AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | November 28, 2010
Producer-director Storme Wood’s Paradise Recovered intelligently discusses faith and religious tolerance (and intolerance) — as well as critically analyzes abusive and prohibitive religious sects — all without a tinge of condescension or judgment. Rather than criticizing religion and spirituality (or lack there of), Paradise Recovered walks the fine line of only taking extreme religious sects to task. More than anything else, Paradise Recovered turns out to prove that religious and spiritual people can peacefully co-exist with atheists, agnostics and everyone else as long as there is an open and intelligent discourse. In other words, listening and understanding is significantly more important than attempting to convert others to your beliefs.
I sat down with Wood during the 2010 Austin Film Festival for a discussion about Christianity, religious cults, personal freedom and the need for everyone to turn down the outrage.
DS: What attracted you to Andie Redwine’s script?
SW: I tell Andie that when I read her script it seemed like it was tailor-made as the movie I always wanted to try to make. The story seemed small and intimate and could be done in a realistic way; and the fact that it is trying to be honest about the subject matter. Religion is a big deal in the United States; Christianity is a big deal in the United States; so are the people who think that Christians are crazy. It is a well-told story and raises questions; but in the end it is about dialogue and that we are not all that far apart if we are willing to listen to and talk to — not yell at — each other.
DS: Did Redwine remain involved throughout the production?
SW: She was heavily involved in the production. We had a very small crew so everyone had to pitch in. As much as possible she was on set with me. I liked to have her at the monitor because she was a great sounding board for whether or not we were getting it right. She has a lot of experience with that sub-culture of religious groups and the people that have been through that. I don’t have that experience. I have experience with Christianity but not with those small churches. Andie helped a lot. We would talk about the characters and what they would or wouldn’t do.
DS: Where do you fall on the spiritual/religious spectrum? Is there a character in Paradise Recovered that you relate to more so than others?
SW: I told someone at [the 2010 Heartland Film Festival] when they asked a similar question that I identify myself as a Christan; but I am not Esther and I am not Gabriel, I am somewhere in the middle. I fall more towards Gabriel but I do have a faith that I do believe in God. I see a lot of grey in the world, I have a lot of doubts. I feel like if you are honest with yourself, there are things you cannot know. The film is about faith. But often the films that are identified as “Christian films” are really dishonest — they feel really fake and not true to life at all. I don’t want to call any movies out, but there are some really bad ones. Everything good happens for the good guy; there is a lot of ambiguity, it is just not real life at all.
DS: Have you been receiving any feedback from audiences about Paradise Recovered?
SW: Resoundingly both [Christians and non-Christians] have responded positively to the film. There have been very few people who have been negative so far. People say critical things — we certainly did not make the perfect film. I was told that somebody walked out at Heartland who was offended. I have talked with some very conservative Christians who think it is a good film — people who do some of the things that Esther’s group does in the film, like homeschooling. Andie and I are not against homeschooling, but some people that are homeschooling…
DS: Some people use homeschooling as a means of repression, to control what information their kids are exposed to.
SW: Yes. So their kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with other kids. Essentially, that is what a cult does — it is called milieu control. They are trying to control the world in which these people live and what information is getting in or out. You can’t keep the kids from reality forever, so you might as well just be honest. I mean there are things that are not appropriate to tell my kids, but when they ask questions I do try to be as honest as possible about how the world is and what some people think.
DS: One aspect of the film that I thought some Christians might object to is that Gabriel — who is, for all intents and purposes, an atheist — is the hero.
SW: Often atheists are portrayed as villains by anyone of the Christian faith. They are the bad guy — the Godless atheist. Gabriel never makes that transition to being saved, becoming a Christian, as he would in most faith-based films. If you look at Paradise Recovered from a Christian perspective, the most Christ-like person is Gabriel. I have a lot of friends who are atheists and they are very kind and good people. They do the right thing most of the time — none of us do the right thing all of the time. Sometimes people who claim that they are Christian don’t act anything like Jesus. I don’t know what book they are reading, but it isn’t the one that they say is the most important one. They are lazy and let other people say what they are supposed to believe — and people with more political motives are using them to get what they want by telling them that it is the Christian thing to do or believe. There is the whole marketing aspect to whenever you market something to a specific audience, for example: Christian books, Christian movies, Christian music…A movie can’t be Christian because it is not a person. A movie is just a thing, it can only be a movie, it cannot have feelings of faith. I have some trouble with all that stuff. With this film I’m striving as hard as I can to say something that is truthful and honest. I am trying not to force my personal point of view, you know?
DS: Where do you see Esther and Gabriel in the future?
SW: I don’t necessarily see them staying together forever as a couple. I think what they have done for each other — he has softened, he started talking with his father again; he thought Esther was crazy, but then he falls in love with her — they have helped each other come to a new start in their journey. She might marry someone else, but she will hopefully have a healthier perspective on things. I think Esther will always appreciate what Gabriel did for her. I think they will still be friends, but they probably won’t live happily ever after.
DS: On a much higher level…do you have hope that the various religions of the world will ever learn to peacefully coexist with each other?
SW: I definitely do. I hope people will become more willing to listen and care about each other — having conversations and respecting each other — and not to assume the worst about other people. We seem to be encouraged to get angry with others about things, but it feels kind of manufactured politically to get us to vote for a particular side. Andie likes to say that she wishes that we would all just turn down the outrage. That’s what I hope as well.
DS: What role should religious faith play in our society?
SW: This is all going to become about my beliefs…but I think it is about each person. I do think that if you were to follow the teachings of Jesus, that would help. This is not a thing that can be legislated or dictated or enforced. Arguing does not help people. All you can do is live a certain way. It is not about getting other people to believe what you believe, it is about relationships. If we were all willing to relate with each other, that would have a positive impact on society.
DS: The “teachings of Jesus” might turn some people away, when in fact their own spiritual doctrine may share many of the same beliefs.
SW: It doesn’t matter what religion you are, you can still relate to his teachings. For me, that’s what works and enables me to make better decisions and consider how others feel and love them as best as I can — which does not include a megaphone and a sign that reads “God hates fags.” That’s not helpful.
DS: Should religious cults be permitted to exist? Is there a way to protect people from these cults?
SW: I am finding out that there is a lot more of this going on that I thought there was. Since we made this film, people have been coming up to us and telling their stories. For example, a director here at [the 2010 Austin Film Festival] told us how he had to burn all of his Star Wars action figures and get rid of his stuffed animals because they were false idols. Another guy was telling us about his friend’s wife who had been forced to marry a guy when she was 13-years old and had three kids with him. People in the faith community give a lot of these churches a pass — thinking “that’s just how they do it.” We have freedom of religion so people can choose to do or believe whatever they want. We don’t understand how people get drawn into some of these groups and it becomes abusive and dangerous and hard for them to escape. Some of it is really horrific stuff, but some of it is not really as obvious. If we were to become more aware of the issues, maybe we could reach out and help the people who want to get out of these groups. We are not going to fight and liberate these people physically, but maybe we can be more aware of what is going on and try to help when and how we can. When people get out of these groups they are scared, they feel isolated and alone, but there are a lot of people who have been through very similar experiences. It would be nice to be able to connect some of those dots for them so they know that they are not alone.
DS: What identifies a religious group as a cult?
SW: Dr. Lifton identifies eight criteria: Milieu Control, Mystical Manipulation, Loading the Language, Doctrine Over Person, The Sacred Science, The Cult of Confession, The Demand for Purity, and The Dispensing of Existence. (Steve Hassan’s freedomofmind.com is a good resource for more information.) Experts apply these eight criteria to determine if a religious group is a cult. We conducted some interviews [that will be included on the DVD release of Paradise Recovered] at the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center which talk about this in greater detail. One thing they noticed is how Andie worked Lifton’s eight criteria into the script. I was all about the story being compelling and entertaining and Andie had woven the eight criteria into the story so that if you know what you are looking for, you can find them.
DS: What is one message that you want to convey with Paradise Recovered?
SW: In many ways, it’s about personal freedom. It’s about the freedom to make up one’s own mind. People should have the freedom to learn and be given the tools to make their own choices. Nobody should have their freedom taken away by someone else who wants to tell them what to think. It is about empowering people to be free. There are all kinds of things that can take away our freedom — addictions, cults, and even some mainstream churches. I mean this in terms of personal freedoms — not in a “Go Team America!” kind of way — to think, to love, to experience life and experience each other. One of my ultimate hopes for the film is that it will get people thinking and talking about the issues it raises; that we might move toward a dialogue that would bring people together instead of a fight that tears people down (apart).
LA Talk Radio’s Film Courage with David Branin and Karen Worden will present the 13th Film Courage Interactive at The Downtown Independent featuring the Los Angeles premiere screening of Paradise Recovered on November 29th at 7:00pm. For more information on Paradise Recovered go to: www.paradiserecovered.com