Accomplished Essay Film Sizes up the State of Christian Cinema and Teaches More Than one Lesson.
DIRECTED BY TYLER SMITH/2020
When it comes to the very niche realm of Christian films, one would be hard pressed to find a more prominent scholar than Tyler Smith. Smith, known primarily for cohosting the long-running weekly film podcast “Battleship Pretension” along with fellow critic David Bax, has done extensive research and outreach into the distinctively unique subsection of “films of faith”.
Interesting, then, that not unlike so many others, Smith doesn’t actually like most Christian films. That opinion, well documented elsewhere but not here, is, to his credit, placed aside in favor of an objective though not un-critical approach. All along, Smith has been rooting for Christian filmmakers to evolve beyond the ruts message-over-nuance and “preaching to the choir”. Reel Redemption eventually gets around to spotlighting a few such standout films, such as The Case for Christ, Woodlawn, and the satirical Believe Me. Signaling out what has worked within the genre (and Smith makes the argument that for better or worse, Christian film is indeed a genre unto itself) is some much-needed credit where credit is due, and hopefully functions to shed some light upon these above-average titles. Because, as this feature-length video essay also makes clear, there has been no shortage of far more popular Christian films, most if not all of which are considerably lacking in comparison.
As Reel Redemption point out, the most successful Christian films of the past decade have flourished by reflecting an idealized, Norman Rockwell-esque version of the churchgoing audience back upon itself. This accurate assessment is more damning than Reel Redemption, with its gentle hand, lets on, suggesting that faith-based filmmaking is wallowing in a disturbing mire of non-curiousness, insular thinking, self-affirming reclusion, concocted persecution romanticism, and pep talks within the western Church at the expense of legitimate introspection and difficult Gospel challenges.
The phrase “feature-length video essay” may land negatively, signaling a heavy leaning into academics and whatnot. Rest assured that Reel Redemption is no chore whatsoever. Compiled entirely of clips (in this case, all clearly labeled and spanning the entire history of film) and then narrated for the duration (by Smith himself), projects such as this succeed or fail entirely on the strengths of their structure and their editing. In these capacities, Reel Redemption is exceptional. With loads of pertinent clips backed by entirely approachable and apt research, the film takes its place as the first essential chronicling of the Christian film movement. It is a triumph of gathering and contextualization, as well as analytically sound storytelling.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled, it would be that Smith’s in-depth knowledge of cinema history sometimes may occasionally leave less informed viewers wondering. For example, a quick aside about self-assured characters is paired with a fleeting shot of Robert Shaw’s Quint in Jaws. Though Jaws’s continuing popularity backs up the choice of the clip in this context, one can never sell short the faith-based audience’s need to have such “secular” examples explained. The Christian audience the Smith is addressing is unlikely to have the quick-draw knowledge necessary to contextualize such an edit on the fly. To put it another way, certain audience members may suddenly wonder why there was a three-second shot of Jaws. Such instances are, however, far and few between, as Smith is, for the most part, very careful not to risk losing even the most unschooled members of his audience. This is an extremely minor concern. Smith himself is actually working to remedy the issue of lacking film education in the Christian community with his Faithlife TV series, Faith & Filmmaking.
Another criticism is that Smith launches into his history of Christian film with the late 1990’s end-times hit, The Omega Code before transitioning into Left Behind and other such Revelation-mining work. In actuality, the tribulation/rapture obsession in faith-based films goes back decades, most likely to Donald W. Thompson’s’s seminal 1972 thriller, A Thief in the Night, and it’s three sequels. Shown in church basements for years, these grainy and amateurish productions out of Clear Lake, Iowa nevertheless made an indelible mark, incorporating disturbing suspense and horror tropes to frighten viewers towards salvation. (“Don’t Wait…! Tomorrow may be too late!”). Any history of Christian cinema is incomplete without at least a mention of these key films.
But at the end of the day, that’s quibbling. The primary goal of Reel Redemption, to examine contemporary Christian cinema as a genre unto itself and in comparison, with the history and genres of mainstream cinema, is expertly achieved. The underlying point is its assessment of the current state of Christian film and how it might improve going forward. Reel Redemption on the whole serves as not only a necessary quantifier of this subsection of movies that cannot be altogether ignored (though try as we might), but also as constructive criticism, nudging the stunted genre to evolve with artistic boldness rather than wither stagnantly and safety. And that is a mission that is truly worthy of praise.