By Rev. Matthew Kieswetter
Back in my early 20s I took a university course on religion and film. I thought it would feature the classic Hollywood adaptations of the gospel stories, but it turned out to be a class all about the famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The films rarely dealt with religion explicitly, and — you’ll know this if you’re familiar with Bergman — they were grim in outlook. It became a quest to find glimmers of hope and faith in a largely atheistic situation. It took some getting used to, but it turned out to be incredibly rewarding.
Around the same time a friend and I went to the local repertory cinema for a midnight screening of David Cronenberg’s 1983 masterpiece Videodrome, a film that basically predicted the role of the internet in our lives today. It is a confusing and frightening picture, but it showed me that even gory horror films can deal seriously with important themes.
Those two experiences set me on a path of appreciating movies for their ability to promote conversation and reflection.
Near the beginning of the pandemic lockdown period a small group from my parish of St. Andrew’s, Kitchener, came up with the idea of suggesting movies for our community to watch, and then offer a time when interested parties could come together in conversation over the Zoom video conferencing app that was then becoming a prominent part of our parish life. On one level this was simply a way of fostering communication during an anxious time. On a deeper level the conversations would provide the opportunity for grappling with issues of faith and meaning.
Film selections have varied, reflective of our group members’ tastes and the Anglican value of moderation. Co-founder Nick Collins explains: “Part of the challenge is to select movies that are entertaining and about something worthwhile, without being too heavy.” So, we have watched everything from the fun and suspenseful Agatha Christie classic Witness for the Prosecution. I, predictably, leaned toward eccentric fare, such as Terry Gilliam’s dystopian love story that deals with terrorism and bureaucracy run amok, Brazil. We’ve watched some films depicting the overlapping of love and sadness: Carol and Children of a Lesser God. Most recently we had a Hallowe’en-appropriate discussion of the horror classic Night of the Living Dead. It was pandemic-appropriate too, as the movie revolves around the now familiar phenomena of sheltering in place. Not to mention society turned upside down in the blink of an eye…
“Northrop Frye, in The Great Code makes the case that it is almost impossible to fully understand English literature without an understanding of the English Bible, as almost all books make some allusion to biblical events, stories, themes,” says Fr. Gerry Mueller. “I think the same thing can be said of English-language movies. And the reverse is true, movies are a mirror of culture, and can remind Christians of what our values are, even while perhaps violating our norms, and strengthen our faith by challenging it.”
Watching a movie doesn’t mean we have to adopt the writer or director’s view as our own, or feel comfortable with the actions we see on the screen. But we can use them as partners in dialogue to work out our own perspective.
Canon Valerie Kenyon has recently joined our group, and seems to share Mueller’s view that movies reflect our society and its concerns. “Are there frequent themes of dystopian worlds, weather disasters, complex societal situations, or inspirational true life stories of people beating the odds? Alternatively on the lighter side there can also be romantic comedies and coming of age tales with their challenges and successes. Each of these have something to tell us.” Our viewing can assist us in the proclamation of our faith, she says. “As a faith community and disciples of Jesus, we are always looking to clarify the context in which we are ministering, intent on presenting the Gospel in a language that speaks to the current reality of those with whom we share this world.”
Nick Collins appreciates the way in which discussing movies can help us to understand others. “Considering a variety of viewpoints about a movie can give people greater insight into how other people think, and what other people see as priorities that are different from their own… A group like ours encourages considering other viewpoints, and consideration for others fits with Christian philosophy.”
Collins has found that the movie group has helped him through the pandemic. “It’s important to find ways to keep up a positive mental state as much as possible. Any way of staying connected with family and friends is good for that, and any online activities based on a common interest are helpful.”
Sandra Coulsen, who joined us from her home in London, agrees. “It was nice to have an opportunity for an in-depth, insightful conversation during the pandemic when so many of us were isolated. As a person who lives alone, I found these occasions particularly welcome. I thought the Zoom format was a reasonably good substitute for in-person discussions, and it was good to meet new people.”
Our movie discussion group has been continuing along under the radar, gradually attracting new people based on the movie that is being highlighted. Then something more dramatic happened when word got out that we’d be discussing a zombie movie on Hallowe’en. Some found the premise unique and a bit shocking, while others — either already familiar with the movie, or trusting my description of it — appreciated how the filmmakers wove civil rights-era social commentary into the horrific tale. The movie’s fantastical depiction societal breakdown might help us to process and explore the tensions and tragedies of the present day.
I was surprised when a producer from our local CBC radio morning show contacted me for an interview that was featured over the air and later transcribed for their website. Executive producer Gary Graves explained what caught his attention. “Timed for Hallowe’en week, the movie chat seemed like a fun idea… and the popular perception of many people is that the reflective and spiritual nature of churches is counterintuitive with ‘fun.’”
We might be bursting some stereotypes, but Graves saw how it fit with our church’s mission. “It’s an example of an innovative approach to engaging congregants in conversation not only about the perspective of the church but also about the role that entertainment and media play in reflecting, exposing, and discussing the challenges the world presents to us.” It sounds like Graves is on the same page as our movie club members.
It turns out that the CBC coverage captured the imagination of people beyond our church walls. We welcomed a new participant that had heard the radio interview, and several others have asked to be kept informed of future online gatherings. Engagements on our Facebook page are up. I quickly decided to offer a live-streamed All Hallows’ Eve evening prayer liturgy on Facebook, in part as a way of connecting with these new inquirers, and piggybacking with the Hallowe’en motif.
Our movie discussion group has helped keep us entertained an in touch throughout the pandemic. Its online format has encouraged the participation of people from other parishes. And the CBC coverage that was appreciative of our engagement with the horror genre has brought our presence to the attention of our wider community.
We remain committed to exploring movies of all types, but I hope that our existing group is open to watching a few more spooky flicks as we seek to reach out to new people.
Rev. Matthew Kieswetter is the rector of St. Andrew's Memorial, Kitchener.