UPDATED May 8 with festival organizer’s comments.
Looking back at SONscreen 2014, some of the filmmakers who attended from around the US reflect on the Adventist film festival.
“There were some gorgeous films, elaborate animation, and fantastic camera techniques on display” at the 2014 SONscreen film festival, according to Justin Feltman, a recent film graduate from Pacific Union College, and now a filmmaker in Washington, DC. “In other words, Adventists filmmakers are professional filmmakers. We have the potential to be just as good as any other filmmaker. The winning films could screen well at many other film festivals across the country and I think the filmmakers should be proud of their work.”
Southern Adventist University hosted this year’s SONscreen, the 12th annual film festival sponsored by the North American Division. Attendees during the March 20-22 weekend screened 20 short films made by high school and college students, as well as some professionals.
Last weekend, The Hideout was screened at the General Conference as part of the enditnow summit.
The NAD’s report on SONscreen said The Hideout examined “a difficult topic with which it dealt strongly but delicately.”
The film was written and directed by Daniel Wahlen, an independent filmmaker who studied at Southern and works as a lab assistant at Southern’s School of Art and Design.
“I very much enjoyed the opportunity to screen my own work — it is an experience like none other and the comments, reaction, and critique gained from the event have been very valuable to me as a young filmmaker looking to improve his craft,” Wahlen said.
Wahlen says his favorite film of the festival was one about former ADRA director in Rwanda Carl Wilkens, called I’m Not Leaving — a story that Wahlen was previously unfamiliar with, and very moved by.
The film was successful in that every element was integrated so well — archival footage, modern day interviews, animated sketches, as well as home video footage from the actual events. The filmmakers were able to craft a compelling story arc that kept me simultaneously enthralled and horrified from beginning to end. What pushed this screening over the edge was that not only filmmaker Kevin Ekvall was present for the Q&A, but also Carl Wilkens himself. It provided a thought-provoking and inspiring discussion that I will remember for a very long time.
SONscreen has been a big draw to young Adventist filmmakers from around the country for the last decade. Justin Feltman in DC also had this to say about the festival:
SONscreen gives us the tremendous opportunity to prove that there is room for Christian and Adventist filmmaking in the world. However, we must challenge ourselves to deeply question everything — including our church and our personal beliefs — in order to be better and find authenticity.
Adventist filmmakers have great skills. However, we sell ourselves short. We do not capitalize on the potential that we have. We are missing the opportunity to use the medium to consider deep and analytical questions about our church and ourselves as Christians. Instead, I found that many films that dealt with the church were made to confirm our world view, an effort to show how “awesome” we are, instead of challenge it. This is a film festival not an advertisement showcase. We should present ideas and questions. Leave our audience with something to think about.
I was especially agitated by many of the mission trip videos or community outreach videos that perpetuated the “white savior” narrative. One film had an interviewee say that “people on the Westside [of Chattanooga, I assume] don’t have Jesus.” It disturbed me how much of a generalization that is. It is like saying, “since they aren’t ‘blessed,’ they must not have Jesus.” When in reality, lower income places tend to be more religious. What’s needed is economic and social equality. With these presentations, we pushed our view and missed an opportunity for them to share their story and for us reach a deeper understanding of their situations.
The biggest controversy of this year’s SONscreen seemed to be the use of the word “vagina” in one of the films that was screened. Edgar Momplaisir, who made the film Heaven that was screened at the festival, and is about to graduate with a degree in film and television from Pacific Union College, had this to say about his experience at SONscreen and about the discussion of anatomy:
Thanks to the wonderful PR department at my school, Raphael Jimenez, Michael Feldbush (both of whom are recent Film & Television alumni) and I got to attend the festival in Tennessee. Since we arrived a day late to the festival, all three of our films were screened on the same night; two of the films, mine and Raphael’s, were screened in the same block. This meant that we all shared a Q&A session together.
I had been very worried that my film would not be well received by the home crowd, so after our films screened and we were called up to the front, I remember anticipating that people would bombard me with questions about the content and overall message of my film.
Much to my surprise, no one really said anything about my film. There were some basic questions about location and how I shot it, but none of the “backlash” that I had anticipated.
On the other hand, Raphael’s film, which didn’t even cross my mind in terms of “controversy” was followed by some unexpectedly hostile feedback.
To give you the proper context, Raphael’s film, The Waiting Room, follows a terminally ill school teacher who is pushed into being more confident and hopeful about his situation after a few run-ins with a blunt, eccentric fellow cancer patient. After first reading the script, I playfully mocked Raphael for the film’s light, Sunday-afternoon movie vibe. To me, the film would surely be one of the more acceptable pieces. This was a film that could easily be screened at an Adventist film festival with its mix of light humor, melodrama, and a moral lesson in courage. Apparently, some people disagreed.
In a small fragment of a scene, our protagonist makes a face showing discomfort after the patient he is forced to share the waiting room with mentions her ovarian cancer. The patient responds to his discomfort by then saying the word “vagina” repeatedly, finding it silly that a grown man would be so uncomfortable with a perfectly natural word.
Oh, the irony that would follow. One overzealous crowd member questioned Raphael’s Adventist faith, saying that the graphic nature of the dialogue in the film was too much for her to bear and took her out of the film. I was completely dumbfounded. I seriously thought she was joking. But it seemed that she genuinely believed Raphael’s use of the word “vagina” to be blue humor — obviously misinterpreting the commentary on how a woman can’t discuss her anatomy without judgement. Was this 30-second clip in the film really enough to dismiss the strong, earnest message at the core of the entire piece?
Momplaisir says that he feels very disillusioned over the fate of The Record Keeper, the Great Controversy-inspired web series that was recently cancelled by the General Conference. He says he has spent a lot of time struggling over the question: “Can I appease my Adventist background and community while still creating work that I feel truthfully expresses who I am?”
Here is how Momplaisir answers that question:
To be quite honest, I was very disappointed in my experience at SONscreen. I walked away feeling that the Adventist church I see isn’t ready for narrative storytelling. It isn’t ready for stories that challenge our preconceived notions of the world. It isn’t willing to remain current with what’s actually happening to this generation — at least not authentically.
So in answering my earlier question of whether it was possible to create work that could be both acceptable to my Adventist community and honest to myself, given my experiences at this year’s SONscreen, I would say no. I have come to the conclusion that I cannot truthfully express what I perceive to be the problems of my generation in a way that wouldn’t “betray” my Adventist heritage.
Maybe this will change in the future, but not as long as we continue to blatantly ignore the truth about what’s happening in our world for some false sense of comfortability and exclusivity as a faith and as a church.
One other criticism of the festival was of the keynote speaker — Christian filmmaker Dave Christiano called on students to make films that focus on Christ. But one attendee called him “uncomfortably antagonistic,” as he decried any non-evangelistic filmmaking as doing the devil’s work — going so far as to say we shouldn’t be even watching films such as “Finding Nemo” because it doesn’t have a clear message for Christ.
One student who asked not to be named found Christiano’s sermon was “particularly surprising, considering he expressed an opinion so contrary to the message of SONscreen and the majority of filmmakers and attendees.”
Filmmakers are already starting to think about SONscreen 2015, though no official information about dates and location has yet been released. Some attendees of this year’s festival complained that information was slow to reach them, and that details needed to be publicized earlier. Maybe organizers will take that on board as they prepare for next year.
Festival Organizer Dan Weber Responds
I am the producer/organizer of the festival, but I’ve also been involved with SONScreen as an attendee — as someone who has had a film played.
I understand that some people didn’t agree with everything that Dave Christiano said in his opening keynote, but I wanted to give a balance to last year’s keynote speaker who approached Christian filmmaking from a totally different perspective. I also had several people come up and thank me for the message that Dave Christiano shared. I think that the world is a better place when we can hear many different perspectives on things. I hope that next year’s keynote speaker can bring a totally different viewpoint on filmmaking. If we heard the same message every year it would get a little boring.
I also think that your observation regarding the controversial moment with the discussion on female anatomy was taken out of context. It wasn’t the fact that the film talked about a woman with vaginal cancer — two different people in the audience had a problem with the selection of vaginal cancer by the scriptwriter, because it is such a rare form of cancer that it made the story seem unrealistic. One of the people who raised the issue is an oncologist from Stanford University who happened to be attending the festival. I don’t think it is fair to say that it was a controversial part of the festival.
For me, the highlight of the festival is when each film producer and director is invited up front for a Q&A session with the audience. It is during this time that the filmmakers have the chance to explain to the audience the process that they went through in making their films. The audience then has a chance to ask questions concerning the artistic, technical and theoretical choices that were made. Sometimes the audience doesn’t agree with the direction that a filmmaker takes their story, but in the end it is art and there are always people who appreciate the efforts that have been made.
I was very proud of the films that we showed this year. Submissions came in from both Adventist and non-Adventist filmmakers. This is a good thing. We had 54 entries this year and 43 of them were from college and university students, a record for the festival. This allowed us to select a broad range of films that touched on many topics and genres. I feel that this makes the festival stronger. We picked some films that I knew would raise questions — I was comfortable with that. In the end, the main goal of SONscreen is to open doors for Christian filmmakers to have their projects viewed by those who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so. We were successful in doing that this year.
-Dan Weber is communication director for the North American Division, and director of the SONscreen film festival.
Image: The Hideout movie poster.