Keeping the Faith: Christianity at the Tribeca Film Festival

The combination of Christianity and Hollywood has often sparked debate from the Christian community. Hollywood’s latest offering, “The Da Vinci Code,” is a puzzle-mystery first and foremost, but doesn’t hesitate to tackle material in Dan Brown’s novel by the same name. Specifically, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” painting is thoroughly dissected in a religious context, and the suggestion is made that Mary Magdalene has stronger ties to Jesus Christ than previously thought, possibly through marriage and even a child, suggesting a divine blood line.

Not surprisingly, the spiritual accuracy of the film has generated controversy; for example, a bulletin for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City listed several workshops and debates focusing on “The Da Vinci Code” during the film’s opening weekend alone. But all this talk is positive in general, no matter what beliefs individuals hold, according to speakers at the “What Would Jesus Direct?” panel at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.

“[T]he church is beginning to understand that we are a story-based culture…Sermons are the new movies,” said Ralph Winter, a film and television producer at 20th Century Fox Films and one of five panelists who spoke at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center on May 2.

The panelists sought to examine the challenges of bridging the gap between Christianity and film. They acknowledged that while Hollywood is taking baby steps to embrace religious themes due to the success of “Passion of the Christ,” there is still a long way to go in order to fund similar projects.

“The question has to be, ‘What would Jesus direct and what would Paramount distribute?,’” said Jonathan Bock, a former sitcom writer who is the founder and president of Grace Hill Media, a company that promotes religious and faith-based projects in Hollywood. Some of the firm’s campaigns include “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” and “A Walk to Remember.”

“Film is a collaborative process,” Bock added. “It requires a lot of money. It requires, literally, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people…There’s this playoff between what filmmakers want to make and what a studio wants to make as well.”

Then there are some filmmakers, such as Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who choose to tell it like it is. Their stirring documentary, “Jesus Camp,” examines the growing Evangelical Christian movement in the U.S. through the eyes of Pastor Becky Fischer and the children at her “Kids on Fire” summer camp in North Dakota. Fischer trains the children to be “soldiers” for Jesus Christ in a movement that already boasts more than 30 million followers, according to the National Association of Evangelicals.

And that comprises just a sliver of a market that has been, for the most part, untapped.

“I so laugh at Hollywood,” said panelist and actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who won an Academy Award in 1997 for his supporting role in “Jerry Maguire.” “It’s funny. They go where the money is. Okay, “Passion of the Christ” made a hell of a lot of money – no pun intended – and now everybody’s scurrying to have the next faith-based project that goes through the roof. The audience has been there for years.”

Which begged the question that the title of the panel asked: What would Jesus direct? Interestingly, the panelists plucked the answers right out of the Bible.

“The kind of stuff that Jesus might direct would be a little darker, thought-provoking, stimulating, and cause a lot of that discussion to happen afterwards,” said Winter, who cited Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.

“The story is a little dark,” Winter said. “It opens with the younger son going to the father and saying, ‘I want you dead.’ And he goes off and spends money and lives wantonly and ends up in a pigsty to eat; it’s the only food he has. At the end, the older brother and the dad have some serious family therapy to go through. Maybe Jesus would direct a movie like that, whereas sometimes [we] Christians want to go after movies that have happy endings.”

“The reason that the Bible is still around today is, in part, due to the fact that [it contains] universal stories that have stood the test of time,” Bock said. “And I think that’s the kind of stories that He would tell even now.”

After the panel, Cuba Gooding Jr., spoke to Meniscus about the perceptions of faith and religion in Hollywood:

Meniscus Magazine: I was wondering about actors and actresses in the industry who are Christian. Are there many? And if so, what’s the perception when you tell people you’re a Christian? Do directors kind of–

Cuba Gooding Jr.: You know, the funny thing is, even though people have their prejudices and have their hang-ups about certain religions in Hollywood, it’s a melting pot. I mean, listen, Scientology took off, and that was like a science fiction writer who raised that sect.

It isn’t that Hollywood is judgmental, but they’re very creative, you know, it’s like to your face, they won’t say anything. And you might even sway them to believe what you believe, but it’s like a blank canvas. And that’s why there are positives and negatives of standing on your faith and what you believe. That’s why I say you can’t let them change what you believe. You got to eventually believe in something, you just do.