LDS Film Festival 2012: Overview & Day 1

LDS Film FestivalNotes from Day 1 of the 2012 LDS Film Festival:

Looking through the final schedule, this year’s LDS Film Festival has the usual variety of feature films, short films, and documentaries, but new this year are some “musical interludes” before screenings featuring local musical artists.  Undoubtedly a decision made to broaden the scope of the festival and support local LDS musicians, who face many of the same difficulties supporting themselves and finding audiences as LDS filmmakers do.

For an “LDS” film festival, though, there seems to be a minimal amount of LDS content and themes among the feature films screening this year.  Other than the documentary Two Brothers (chronicling the  lives of two LDS siblings), and a screening of the 1931 film Corianton (based on stories from the Book of Mormon) there doesn’t seem to be any direct LDS character studies or topics.  (The closest might be The Last Eagle Scout, depending on how it ends up approaching the LDS / Scouting connection.)

Obviously, making conclusions about content based on two paragraph blurbs from the schedule handout is not a precise method (and direct LDS content can be found in many of the short films, which aren’t on my schedule this year).  If impressions are correct, though, this wave of films by LDS filmmakers feature more generally applicable religious stories and principles rather than LDS-specific movies (such as films based on the Joseph Smith story, or LDS missionaries shown in previous years).

An interesting trend (if it is one) — not necessarily good or bad.   Since I just wrote how LDS film can be insular at times, I think it is a good step for LDS filmmakers to look for more generally-relatable material with positive religious principles and themes to broaden the audience.  However, I think it would be sad if LDS filmmakers end up abandoning all specific LDS material en masse and the “LDS” Film Festival becomes just a “Utah” Film Festival for local artists with no LDS connection other than where the filmmakers happen to go for Sunday services.

On to Wednesday’s feature film:

Redemption

Written / Directed by Tom Russell

Based on a true story, Redemption (also known as “For Robbing The Dead”) is set in 1860′s Utah, although (as above) there are no obvious LDS characters or content and religion plays only a small role.

Henry Heath is a lawman who has settled in an unnamed small town with his wife and young daughter.  After their daughter passes away due to illness, the town discovers a local immigrant worker named Jean Baptiste has been digging up graves from the local cemetery and stealing their clothes.  Branded on his forehead and exiled to a remote island (Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, where the movie was filmed) Baptiste lives a lonely, meager existence, leaving behind his mentally-ill wife and a host of people who wish he was dead (and who may do more than ‘wish’).  Heath respects the law and volunteers to bring Baptiste provisions, but soon finds himself the target of community prejudice as well, for seemingly “forgiving” someone who is unforgivable.  How far should he go to help and protect someone who may not deserve it?

Redemption is a solid and moving film with a resonant theme, amply supported by some strong performances.   As a writer, Russell plays the two main characters correctly:  neither the “hero” or the “villain” are portrayed in black-and-white manner, and the ‘grayness’ of humanity, in fact, becomes the thrust of the story.  Heath is a decent guy who does what is right, but he’s been involved in violent encounters where the “right” and “wrong” may be in question.  Maybe he needs forgiveness and mercy as well?

Jean Baptiste isn’t portrayed as overly remorseful nor villainously callous — rather he’s strangely aloof, without ever directly admitting he’s sorry for his actions, but without demonstrating a malicious motive for doing so, either.   Maintaining that balance means that Heath doesn’t have his decision about how to treat Baptiste made for him.  Jean is neither a saint nor a monster — just a strange man who has done some bad things.  The film emphasizes that criminals like Jean are still human beings, and without necessarily “forgiving” him for his transgressions, Heath has to consider how Baptiste should be treated to respect the demands of justice but without violating his humanity.

The use of grave robbing as Baptiste’s “sin” is interesting (even beyond the true story element of the movie).  Jean Baptiste isn’t a murderer or child molester, after all — is robbing dead bodies an “unforgivable” sin as community members state in the film?    A modern comparison may be those who burn the US flag today — something many consider to be hugely offensive and unforgivable from a primal, emotional perspective, but not necessarily from a logical perspective (compared to other crimes).  Why do we bury dead bodies with expensive clothes anyway, when even to religious believers those items are useless?   Jean Baptiste’s motive doesn’t appear to be financial in nature (since he doesn’t sell any of the stolen items).   Perhaps it’s just his warped sense of practicality that said, “THEY won’t need those things, I should use them…”    Russell correctly doesn’t slant the movie to argue grave robbing should or should not be considered a serious moral crime; he merely portrays Baptiste’s actions and the community’s response and uses them as the catalyst for the true theme of the film:  how do we correctly apply the laws of justice and mercy?  How do we show compassion and charity, even to those who do things we consider sinful and offensive?

Redemption is not perfect.   Whether due to theater audio issues or a strong accent or both, a fair amount of Jean Baptiste’s dialogue was unintelligible for me; an obstacle when Baptiste’s dialogue forms a core part of the film’s message.   Russell also uses some strange camera angles and haphazard editing that disrupt the flow of the film.  Many scenes seem to start or end a second or two too quickly, while others linger two seconds too long without any reason behind it.   The story and performances are strong, but to me the directorial and editing style detracted from the film rather than added.  Tom Russell the writer appears to be a few steps ahead of Tom Russell the director, even though it is clear he has the tools and the vision in both areas to become a premier filmmaker in time.

(Even then, the writing still has issues:  the film starts with a ten minute subplot with five additional characters whose purpose is merely to setup Jean Baptiste getting caught robbing graves.  Afterwards, none of those characters are seen or mentioned again.  I’d have to believe any screenwriting professor would have looked at that sequence and said, “Simplify!”, finding a less convoluted way to set up the main story.)

There are enough “adult” elements in the film not to recommend for children (the film will probably be PG-13, but without anything mature LDS audiences will find offensive).   Flaws aside, Redemption is a solid, thought-provoking film that has a positive message about charity and compassion for everyone.  I look forward to what Tom Russell produces in the future.

[Redemption is scheduled to release theatrically in spring 2012]

My Grade:  B

  • girl friday

    Overall, your review hit the point, but I’m not sure you grasped the overall significance of the film relative to the other films you have reviewed on this site.

    I loved this film, and am a big fan of Tom Russell’s. His past works [mental 2000, mr, dungbeetle 2005, Diantha’s Crossing 2007, shorts and executive producer credits too numerous to mention] are at once moving and important. This film is no exception.

    The original [and best] title of this film is For Robbing The Dead – which speaks to both the obvious subject matter, as well as the theme. Personally, I feel that softening it for LDS audiences was a huge mistake, as it gives non-LDS audiences the false impression that this is just another Mormon movie. It certainly is not.

    It’s difficult to evaluate a script when you haven’t read it. If it’s like every other film, there is much left on the cutting room floor after editors and distributors have their way with it. I would imagine a 2:30 film is far harder to promote than a 1:45. So maybe there was a flaw in the length of the original screenplay, but I don’t know that and neither does the reviewer since neither of us have ever read it.

    For the record, he is a brilliant writer [and, incidentally, a screenwriting professor] with an extensive resume. I do have a problem when critics evaluate elements that they have not mastered. Content and significance are fair game for non-practitioners, but criticizing specific skills is armchair quarterbacking. I specifically like the editing for the very reasons you criticize it, and there isn’t one haphazard angle in the entire film. In fact, a DP as capable as this one may bristle at the suggestion that he randomly selected a given perspective. You’re right, the sound was horrible, but I think we can thank the Scera for that.

    I was at the screening, and I heard the Q&A. Nowhere in this review does it mention the significant detail that this is essentially a student film. i believe they said over 100 students filled all the major positions. How amazing and wonderful is that?

    I think there may be many “critics” who are missing the big picture. There are some filmmakers that are interested in redefining so-called LDS films as having universally relevant messages [Unicorn City, Napolean Dynamite, Nacho Libre, mr. dungbeetle, For Robbing The Dead (Redemption)], Those who are interested in creating films that allow the viewer to leave feeling better, or more tender, or more kindly inclined toward others – and not just their neighbors or those they find easy to love, but those marginalized, outcast, strange, even dastardly folks that we encounter and ignore every day. Russell, Hess and the Lefler brothers seem to be less interested in trotting out their Mormonism, and more interested in promoting and prospering Christ’s Great Commandment.

    There is a place at the table for “traditional” LDS cinema, but I [for one] am FAR more interested in what BYU professor Dean Duncan calls “charitable cinema”. This film, and many other “less-traditional” offerings at the festival this year, are shining examples of this idea.

    Kudos to Vuissa and his crew for giving us cinema that will open our minds and incline our hearts to greater love.

    I look forward to seeing “Redemption” in theaters.

  • Kevin Burtt

    Oh, I liked the film — don’t get me wrong. But I wrote in my notes several times about strange angles and choppy editing that was enough to distract me from what was actually happening on the screen. (Your mileage may vary.) That is interesting that it was a student project (given the actors are all professionals). I didn’t have time to stay for the discussion afterwards.

    I have studied screenwriting, so I’m not a total “armchair quarterback” when it comes to writing and general screenplay principles. Ten minutes and five new characters is a long way to get from A to B to C to D to E, where E is Jean Baptiste getting caught and kicking off the main plot. One of the top principles in writing is ‘don’t take ten pages to do what you can do in two”. The key characters are Heath, Jean, and their wives — all the other characters in the beginning are superfluous. Although, you’re right — without seeing the original script it is hard to say how it differs from the final product.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments. As mentioned, I haven’t seen Tom Russell’s other work, but I look forward to whatever he does next.

  • girl friday

    Don’t get me wrong, I liked your review. And I agreed with much of it. I do find it interesting that filmmakers rarely get to respond to their critics; apparently film critics get to respond to theirs. But, seeing as you have responded, I hope you’ll allow me a brief, final word.

    No doubt it becomes difficult to write reviews on a website such as this. Since many of the films are institutional expressions, thinly veiled as art, they don’t hold up very well to in-depth critical analysis. So we’re left with reviewing — restating the plot and trying to identify elements that were perceived as well-executed or poorly executed. This doesn’t help us much when we encounter Leonora Carrington (no, I don’t think Redemption is art on that level. It’s good and significant, but Carrington is Carrington).

    What does a reviewer do when proportions are out of whack and heads are where torsos ought to be? Strictly formalist reviewers are left applying some standard school of thought to determine whether it’s “good” or “bad;” Well-executed or poorly executed. They don’t ask why variations might occur — they just note them and assume they’re haphazard. I’m not a screenwriter either; but I would imagine that taking a screenwriting class is a bit different than writing a screenplay. Especially one that somebody actually options for production. (I’ve had a couple of anatomy classes, but nobody asks me to do surgery.) More pressing may be the idea that we’re referencing some sort of fictional screenwriting rule based on…what? A screenwriting book?

    Bold filmmakers (not the blockbuster guys) consistently challenge their audiences. So rather than telling a film what it ought to be, we view the film as it is and draw conclusions. Rather than making notes when an edit or a camera angle surprises us, perhaps we should ask why such a choice was made. And how will we know until we’ve seen the theme emerge? Could a conflict-based story intentionally employ the unexpected or even the unappealing? Could a story focusing on the marginalization of people present marginalized characters in less traditional ways? Might it even bring them to the center of attention for a few moments? Of course. And it’s up to careful critics to ask these harder questions. Simply saying something takes us out of the story may mean very little. Maybe the creators of the material intended to do just that.

    Where does The Tree of Life go in its first ten pages? Yet there it is — nominated for an Oscar (for what that’s worth). Syd Field aside, formula-based writing and directing may be easier to comprehend — but it rarely produces significant cinema. I saw the other feature films as well. Good for all of them. I’m a convert so I wasn’t born and raised in the “culture”, but it seems all the films at this festival seemed to resonate with their audiences at some level. But I do feel that giving Redemption the same grade as The Letter Writer simply ignores the larger issues.

    The Letter Writer was sweet and lovely and sentimental and a bit predictable. Since it appears to have been created in partnership with BYU-TV, it makes perfect sense – that’s their narrative staple. But when we’re confronted with a film that is not predictable — down to the narrative and the edits themselves, should we complain that they jarred our sensibilities and expectations? People must see a film like Redemption, but you’ve left them with the impression that their time would be just as well spent watching an institutionally based melodrama. So perhaps your grading system gets a D? Having expressed my rather grumpy point of view, some of your insights are strong and perceptive. But what universal screenwriting rule are you referencing?

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to reference the library of Western film rather than a blanket rule from a screenwriting book about introducing characters? I’m fairly certain getting from A to E in ten minutes is no easy task. Westerns almost always introduce peripheral characters. We may never see them again after that. Have we seen The Searchers, The Tall T, Bend of the River, The Magnificent Seven, The Unforgiven, How the West Was Won, One-Eyed Jacks, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Professionals, Once Upon a Time in the West, Will Penny, True Grit, The Man From Laramie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and on and on and on? Westerns do this all the time. You fail to mention that of these five characters, one is killed, two are arrested, and one is beaten badly. The other brings the initial accusation. Should we have followed them to their jail cells and their hospital beds? Should the dead character have revived at some point and remained in the film? In Westerns, we don’t always follow the stories of people wounded in bar fights, shot and killed, or jailed. This one, for thematic reasons, presents peripheral characters with more significance than we generally see — even in other westerns that are unafraid of the broader community setting. They often function as types, not central characters. We may see them again, we may not.

    A genre-based evaluation might have been more responsible and fruitful than the evaluative portion of your review. This film was a cut above the other material we saw at the festival — and I think you know that too. Clearly, it was the most grown-up fiction material we’ve seen in the LDS community for quite some time. But I believe that your grading system and your often helpful insights fail to capture that. Anyone reading it would be left with the understandable conclusion that Redemption is like 17 Miracles or The Letter Writer. Those are good films, but they’re not like this one. There’s space for all of them, but we need to figure out a better way of helping people identify New York Doll moments within the LDS filmmaking community. For me, this is one of those moments.

    Flawed? Of course. Most films are. But we trust thoughtful, intelligent folks like you to signal when something significant has happened — something that may encourage the inclusion of non-institutional expressions from LDS filmmakers. It’s possible to value flawed films for something bigger. We can give an A to the Budd Boetticher and Henry King westerns even if they’re less elegant than the John Ford westerns. The Gunfighter isn’t Unforgiven — and that’s alright. They both get A’s. Sadly, you give the reader very little reason to approach this film any differently than they would approach the abundance of cinematic religious merchandising we’ve seen thus far from many LDS filmmakers. I believe this is a more significant film, commercially successful or not, than your review implies.

    Thanks for your response to my response. I believe you’re a reviewer capable of addressing these larger issues, and I hope to read future reviews that do just that.

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