I had the good fortune this past summer to participate in one of Cornerstone’s hottest new acts. No, it wasn’t Cool Hand Luke, Jacobstone or Detholz; it was actually the annual Flickerings Film Festival. As early as 9 a.m. for the four days of the program, Flickerings’ farmhouse theater would fill up with committed film buffs. It really does take commitment to make it anywhere at Cornerstone that early in the morning. But as the week wore on hotter and hotter outside, so did the film schedule inside, reaching a crescendo with two over-filled screenings of the disruptive hit Bowling For Columbine.
But why, you may ask, would anyone take time out of a busy Cornerstone Festival schedule to watch a bunch of foreign and independent films? I think I may have three reasons:
[THERE ARE SOME GOOD FILMS OUT THERE.]
It has been my experience that the stereotype concerning film festivals is true. They are quite often full of film snobs. But usually for every film snob there are five normal people just standing in line for a good film. The ratio at Flickerings this year was even better than that, though the film lineup was a film snob’s dream. This year the festival ran four different series of films throughout the week, each series bringing a different set of questions for discussion to the table.
The one thing that the video store eavesdropper hears the most often is something like this: “I hate subtitles. The last thing I want to do at the end of a long day is read a movie.” I must confess that at times, having spent hours in the relentless Cornerstone sun, I predicted that maintaining focus in a cool, dark theater would be pretty hard to do. But thanks to the fascinating nature of this year’s schedule, soon in the week I discovered my fears were unfounded.
Films like Haneke’s Code Unknown and Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing lent the “Codes and Consequences” series an air of realist tension that led to rich discussions following each film. The “Dogma For Beginners” track, showcasing the difficult films The King is Alive and julien donkey-boy, closed with the gentle romance of Italian For Beginners. This series aired as a challenge to future Flickerings filmmakers, with these influential Dogma 95 films playing as new standards of “truth-telling” in film. The raucous documentary series hit its stride with Bowling for Columbine and Hell House. Screenings of these films played to packed houses. Surprisingly, so did a screening of a documentary about the French philosopher Derrida—further evidence that the Cornerstone Festival is the most culturally savvy music festival in America.
Last year’s Flickerings program partnered an intense introduction to Iranian cinema with screenings of The Merchants of Cool and Ghost World. After the success of this year’s equally adventurous lineup, one can imagine that being exposed to these new worlds of film will become the highlight of many people’s Cornerstone experience.
[TALKING ABOUT GOOD FILM IS AS IMPORTANT AS WATCHING GOOD FILM.]
There is another thing that sets Flickerings apart from your average film festival. It is fairly trendy to refer to the history of film as “The Great Conversation.” It is probably such a popular metaphor because it fits so well. Not only can we think of films as bits of dialogue in conversation with each other through history and culture, but film itself is a great social lubricant. Good film always leads to great conversation. And at Flickerings these discussions often went on for as long as some of the films themselves. Case in point: the screening of the politically infamous Bowling For Columbine. I admit I have never been a big fan of this film, but, after witnessing its reception at Cornerstone, I was forced to recant my suspicion.
It is strange to walk into a tent at a place like Cornerstone and immediately hear some of the explicit commentary that Michael Moore loves so much blaring over the heads of an enthralled audience. But it was even stranger to see this entire room, sweaty and shoulder-to-shoulder for hours, stick around after the film just to talk about it. And for more than an hour they really talked about it. The political tensions that the film creates are important tensions, yet inevitably divisive ones. And though this session was a bit more heated than the other discussions throughout the week, for many it may have been their first exposure to good film discussion. The one thing that cannot be denied about Michael Moore’s films is that they are guaranteed to force you to rethink your established notions about accepted social norms. This alone makes Bowling For Columbine a good film whether you agree with it or not. Truth be told though, any film that fills a sweaty barn midday at a Christian music festival must be worth watching. It turns out that Flickerings is not just a good place to be introduced to new worlds of film, but to brush up on your skills of intelligent and responsible cultural discussion.
[YOU TOO CAN BE A PART OF FLICKERINGS.]
Believe it or not, there is yet another thing that makes Flickerings a unique experience among the rank and file film festival. In a very real way, Flickerings is made by the people who come to it. Every day at Flickerings begins with hours of short films that had been submitted to the festival directors months in advance. The winners of this year’s contest featured everything from the gun-wielding priest of Shooting Guns in Church to the hyper-comedy of a man explosively experiencing Stranger Things. Most certainly the highlight of the festival, it was not uncommon to have difficulty finding a seat that early in the morning for these screenings.
But beware of several things. If you do ever have the chance to sit in on this contest some year, you will be inspired to make your own film. It is entirely possible. The production quality of most of the shorts ranged from committed amateur DV-cam production to student film studio quality to some relatively expensive and sophisticated professional production. The credits to some of these shorts can even be pretty long—even if, as in the case with one film, every position from director to caterer happened to be the same name.
But those who are tempted to arm themselves with a camera must follow the rules. This year was the introduction of a set of principles named the Flickerings Dogma, a series of rules that set the guidelines for the sort of films Flickerings is looking for. You will not see the predictable rapture films, the teenage abortion films or the junkie getting saved out of the gutter films. All of these are what we have come to expect from the Christian film community, a litany of tired ideas and worn out images. What you will see are realistic human narratives, fraught with reality and showcased with experimental, comedic and intellectual dramas. Needless to say, this is not your average film festival, and this year’s success in beginning to redefine Christian filmmaking will no doubt carry over to next year’s program.
[M. Leary is the film and religion editor for www.thematthewshouseproject.com, a resource manager for the exploration of culture and theology.]
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