Gotta have faith: what's your relationship with God at the flicks? | Catherine Shoard

An interesting article here from the Guardian newspaper's film blog:

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Faith films are burgeoning in the United States, but would you welcome them here in the UK? Or is religious scepticism the key to cinematic excellence?

Feature: Faith films perform a marketing miracle

There is, I think, something really curious happening at the moment, which I explored in a recent feature. A drop-off in conventional funding methods, together with a rise in the United States of devout Christianity and an increasing dislike of Hollywood's baser fixations, has paved the way for a new wave of super-profitable faith-based films. And though they've not washed up on these shores yet, the actions of UK distributors, in tapping church audiences for custom with mainstream releases they feel might strike a chord, suggests there's a hunger over here too.
But how far is this true? There are a few complicating factors. The first is funding. A reliance on the munificence of others leaves faith films vulnerable to parties whose interest isn't wholly holy. The Ultimate Gift, for instance, FoxFaith's one big hit, was actually, it turns out, bankrolled by the Stanford Financial Group. Its head, Allen Stanford, showed it to clients at private screenings just two years before his arrest and imprisonment. Forbes quoted an executive at the time proudly reporting they'd "tracked a good bit of multimillion-dollar relationships" as a direct result. Personally, I think that's a bit of a problem; in a similar way to the unease I felt on learning that Shane Meadows's Somers Town had been backed by Eurostar. But money's money, right? Am I just being hopelessly naïve? Is bending editorial integrity just a necessary part of getting a film made? After all, Stanford's involvement in The Ultimate Gift has not, in fact, discredited the faith films market – indeed it's barely gone noticed.
The second is quality. One thing that unites both Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (which did have a certain grisly something, as a movie) and what I'd deem as quality faith films – the back catalogue of Robert Bresson, Ermanno Olmi's The Legend of the Holy Drinker, Carl Dreyer's Joan of Arc – is that they tend to be the work of one man's vision. None are films that could have come off an assembly line. None are films whose modern-day equivalents will, I suspect, easily emerge from the new wave of faith films.
But maybe I'm being too harsh. Greg Wright of Hollywood Jesus, a really cogent site analysing pop culture through a Christian filter, wasn't impressed by Letters to God, but did like the gloss and complexity of To Save a Life: "You could tell that the director, Brian Baugh, has some actual chops," he told me. The LA Times delivered a similar endorsement.
Angela Walker of (also well worth a look) reports that so edgy were elements of To Save a Life (not just realistic teen behaviour such as sex and drinking, but also the dodgy minister in charge of the local church) that some of her friends banned their children from seeing it. "But that's one of the reasons I liked it," Wright says. "Nothing was gratuitous or overdone, but it put it right out there – and kids see and deal with that every day of their lives. I think the film had more credibility with general audiences because of that." Wright thinks a new generation of professional film-makers raised in the church but weaned on mass media, rather than Billy Graham flicks, will also change the dynamic.
The other issue is Britain itself. Surely, in so secular a country, whereTony Blair's Faith Films awards are just meant as a means for greater multicultural understanding, and where the critics suck up the last scene of There Will Be Blood ("I am a false prophet and God is a superstition") like so many milkshakes, hearts and minds are going to be harder to find?
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