Dear Bryan --
I hope this Open Letter finds you well -- long time no see. The last time you and I crossed paths was when you released your documentary Fight Church, and you were rather put out that I refused to review it. I was surprised by that because after I reviewed Holy Rollers, I figured that you would not want someone like me talking about your hard work. However, you have produced a new movie which will debut on PBS next week called Little Hope was Arson, and I wanted to say a few words about it and your trajectory as a producer of indie films.
If we have to choose between the movie about the misguided scammers who thought that Jesus would endorse scamming casinos, the movie about misguided fundamentalists who think fighting is a way to teach men about the Gospel, and Little Hope is Arson, we should invest our 90 minutes of free time in this movie. This movie is not hardly flawless, but it is at least an honest treatment of the simple faith of common Christians.
So what constitutes an "honest" treatment of a subject in a documentary? I think some people would say that "honesty" would be when the documentarian lets the subject speak for himself -- so for example, an "honest" documentary about the kid who shot up Sandy Hook Elementary would be a movie which paints the events as that troubled kid saw them. The problem with that approach I think is obvious: nobody really thinks they are the bad guy in their own story. Whatever a documentarian might find out about what Adam Lanza and his motives in his crimes, his view of it would somehow paint what he did as justifiable, and that point of view would be so idiosyncratic that it could not be honest. It would be entirely subjective.
Another approach might be to tell us only what "experts" think about the subject. So for example, having FBI profilers and mental health professionals talk about whatever the documentarian has uncovered about Lanza might be seen as a way to get an "honest" treatment of what happened. Some people might actually say that this would be a way to get at truth in this case because those talking about it are in fact kinds of scientists. Because Science is seen by some as the final arbiter of what is true, they would equate this with honesty.
When I call your movie "an honest treatment," I don't mean either of these things. What I mean is that (as I see it) this is your best effort to date as you seek to demonstrate your own integrity through the telling of a real-life drama. Your treatment of those involved in this movie is, without a doubt, an attempt to really tell us who these people are whether or not they are admirable. That's a big improvement over Holy Rollers, for example, where the story is so one-sided that (as I wrote back then) it finally looks like a marketing piece for the card-counting school established by the principle people in the story at the end of the movie. Here there is more than one perspective, more than one approach to the events, which brings the viewer to draw his own conclusions about all of the players rather than to wind up being either played by the documentarian to a staged conclusion or left without enough information to care about any conclusion.
Since this review is coming out before the film will get its national showing, I'm going to be a little coy about the details. I also despise reviews which are effectively book reports about the thing being reviewed. But there is one category which I think you handled quite well here: theology. That may seem a little odd given that I think you would admit that you really didn't approach this film with theology in mind. But here's what you did do: you presented the individuals in this movie as people who are all engaged in a relationship with God, and you portrayed their relationship in progress in the context of an objectively-evil act. That, in case no one else will say it about this film, is where the rubber meets the road.
What I would love to do is to walk that off with you now through the parents, the pastors, the siblings, and (as we say in the part of christendom) the magistrates who make sense out of God and evil as the story in this movie unwinds -- but that would spoil the entire movie for those reading this review. For me it is entirely sufficient to say that this time, because of the fundamentally christian questions you asked in this movie, and because you encountered fundamentally Christian people in the journey to make this movie, your film actually arrives at some fundamentally-Christian conclusions. And for that, I want to thank you. The very least that this movie should have done was to somehow unpack the statement made all over in it: "the church is not a building." This movie does that, and it does so elegantly, seriously, and without the mushy romanticism which is the plague of most "Christian" entertainment in the marketplace.
The only solid complaint I want to register here is in the final caption of the movie before the credits:
Now, if I clever up a bit and offer you a huge portion of grace, I think the point of this quote is to say that the churches which were burned in these real events shed a light on some real people who, for the most part, have a real faith in spite of hardship. But Durutti was a Spanish Anarchist, and when he said this what he meant was that everything about religion has to be destroyed in order for all its oppressive burdens to be cast off. His meaning and yours in this movie, I think, are not the same. By no means do I think that you have endorsed the crimes recorded in the film, but Durutti would. The dissonance there is jarring and was confusing to me as I think it would be for any viewer who knows anything about Durutti and anarchist thought. Your movie is not about anarchy but about the ways in which real people make sense out of suffering, and it is better than the philosophy of those associated with the burning of churches in pre-Franco Spain.
All that said, thanks for your offer to view and review this film. It's good to see people working hard to develop a voice and a body of work which is actually saying something worth saying in a way that is worth listening to.
If this is where you are headed in the future, please keep up the good work. I look forward to seeing more documentaries like this from you about real Christians in real life.