Released: 1st January
Seen: 22nd April
I’ve made it no secret on this blog that I have something of a problem with Christian Films. Not because of the Christian element, I firmly believe that every single community deserves to see themselves on screen, but because lately they’ve been kind of… oh, what’s the term? God-Awful wastes of the time I have left, that’s it. In general, I look for them to show some form of quality filmmaking and instead I tend to find a lot of the films are little more than sermons that wrap themselves up in the blanket defence of faith. What I’ve been wanting for some time now is for someone to show me why I should give this growing subgenre any semblance of respect… enter Tyler Smith’s documentary/video essay Reel Redemption to make such an argument.
Reel Redemption charts the history of the religious film, starting from the early days of cinema with epics such as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur and going to present-day religious fare like God’s Not Dead and Unplanned. As it charts this course and shows how the genre has changed, it touches on the censorship of the McCarthy era and the rise of the independent film in the 60s. For the bulk of the film, we get to see how the genre went from being the surefire moneymaker of Hollywood to a lightning rod for controversy and through to the modern-day sermon-as-cinema films we get now. Along the way it makes a case for each change in the genre and, while sometimes it might be unable to convince a cynical bastard like me, it makes the case for the benefits of this genre as an art form.
Something I have always disliked about religious films, especially the modern ones, is that the genre itself seems unwilling to be objective about what it actually is. The big thing that leaps out about Reel Redemption that makes it fascinating to me is its ability and willingness to admit that a large amount of the films it’s talking about haven’t been great. Indeed there were a few moments near the end when even I, a person who has said I would rather be tortured to death than watch a certain film, was stunned how blunt they were willing to be. It gives the film a more objective feeling than I expected, especially considering this film was produced by Faithlife TV which is basically Christian Netflix. I’m impressed as hell that they were willing to actually have some serious self-critique and didn’t pretend the genre was without flaw.
The film takes a similar form to films like Romantic Comedy of That’s Not Funny, where a voiceover will read from a lengthy essay while assorted relevant clips play to create the visuals. These are basically feature-length versions of the video essays that have grown very popular on YouTube (such as my recent favourite, Lindsay Ellis’ Cats essay, which I highly recommend BTW) but the thing is that when they’re feature-length they need to really spread their scope to justify not just being a video someone made in their bedroom using a discount Snowball microphone and the trial version of Adobe Premiere. The scope of this film is definitely wise enough to justify itself as a full-length film outside of YouTube and the arguments it makes are genuinely well made.
Where it kind of falters is in the editing. Sure, this film might be trying to achieve feature-length but there are moments when they will use way more of a clip than is needed, such as playing the entire Left Below trailer from the Simpsons episode Thank God, It’s Doomsday. This happens on multiple occasions where we’ll just watch a full 2-minute clip when the same point could’ve been made with maybe 10 seconds and the pace would’ve been able to keep going. It’d be like if in the middle of this very paragraph I was to reference a famous movie quote but instead of just typing the quote, I typed out the entire scene around the part I needed to make my argument. It causes the viewer to tune out just a little, on top of just not being a great way to make your argument.
In general, Reel Redemption is a great way to understand what this genre means to people and why it’s become such a force in the industry. It doesn’t really sugarcoat the problems with the genre, actively pointing out when films are bad or misguided or even just sermons in film form but also pointing out the value of those kinds of films. I may not fully agree with it, but it’s the best presentation of that argument that I have seen in a very long time and I appreciate it for that.