Here’s a post I wrote for the website “reel faith”
We all love a good ending don’t we?
The problem is, Hollywood (and every other network) does not seem to want to give us one.
And it’s not just films that are guilty of this.
I enjoyed the six part ‘Hit and Miss’ drama on Sky Atlantic a couple of months back until the last episode which refused to tie up any plot strands and left us instead with a “second series cliffhanger”. Can’t we just have a TV series that ends well and doesn’t force us to watch the next series in the hope of some resolution?
The truth is, this is nothing new. Films and TV shows have been doing this for years. I gave up on ‘Lost’ a number of years ago after failing to resolve any plot strands after two seasons.
This probably all sounds like I’m against ‘cliffhangers’ in TV shows and films but I’m really not. There are plenty of TV shows and films that weave it in successfully. I enjoy ‘Fringe’, ‘Dexter’ and ‘Breaking Bad‘ and they all tease another series in each of their season finales.
Films like ‘Batman Begins‘, ‘X-men 2’ ‘Spiderman’ (admittedly all super hero films) all end with a sequel tease and, in my opinion, pull it off well. In fact, I think these examples make the film better.
So why do some work and others don’t?
Films and TV shows need to be able to stand alone. If I choose not to watch the next series or the sequel, I need to feel like that film or series’ main plot strands have been wrapped up. Let’s use ‘Batman Begins’ as an example.
At the end of the film, Bruce Wayne has become Batman and the villain (Raz Al’Ghul) has been defeated. The films’ main plot has been resolved. Yes it then sets up the introduction of The Joker but if I decided never to see ‘The Dark Knight‘ I’d be happy that the film delivered what it set out to accomplish.
The problem comes when a TV show or film fails to tie up its main plot strands and expects the audience to tune in to the next series or sequel to find resolution. That’s not right. I’ve spent my money; I’ve sat through a series; I expect a conclusion.
For me, I have similar ideas when it comes to my Christian faith. I like doubt. I like questions. I like the grey areas of faith.
As a youth worker, I walk the fine line between answering all of the young peoples’ questions and leaving room for ambiguity. Faith shouldn’t be wrapped up in a neat little box. We shouldn’t be able to answer all of the questions. We need to leave room for the ‘what ifs’. We need to need to help young people find some answers but also leave them wanting more.
It’s okay not to resolve all the ‘plot strands’ of the christian faith but we need to be sensitive to the young people we work with in order to know which ones to resolve and which ones to leave open ended.
As I said yesterday, Marc Williamson and I spoke at a national youth work event, “The Youthwork Summit” in London on Saturday around the issue of film and youthwork. You can read the transcript here.
The feedback from our talk has been brilliant and I have had the opportunity to engage with people through twitter and face-to-face about some of the concerns or issues they have surrounding it.
What I’d like to do now is to respond to some of the general queries people have had about what we said so that dialogue can continue. That is the main reason we want to explore films. We want to engage in conversation and I am only too happy to talk to those who agree or disagree with what we have to say.
Let me say first of all that we were not endorsing any of the films that we spoke about. I do not agree that we should be endorsing any film over another regardless of what we think of it. Rather, I am keen to see dialogue with films that young people are watching. We may disagree with what they watch, and there are times when we should say that, but what I want to see more of is youth workers talking about those films with their young people. There were a couple of people who said they didn’t pick up on that aspect so I wanted to state that before I go any further.
Where are the other themes?
We only had ten minutes to try and communicate kingdom themes in five films. Everyone has a different opinion of what the Kingdom is and its values. But we had a limited time to speak of what we say as the overarching narratives: return from exile, reconciliation, incarnation, identity and sacrifice. There are many more and a longer presentation would have allowed us to tease out more of these concepts.
We shouldn’t be encouraging young people to watch horrible films
One of the films we discussed during the talk was “Saw 3D”. I knew that picking this film would cause an issue. Some others also disagreed with our choices of “Twilight” and “Bridesmaids”. I understand that. People have very strong opinions to films; whether it be ones they like or dislike. There are many reasons why we may dislike certain films. We may find them offensive or sick or whatever but we have to be aware of our own preferences and not try to push them them on to others.
I understand that many people will consider “Saw” and other horror films sinful and corrupt and that we should not be encouraging our young people to watch them. I have no issue with that. But in my experience simply telling young people not to watch something often results in them watching it. What I’d rather see is that if you’re young people are watching films like this, rather than simply ignore it or give them a lecture, engage with them. That doesn’t mean you need to watch the film but find out about its theme so that you can discuss it. Talk to them about the good and the bad things about it and help the young people make informative choices.
You won’t be able to work with them all their lives and it is better to give them the tools to critically watch all kinds of films so that they will do this long after they’ve left the youth group.
Suitability of films
This sort of ties in with the last point but I think its slightly nuanced. What are suitable movies? That’s a good question. Those that had issue with some of the films we talked about said that they weren’t ‘suitable’. Either because of violence, or the oppression of women etc. Again, I understand that. But again I ask, what is suitable? If our young people are all over 18, can we not show them an 18 rated film just because it has violence and sex? Is it wrong to show them these kinds of film? Who decides that?
My problem is that in most christian films discussion resources, the only films that are used are ‘safe’ films. Ones that have positive themes and are rated for children. But is this healthy? What is that telling our young people? Now I’m not saying that just because a horror film is really big at the time, that we show that to them. But if they have all seen it then it might be worth discussing it. We too easily put culture into good and bad categories. But that’s not good practice.
I hope this has been helpful and please feel free to comment and keep the discussion going.
- Youth Work Summit Talk (smoorns.wordpress.com)
- Practical ways of using film in youth work: Part 1 (smoorns.wordpress.com)
I want to pick up on a couple of the themes of the film that may be worth exploring with the young people you work with (if they’ve seen it). As always I would suggest using the reel faith template of questions when creating a discussion.
Justice and Forgiveness
These two themes run throughout the film and can make for a very lively discussion. After learning that the woman in black is killing children because she is still angry about the death of her son, Kipps takes matters into his own hands and believes that if he can reunite the mother and child then the mother will finally be able to rest. She will be able to find peace and the horror will end.
He finds the body of her son in the marsh and carries him back to the house. The woman in back turns up to reclaim him and Kipp believes that peace has been found. But things are not that simple. We hear the ghostly voice of the woman say “I will never forgive” and in the climax of the film, she leads Kipps son on to the railway tracks as an oncoming train approaches. Kipps runs to save him and both are killed.
The woman in black is driven by vengeance and a twisted view of justice. Because her child was taken from her, she believes that every child should be taken away. She believes that every parent should feel the same pain that she did. It was her lack of forgiveness that killed her and it is that unforgiveness that will torment the village for eternity.
Anger is a serious thing. Unforgiveness is a serious thing. What does it take to forgive someone? Are there people that we are unwilling to forgive?
The woman in black sought vengeance and anger and she found it. It destroyed her life and the countless other lives of the villagers.
What motivates us and leads our lives? Is it anger? A thirst for revenge? Is there another way? Does Jesus offer something different?
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Half way through the film, Daily (played by Ciaran Hinds) says to Arthur Kipps (Randliffe), “if we open the door to superstition, where does that lead?” Daily plays the rational character of the story. He is well aware that many of his neighbours have said they have seen the ‘woman in black’ and in fact his own wife has been driven insane by her but he chooses not to believe it. The world is a rational place and everything can be explained. He urges Kipps not to pursue this line of enquiry as who knows where it will lead.
I find this whole idea fascinating. Both characters, Daily and Kipps have a specific worldview. They filter everything they see and hear through those particular lenses. Daily rationalises the occurrences away as nothing more than brain trickery. Kipps sees the same things but chooses to believe that the woman in black is real and both of those worldviews have particular consequences.
For Daily, it results in him not getting the right care for his wife and ignoring her ‘eccentric’ actions. Their marriage is damaged as a result. For Kipps, it ultimately results in the death of both his son and him.
These words of Jesus’ are recorded in the gospels:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Whatever we seek, we will find. I believe that to be true. If we choose to see the world through a particular lens, then we will filter everything through that lens and it will be a self fulfilling prophecy. There is nothing inherently wrong with that but what is vital is that each of us are aware of the lenses that we wear and that others may not have the same ones.
What lenses do your young people wear? How do they believe the world works? How do you work with people who have a different worldview than yours?
Yesterday I wrote about one way of using film with your youth group. read it here.
Today I want to offer another option.
In all the youth work books that I have read that offer film clip discussions, I have never seen any offer character studies. By that I mean looking at a specific character in a film and discussing their journey through it. In many films, characters have an arc that they go through. They start at one place in the beginning and end up somewhere else by the end. It may be that their beliefs have changed or they achieved something but in most cases, a change happens.
An interesting way of using film with your youth group (or church) would be to start this change over a number of weeks and look at the decisions the character is making. You could show the film in the first week of the month (similar to the structure of my last post) and then over the course of the rest of the month, chart the progression of the character or simply look at their worldview concerning different issues.
This could result in a rewarding study that helps young people appreciate the characters in film and discuss whether they would make the same decisions if they were in their shoes.
Week 1: Watch the movie and have short discussion on the George Clooneys character
Week 2: What kind of person is the character at the start of the movie? What are his relationships like?
Week 3: Dealing with grief or shocking revelations
Week 4: What kind of person is the character at the end of the movie? What has changed?
I run a website with fellow ICC graduate Mark Williamson called reel faith which seeks to offer an alternative view on how films should be used in youth work. I taught an open evening lecture on the subject at the international christian college on Thursday 1st March and myself and Mark are speaking about the same issue at the youthwork summit in London on May 19th. I have also written a number of blog posts on the subject of why we should no longer be using two minute clips from films to simply make a theological point. Read them here or here.
As you can see, dialogue between film and faith is incredibly important to me.
At the lecture at ICC I offered a couple of practical ways films could be introduced into your youth work programme and over the next couple of blogs, I want to outline those ideas.
One Month Film Study
Start by showing the film at your group on the first week of the month. Show the film in its entirety and have a discussion using the questions I have suggested previously. What will become obvious is that there will be two or three major themes that the young people highlight from any given film and on that evening you can have a brief discussion about those themes and find out what the young people think about them.
For the three remaining three weeks I would suggest looking at one theme a night. I find this a great way to do youth work as the talks and discussions you will then be giving for the rest of the month have been suggested by the young people. It is issues that they want to wrestle and grapple with and the young people should be more engaged with you because of that. It also means that rather than coming with your own agenda for a particular film, you are letting the film speak for itself and allowing open dialogue to flow out of it.
So in theory you could do two or three films over a year and spend a month looking at each one of them. You are no longer spoon feeding young people about issues within films and instead are giving them the tools to critically engage with film and culture in general themselves.
An example could be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Week 1- show the film
Week 2- ‘Going against the flow’
Week 3- ‘Integrity’
Week 4- ‘Sacrifice’
Have a go yourselves and put your comments and thoughts up on here or on the reel faith site. We’d love to hear them.
On Thursday night, I had the pleasure of hosting an evening at the International Christian College in Glasgow, looking at how we use film in christian youth work and how it could be developed. Below is a summary of what I said:
I started by asking three questions to get folks thinking:
1) What is your favourite genre?
2) Can you think of a time when a film changed you in some way?
3) How do you use film in church or with young people?
Films are stories and stories have been around for thousands of years. Judaism used a form of oral storytelling as a way of self definition. It helped them to understand who they were, how they came to be and who there God was. Jesus used parables (stories) to communicate the kingdom of God. And today, we use film to do the same.
Moses encountered God in a burning bush. Moses would have walked past that bush many times but on that occasion God chose to make that place holy. On that occasion heaven collided with earth. In Celtic theology, this is understood as a ‘thin place’. A place where heaven and earth collide. I believe film can be thin places. Places where we encounter the divine.
Historically there has been five ways in which people have interacted with film:
1) Avoidance- (steer clear)
2) Caution (watch with suspicion)
3) Dialogue (a belief that films can have theological themes)
4) Appropriation (we can achieve greater insight about god and ourselves)
5) divine encounter (we can encounter God and be transformed)
1) which view do you most often hold?
How we have historically used film with young people?
The Matrix Red/ Blue Pill clip
1) Who has used this clip in their youth work or seen it used in youth work before?
It’s not wrong to show a two-minute clip but what you need to ask, is, the theme I am communicating through the clip true for the rest of the movie?
What other themes appear in ‘The Matrix’?
The blurring of humans and machines, Sex and sensuality, Fate and freewill, mirrors. The blurring of the real world and the simulated world. Philosophical themes of Descartes, Socrates, Plato, bondage and S&M, sexual ecstasy and orgies.
Do any of these ideas conflict with the Christian worldview? By endorsing one theme, are we endorsing the themes we do not agree with?
Now you make think this is all nonsense and unnecessary. Maybe there is nothing wrong with cherry picking scenes from movies that fit the message we want to share. We realise that we shouldn’t read the bible out of context. the bible out of context. Because it’s wrong and can and has lead to all sorts of misunderstanding and oppression. The bible has been used to condemn and oppress all sorts of people because readers have cherry picked what they have wanted to hear. We come to the bible, not with an agenda, but to hear the inspired words of God. I believe we should be doing the same with film.
So what’s the alternative?
Part 3- A new kind of film criticism
Rather than picking out specific scenes to a film your young people might not have seen, why not start by watching a film and then allowing a discussion to take place over a period of time. Rather than having an agenda, let the film speak for itself. You could then do a whole series of discussions and chats around the themes of one particular film, showing a short clip to refresh their memory.
This also gives young people the tools to be able to do this on their own when their watching films or TV programmes.
Here are the questions that I believe are useful to helping people unpack a film.
What the key themes that this film is trying to engage with?
Ø What is the film trying to tell you about this?
Ø Is this the commonly held perception of this?
Ø What’s your perception of this?
Ø What’s the biblical perception of this?
Ø Do these compliment or conflict with each other?
Can you see yourself in any roles / do you identify yourself with any characters?
Are there any background influences from writers/directors that shape the view?
We then watched my short film ‘prodigal’ about a repentant Satan trying to re-enter Heaven and used the questions as a test-case study.
Higgins G “How movies helped save my soul”
Johnston R “Finding God in the Movies”
Johnston R “Reframing theology and film”
Johnston R “Reel Spirituality”
Ortiz G “Explorations in theology and film”
Sogaard V “Media in Church and Mission”
As a straight up fright machine, paranormal activity 3 does the job. yes it’s not to everyones tastes; yes when viewed as part of an ever-expanding story, it fails miserably; yes its another ‘found footage’ film; but as a standalone film who’s sole purpose is to make you jump; it works.
I saw the film a couple of months ago at a midnight screening in Dunfermline. I was there for a Baptist conference of all things. The main evening session finished at 9.30pm and I began the walk back to the hotel I was staying in. Upon returning to my room, I turned on the TV and faced with the prospect of several hours of mindnumbing reality/game shows, I decided to walk over to the local cinema to see what was on.
I bought my ticket for ‘paranormal activity 3′, took my seat in the empty cinema and for the next hour and a half, jumped, laughed and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. It helped that the rest of the cinema was filled with teenagers who would jump at the mere thought of the word ‘boo’.
Now, I am an avid horror film watcher and I’ll be honest, it takes a lot to make me jump, but let me tell you, this did it. many times.
But I’m not here to tell you about that. I’m here to tell you that many of the young people who work with and interact with will have seen it and so it’s good to have an idea of what it’s about and discussions you can have around it with them.
What’s it about?
Paranormal Activity 3 is (you guessed it) the 3rd film in the increasingly popular ‘found footage’ series that follows Katie and Kristi and the evil that has possessed their family. This film is a prequel to the 2nd film which was in turn a prequel to the first. For a full plot breakdown, click here.
Whenever I want to explore the issues in a film, I start with 3 basic questions:
1) What the key themes that this film is trying to engage with?
2) Can you see yourself in any roles / do you identify yourself with any characters?
3) Are there any background influences from writers/directors that shape the view?
For me, there are a number of themes that the film is trying to engage with but I want to explore a couple briefly.
Where do we feel safe? That’s a big question of PA3. The family get to the stage that they do not feel safe in their own home anymore and (spoiler) go to Kristis’ mums home, which turns out to be the worst decision they could have made. What do you do when your home is no longer a place you feel safe? For many young people this is an experience they face.
As an aside, horror films in general seem to reflect the culture at the time, In the 50s and 60s there was a plethora of films about bodysnatchers etc which were a thinly veiled analogy of communism and the cold war (they look like us but they’re not, they’re evil). Skip forward to the late 90′s and early 00s and we get the ‘torture porn’ or ‘gorno’ films which some argue is all about the abuse of the West in Guantanamo. Now during the recession, where people know longer feel secure in their homes because they might get reposessed because of late payments, we get a whole raft of films about entities coming in and taking away their safety and security. Makes you think eh?
Do your young people feel safe in their home? Do they feel safe with God? Is he the strong tower and refuge of the psalms? What would help them feel like that?
During the 90s, horror films had moved away from the supernatural. Villains were explained away by science. Zombies were created because of viruses; monsters were created in labs. Horror films reflected the strong hold that modernity still had on culture. What’s interesting is that since the start of the new millennium the West has seen an increase in supernatural films again and the success of The Paranormal Activity series demonstrates that people are believing in this idea again.
What do the young people you work with think of ghosts?
Last week I was speaking in school to a group of 3rd year students who were all happy to admit they believed in ghosts but the idea of a god seemed ridiculous. What do your young people think of the spirit realm and are there ways to bring god in to this type of discussion.
The general split between the cast are those who don’t believe it and need physical proof, those who do believe it and want to run away, and those who are far too nosy for their own good. Who do your young people relate to? Is it the same when it comes to thinking about God?
I’ll leave it at that just now as I could go on and on but I urge you chat to young people about this movie (especially if they’ve seen it) as it is guaranteed to bring up some great discussions.