Documentary filmmaking takes a timely twist

A documentary that pulls us under and slips us into the shoes of a character forms lasting imprints on our psyches and on our hearts.

Are stories more believable than the six-o’clock news? Is a well-crafted narrative more successful in forming opinions and communicating information than detached press releases? I think so. And, I reckon producers sense this too. The public definitely wants to know what is going on the international stage. But, these days the jaded relay of censored information doesn’t cut it.

The Big Short - An exploration of documentary


Tom Hanks with Captain Chesley Sullenberg

For at least the past year we have been witnessing an interesting evolution in the film industry. When it comes to documentaries, both Hollywood and independent filmmakers have been performing some serious genre-bending. Projects like The Big Short, Notes on Blindness, Southside with You, Sully and most recently, Snowden have all capitalized on the story-telling aspect of the doc-genre.

There seems to be a new sub-genre of documentary films emerging. It adequately delivers stories, but focuses on bringing the viewers into that story. These releases are also time sensitive. Snowden, The Big Short and Sully do not reflect on a distant history; the viewers are contemporaries of the real-time events. These films tell incredible stories and also reveal a perspective of how life operates behind the media-curtain.

I would be delighted to see more docs move this direction—spreading stories in unforgettable ways.

What I most appreciate about these films is that they provide us–ridged, desensitized, over-stimulated Americans–with a gateway to empathy. Traditional documentaries often require a significant investment in the topic prior to viewing. Of course their spots, facts, horrors, and wonders invigorate us and compel us in new ways, but sadly the consumption of these documentaries easily digest in our steel stomachs. Recall the last time you saw a doc. Deeply moved? Now, how long did it take for you to totally forget about it? My guess is maybe a week at the longest. Documentaries that pull us under and slip us into the shoes of a character form lasting imprints on our psyches and on our hearts.


– Kylee

Hacksaw Ridge – Why should you see it?

Hacksaw Ridge juxtaposes the anguish of war with the beauty of faith.

Hacksaw Ridge - Desmond Doss  (Andrew Garfield)

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) serves in the WWII Battle of Okinawa with his wild band of brothers. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist and contentious objector, enlists for the US Army. As a medic he secures permission to not even touch a gun. Concerned with his beliefs, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) publicly warns the boys while they are in boot camp that they cannot trust Doss, because he is a coward. He is beaten, imprisoned and rejected by his troupe simply for having a different view. We see how ‘The Coward’s’ convictions emerged from events in his past and we see him remain true to those convictions. However, Doss’s beliefs about the value of life are translated into action at the battle itself, where he miraculously saves over seventy lives. Hacksaw Ridge juxtaposes the anguish of war with the beauty of faith.

Hacksaw Ridge depicts the mental and physical trauma of battle.

HR is the goriest movie I have ever seen. I‘m not one to be turned inside-out by blood and guts, but there were several moments where I felt like I needed to turn my head or close my eyes. But I didn’t. I was sitting next to a veteran. I didn’t know him, but I knew that I needed to keep my eyes open for him. I was moved to endure this piece of hell to honor the hell that he endured.

It is obvious that we have an epidemic in this country. After saving so many lives, our veterans are suffering and dying even at times by their own hands. HR makes that obvious, going about it eloquently in a non-preachy kind of way. Bloody explosions, brotherly affection, and moments of fierce courage usher the viewer into the life of a soldier in a way that no encyclopedic definition or informative news flash ever could.

Hacksaw Ridge shows how Christian convictions should work to restore the world, not to incriminate it.

The world’s religions hold some of the most compelling stories offered to humanity. They have been repeated and reflected in different forms for centuries. Oddly enough, in the past ten years we have seen some of the most horrible films rendering faith and contemporary life. Recent story-telling is failing miserably when it comes to exploring religious belief. HR has broken that trend. It is timely, reverent and exceptionally made.

Sure, there were parts of the script I would have written differently, CGI I was discontent with and approaches to plot mechanics I would have liked to be more daring. HR wasn’t phenomenal. What I cannot get away from is that this film changed me. It has been weeks since I have seen it, but it just keeps coming up: in my prayers, in my interactions and in my own artwork. My hope is that Hacksaw Ridge inspires you too, inspires you to consider not what your convictions are, but how they can bring beauty and vitality to the world.

– Kylee

(In Wide Release – November 4, 2016)

Why Jesus Failed Ben-Hur

The Ben-Hur story suggests that best way to critique Jesus Christ is to write a life in response to his life.

video-ben-hur-international-trailer-4-videoLarge - Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur represents peace in a time of war, faith in a culture of skepticism, union in a society of division, and most thoroughly forgiveness to a people of vengeance. This is not true in its narratival setting alone, but also in today’s larger blockbuster climate. The reproduction of this century-old epic blasphemes our cultural milieu. Such a bold move is not surprising coming from Ben-Hur’s director Timur Behmambetov, who capitalizes on unsuspected plot shifts. But, was this representation of ethics and religion too superficial for us to handle? I think so.

This depiction of Ben-Hur does not shy away from the story’s inherent christocentric backbone. The hellish suffering in the galleys transforms Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), but the most radical transformation comes in his final response to Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). Bekmambetov implements subtle visual gestures to link Judah Ben-Hur and Jesus such as: their physical appearance, whipping scars, and the cross that Judah Ben-Hur finds salvation on at sea.

The scripting, cinematography and acting fails when it comes to presenting a believable portrayal of Jesus. His character comes off crudely one-dimensional. Santoro’s performance presented us with a feel-good-hippie Jesus, but his lines, constructed of straight up biblical quotations, were not helpful either. Not all characters need to be filled out for a story to work, but the key-players must be robust to be believable. Luckily in this case, the ethos of Christ’s followers partially resurrects him. Judah Ben-Hur’s wife Esther (Nazanin Bonladi) becomes a close follower of Jesus. Her response to Christ and Ben-Hur actually has some say to why Jesus is even a valid component in the narrative.

Literary critic and philosopher George Steiner suggested that the best way to critique a novel is to write a novel in response to it. Perhaps the best way to critique Jesus Christ is to write a life in response to his life. The film Ben-Hur attempts to lend this kind of attentive critique but ultimately suggests a Jesus who founds an absurd forgiveness and produces an unimaginable reconciliation. I consider it more than unfortunate that Jesus was attended so sloppily. He crippled the backbone of a celebrated story and made forgiveness and reconciliation a fanciful, religious daydream.

– Kylee