Activist, filmmaker and blogger Brian Flemming’s latest project is called The God Who Wasn’t There. Appropriately for a very personal and controversial documentary, he is self-distributing on DVD. This review is going to have two parts: one a straightforward review of the documentary itself, the other commenting on the exciting distributional strategies Flemming has used to get his Word out to the people.
The Documentary That Wasn’t Long Enough
To a pulsing soundtrack, the movie opens with an image of the Earth revolving around the Sun. “It wasn’t always this way,” Flemming tells us in a voice-over. “The Sun used to revolve around the Earth. Christianity was wrong about the solar system, what if it’s wrong about something else too?”
A provocative question on its face, but containing some convenient simplifications. Obviously, we are meant to recall the Roman Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo. But Galileo’s heliocentric theories were first denounced by “Cosimo Boscaglia, who was neither a theologian nor a priest.” (Wiki citation) The Roman Catholic Church, after a mere 359 years, apologized for putting Galileo on trial. Galileo remains a poor example, since it is unclear he ever recanted his recantation, and since he remained a devout Catholic despite the persecution of some church officials.
But, whatever. All we know from the introduction is that we’re dealing with a polemic — if you want a nuanced, scholarly denunciation of Christianity, read the books written by the interview subjects. Because it doesn’t deal in sober facts The God Who Wasn’t There allows true-believers to dismiss it. But so what if Fleming preaches to the converted. At least his preaching is highly entertaining.
From snippets of interviews of Christians with big smiles on their faces talking about Jesus, we transition to the faces of other Christians — many of them deluded serial killers. It’s a low blow, but fits into Flemming’s central thesis that apocalyptic Christianity is the purest and most biblically faithful form of the religion. Fleming is uniquely fit to comment on this, because he’s a former Evangelical.
More on that later. First, in what I consider the strongest sequence in the movie, the story of Jesus is told using public domain footage from old movies “in six minutes or less”. Flemming lays out all the major points of a familiar story in an entertaining manner, essential for his later sequence pointing out the similarities between these story elements and those of other Middle Eastern dieties popular around the BC/AD changeover.
This leads into the biblical equivalent of the 18 1/2-minute gap, the 40 years between the death of Jesus and the writing of the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The only person filling the gap is Paul (nee Saul of Tarsos) who, Flemming contends, doesn’t speak of Jesus as anything more than a mythological figure.
After casting doubt on the existence of Jesus, the doc segues to an explanation of why The Passion of the Christ was a bigger hit than less-bloody versions of the Jesus story. In the purest form of Christianity, the blood sacrifice is the ultimate act. Furthermore, the faction that believes in putting homosexuals to death is just following scripture (Leviticus 22:18) and, furthermore, belief in the coming of Armageddon is a fundamental tenant.
With this in mind, we meet the very sincere Scott Butcher, webmaster of RaptureLetters.com. The disturbing consequences of his endtimes convictions are laid out in clear terms. If you’ve ever wondered why hard-core Zionists have united politically with apocalyptic Evangelicals, look no further than the prophesies concerning the land of Israel. Here is one point where Flemming doesn’t take his case quite far enough: there really is a faction out there that actually wants to hasten strife in the Middle East to fulfill the prophesies of Revelations. When 44% of the electorate thinks Jesus will return in their lifetime, planning for the future of the human race becomes quite confused.
Now, for the final third of the movie, Flemming drops the bomb that he once believed exactly what Scott did. Educated at Village Christian School, he was raised to believe that the only uncleansable sin was to doubt the existence of the Holy Spirit. He lived in constant fear that he was doomed to Hell merely for entertaining in his mind that the Holy Spirit was more or less as dubious as a unicorn.
When he confronts a representative of this past, Superintendent Dr. Ronald Sipus, the results are less than satisfying. Unlike Butcher, Sipus isn’t really allowed to present his case. And as soon as he realizes the interview is an ambush, he walks out. You end up feeling sorry for Sipus, which is certainly not Flemming’s intent.
The movie’s climactic rejection of faith certainly plays to cheap seats. That, plus the notes of defiant atheism that play in the credits are inspiring that an anti-religious political counterweight might, one day, rise up. Atheists will love it.
Although I’ve tried to keep this is an agnostic review, I can’t say that I’ve ever sided with Evangelical Christians. Because I’m sympathetic to Flemming’s arguments, I will say that I wish he made them in greater detail (but kept the same rhetorical force). Even confronting people with some of the simple Biblical paradoxes presented in Why Does God Hate Amputees would have made for interesting theater. If you’re going to take on the world’s largest religion, you’re going to need more than 62 minutes, and more heft than this movie ultimately brings to the table. Still, as a sounding board for discussion and a personal exploration of faith, the documentary succeeds beatifically. Who’d have thunk that what is essentially a one-man operation could mount so passionate a challenge to The Passion. Can you say ‘David v. Goliath’?
A Messiah of Personal Filmmaking
I got the DVD about a month after I ordered it — pretty slow compared to the DVD I ordered from CustomFlix that took three days to arrive (at the cheapest shipping rate). I assume this is because Flemming’s Beyond Belief Media was filling the orders themselves (and had to deal with a large number of orders? and was using print-on-demand?). [UPDATE: They now have DVD distribution from Micromedia.]
To promote the film, Flemming has had regular theatrical screenings, and more importantly, as the L.A. times reports:
To get attention for his movie, he is mimicking [Mel] Gibson, who generated word of mouth for his controversial film about the Crucifixion [The Passion of the Christ] by screening it first for Christian groups.
Flemming is encouraging skeptics [sic] groups and others to show his movie, allowing them to keep any profits once they purchase the DVD.
Flemming also made use of one of the cheapest and best ways to add value to a DVD: commentary tracks. Although the movie itself is only 62 minutes long, the DVD extras give you a whopping 259 minutes of content, much of it excellent and interesting because of the commentary (phone) interviews with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, scholar Earl Doherty and a fellow who bills himself as The Raving Atheist. The commentary tracks and other extras also go a long way towards adding the nuance that the movie proper lacks.
Another clever marketing strategy involves the excellent musical score. DJ Madson’s pulsing tracks keep the movie flowing along at a breakneck pace. And because they remix name artists like David Byrne, it lets Fleming claim “Music by David Byrne, Le Tigre etc.” Slightly misleading, but the music is good enough to make that a venial sin. You can buy the soundtrack, separate or bundled with the DVD, on the website. I’ve seen other indie movies make successful alliances with musicians this way, cross-promoting the music through the movie, then sharing revenue from each. Seeking out other struggling but talented artists is a highly-recommended alternative to dealing with expensive and complicated legal rights to famous songs.
As far as the editing goes, it was very strong. The use of stock footage, especially the ‘life of Jesus in six minutes’ sequence, was particularly effective. Flemming credits the Prelinger Archives for finding him free, public domain images. The back of the box claims “dazzling motion graphics.” The graphics are actually pretty uneven, mostly because many of the images seem to be low-res .jpgs taken from the internet. When these are made larger using Final Cut Pro or After Effects, ugly aliasing and pixelation happens. (Been there, done that.)
The actual filmmaking could use more work. Even if Fleming is running a one-man op, he should’ve taken an extra five minutes before each interview to set up some lights and white-balance the camera. Also, checking for distracting reflections on the glasses of subjects would help too.
The DVD itself has been handsomely printed and packaged. The company that did it would probably like to remain anonymous, but I wish I knew because it looks like they did a good job and I’m curious what they charged.
Overall, this is a very impressive effort, using some of the cutting edge in DV technology and distribution to achieve great results at low cost. In that respect, at least, The God Who Wasn’t There can be appreciated by all denominations.