Faith gets star treatment at Sundance
Piet Levy, Religion News Service
January 19, 2011

Faith gets star treatment at Sundance

Faith gets star treatment at Sundance
Piet Levy, Religion News Service
January 19, 2011

Celebrity sightings and up-and-coming indie flicks are a

given at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but this year something

else is drawing attraction on the red carpet: faith on film.

A small but noticeable number of films at Sundance — where crossover

movies like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Little Miss Sunshine” broke into the

mainstream — tackle issues of religion, spirituality and faith.

Out of 120 Sundance features scheduled to show at the Jan.

20-30 festival, 12 are overt stories about religion, or chronicle protagonists largely

defined by faith, says John Nein, senior programmer for the festival.

“There are definitely more films (exploring spirituality)

that ended up in the program this year than in years past,” he said, noting an uptick

in the number of submissions that touch on religious themes.

Christianity is a central theme in most of the films, from

the star-studded satire “Salvation Boulevard,” featuring Pierce Brosnan as a popular

preacher who frames a born-again Christian follower for a crime, to the

riveting documentary “The Redemption of General Butt Naked,” about a Liberian

warlord-turned-preacher facing the loved ones of people he killed.

The Italian film “Lost Kisses” centers around a Sicilian

community’s reaction to a 13-year-old girl who may perform miracles. Two films explore

Christianity and Islam, with “Kinyarwanda” set during the 1994 genocide in

Rwanda, and the documentary “Position Among The Stars” tracing the lives of an

impoverished family in Jakarta, Indonesia.

RNS photo

“Position Among the Stars,” which will screen at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, centers on the story of a Christian mother and her Muslim sons in Indonesia.

The Japanese “Abraxas” focuses on a depressed Zen monk who reconnects

with punk rock, while the bizarre American comedy “The Catechism Cataclysm”

centers on a priest who loves heavy metal music. Three American narrative

features — “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Kevin Smith’s horror film “Red State”

and Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut “Higher Ground” — are concerned with cults

and religious sects on the fringe.

Religion, of course, isn’t totally new territory for

Sundance — previous fest fare included “Saved!,” “Jesus Camp” and “Shape of the

Moon,” a precursor to this year’s “Position Among The Stars.”

Most Sundance religious fare tended to be satirical or

derisive — with “Saved!” a prime example — said Dick Staub, author of The Culturally

Savvy Christian and a columnist for Religion News Service, who has participated

in the Windrider Film Forums around Sundance that bring together directors and

audiences to talk about faith on film.

William L. Blizek, founding editor of the Journal of

Religion and Film and professor of philosophy and religion at the University of

Nebraska at Omaha, said religion may have a higher profile at Sundance this

year because “religion has become a much more visible part of our culture.”

“Now that you’ve got a culture that is more open to the

discussion of religion, you get more movies (exploring religion),” he says,

citing Mitt Romney, President Obama and others who are defined in the public’s eye

by their faith.

With more openness toward religion, there is more freedom to

make movies about it, some Sundance filmmakers say.

“Position” director Leonard Retel Helmrich says he tried

pitching documentaries dealing with religious themes in the ’80s and’90s in his

native Netherlands but could not get financing until recently. Flash forward to

2010 and “Catechism” director Todd Rohal said there were no concerns from

funders that his film had a priest for a protagonist or a “ridiculous”

Catholic-infused title.

Sundance’s Nein said this year’s selections “indicate a wide

array of approaches” toward religion, including politics and current events, blatant

inspiration (“Salvation” and “Red State”) and more personal stories of

redemption and soul-searching (“Tyrannosaur,” about a Christian charity worker,

and “The Ledge,” a thriller where a woman wrestles with her personal faith).

Some films highlight the connection between religion and

society while still telling personal stories.

Helmrich, whose family has ties to Indonesia and both Islam

and Christianity, was drawn to making a documentary about the lives of a Muslim

family with a Christian matriarch in the nation’s most populous Islamic


“Butt Naked” is a personal story of a man seeking redemption

after a 14-year civil war had killed 250,000 Liberians. Several scenes show the

allegedly reformed warlord face-to-face with relatives of his victims, but why

and how they forgive is left to the viewer to speculate, along with the

question of whether such a sinner can truly be redeemed.

“We were interested in knowing if somebody made a

transformation this extreme, what would it look like?” said co-director Daniele

Anastasion. “… How much do you have to do to balance the scales? Is it even possible

to balance the scales?”

The Films At Sundance

Exploring Religion

Following is a brief synopsis of the major films dealing

with faith, religion or spirituality at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival:

  • “Abraxas” — A depressed Buddhist monk tries to reconnect

    with his punk rock past.

  • “The Catechism Cataclysm” — A young priest who’s lost touch

    with his flock reconnects with a high school acquaintance for a canoe trip.

  • “Higher Ground” — Vera Farmiga, the Oscar-nominated actress

    from “Up In The Air,” directs and stars in this movie about a woman seeking answers

    from a fundamentalist Christian community.

  • “Kinyarwanda” — The first dramatic feature film produced by Rwandans

    intertwines six accounts of survival during the Rwandan genocide, including

    stories about a priest and an imam.

  • “The Ledge” — An atheist says he must leap off a building by

    noon in a thriller that also examines the life of a woman seeking spiritual redemption.

  • “Lost Kisses” — Residents in a Sicilian community suspect a 13-year-old

    girl has a miraculous vision.

  • “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — A woman who fled a dangerous

    cult tries to return to a life of normalcy.

  • “Position Among The Stars” — The final installment of a

    documentary trilogy that follows the life of a Christian matriarch living with

    her Muslim sons in Jakarta, Indonesia.

  • “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” — A former Liberian

    warlord who’s responsible for the murder of thousands seeks salvation and forgiveness

    as an evangelical preacher in this documentary.

  • “Red State” — Kevin Smith, who caused controversy with his

    scathing comedy “Dogma,” tries out horror with this film about dangerous Christian


  • “Salvation Boulevard” — George Ratliff, director of the

    documentary “Hell House” about a church-run haunted house, directs this satire

    of megachurch culture. Starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly,

    Marisa Tomei and Ed Harris.

  • “Tyrannosaur” — Actor Paddy Considine (“In America”) makes

    his directorial debut with this story of a self-destructive man who seeks redemption

    with help from a Christian charity worker.

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