects: a film based on Dean Hughes' Midway to Heaven.

I'll be dealing with the topic of the Film Forum in a later post - outside the context of the festival.

A complete list of presenters and their topics can be found here.

A few highlights:

For those whose children enjoy the Liken series, a new musical stage production Jonah and the Great Fish opens this weekend at the SCERA. The show is in the evenings, and the film version is being shot during the day.

Joshua Ligairi and Andrew James discussed their film Cleanflix, which follows the edited movie industry in Utah and discusses issues of censorship, creative control, fair use, and others. Warning: the filmmakers felt that they needed to include the material that was edited out of these film as well as clips from the edited versions in order to do the subject justice, so for many viewers there will be offensive content in this film.

The idea is an interesting one - I personally don't agree with the stance Ligairi and James took. But the question is valid and I may raise it in the future: do you have to see the offensive content to appreciate the intent of the edited versions?

Dennis Packard, Lyman Dayton, Joe Pia, et al. spoke about the Masterpiece Film Initiative, which seeks to encourage truly great LDS cinema as defined by Spencer W. Kimball's A Gospel Vision of the Arts.

Upcoming films announced/discussed during the presentations:
The Last Eagle Scout from Kels Goodman
A Root Beer Christmas from Dave Hunter and Craig Clyde
Dragon Fire produced by Steven A. Lee and McKay Daines, directed by Ryan Little
Midway to Heaven from Michael Flynn
Immortality Bites from Maclain Nelson (also, a sequel to last year's sensation Dragon Hunter)
Cleanflix from Joshua Ligairi and Andrew James
Jonah and the Great Fish from Dennis Agle/Liken

7 comments:

Joshua Ligairi said...

Adam- Great write up. It was nice to meet you at the festival. Thanks for trying to see our point of view, even though you disagree with it. Obviously, we see the merit in your argument as well, which is why we are eventually offering an edited version of CLEANFLIX. Let us know if you'd be interested in discussing the issue further for your blog.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Joshua,

Thanks! It was nice to meet you, too. If you'd like to do a guest post making a case for your decision and explaining a bit more about your film, I'd be happy to give you a forum to discuss it. I'd be interested to know what your thought process was and why you eventually reached your conclusion. If you're interested, email me at createtoserve[at]figtreecs[dot]com.

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Randy Astle said...

Adam,
Thanks for the summary for those of us who were unable to make it. I heard attendance was down a little bit from 09 due to a snow storm and such, but it still sounds like a great selection of films. I was frustrated in the very first festival in 01 at the amount of secular material included with the spiritual/religious, but it's all part of the process of figuring out what exactly LDS cinema is, isn't it (like the title of the blog...), so I'm glad you included that thought as well.

As part of my eternal pitch to Joshua or whoever else may read this, all LDS filmmakers are invited to join the LDS Filmmakers' Network at http://ldsfilmmakersnetwork.ning.com/. Thanks!

Brent said...

Thanks Adam for your summary of the festival. You are always much more thorough than I tend to be. Interesting thought though that both you and Randy in his comment suggested, that our expectations of LDS Cinema from the beginning have been different that what we have produced thus far.

Now, I appreciate the non-degrading approach in making your observations as such (and I too agree that there has been a need for these films for us to work out what we are and are not), but I want to humbly suggest that these most of films are indeed missing the mark. Let me not point the finger at any one film to make a public example of it, but on the flip side, I like to remember that there are so many universal stories deep within the volumes of distinctly LDS history, personally and as a church, that I fear we are wasting our time and resources not telling the stories that only we can tell.

What stories are those? They are the stories of Christ and his work in our time. I don't feel that I am preaching, but merely observing what is becoming more obvious with time.

Adam, tolerance and understanding are important. However, it seems with our feet firmly planted in principles of truth, it is time to become standard bearers. If not us, then who?

Best,
Brent

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

I agree with you, Brent, on so many levels, but I also remember what Elder Packer has said, that we should use our talents to every earthly advantage. LDS filmmakers produce their work for a variety of reasons, clients, and audiences. Those that are made for some earthly end but that still meet the criteria of the festival, I think, should be allowed to be seen there. The festival rules state that it is not a place only for spiritually themed films.

Now, do I think we need deeply spiritual films made by LDS filmmakers in greater abundance? Absolutely. Should we encourage and give each other every opportunity to create such works? Of course. Would I personally like to see more like this at the festival? Yes, without doubt.

But should we require or expect that all LDS filmmakers engage in no other productions but those designed to be stories of Christ?

Well, from one perspective, all stories are of Christ because all things testify of Him and we can draw light and knowledge from any source when we are, as you say, firmly rooted in truth. But in order to keep working, many of us have to take on projects that are not directly centered on Christ but nevertheless have much good. These should also be allowed, in my opinion.

Now perhaps you will say that some of the films that have screened at the festival have not held much good, and I might be inclined to agree - on some, for me. But I won't say that these same films couldn't spiritually touch someone struggling with an issue that in my limited experience I do not understand.

So my M.O. for now is to point out as much good as I can see, and trust that as Latter-Day Saint audiences, we are wise enough and in tune enough to the individual whisperings of the Spirit to make sound choices. This is the way I want to be judged, and so this is how I am determined to judge. I have in the past written rather harsh critiques of festival films that I couldn't see any good in, or that I thought missed the mark completely, and if I think a film is outright damaging, I would do so again. But I didn't see that this year - not completely.

More to your point though, and as for myself, I would choose to tell stories of Christ as much as I could. There are many ways to bear the standard you mention, however, and some of them involve bringing our positive influences to otherwise worldly productions. We are all in a different place.

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