Competing Visions

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 9.]

From February 2-9, the Spokane International Film Festival celebrated its twentieth year, holding screenings of documentary and narrative features, as well as shorts blocks from around the world, including a Best of the Northwest program featuring local filmmakers. The festival opened with Benny and Joon, a 1993 film that was set and made in Spokane and which—I’m somewhat ashamed to admit—I had never seen.

I also saw The Fencer, a Golden Globe winner from 2016, about an Estonian man who is trying to avoid the Soviet secret police because they are hunting down all who had been conscripted by the Nazis to fight against the Soviets in World War II. It’s family-friendly and worth watching if you can find it.

My favorite narrative was The Endless, which is sort of a supernatural, psychological thriller involving two brothers who return to a compound where they used to live in shadowy, cult-like community.

But the film I keep thinking about is No Man’s Land (set to premier on PBS on May 7, but available now on Amazon Prime), a documentary about the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, south of Burns, Oregon. First, it’s simply a great documentary. It’s well-filmed, it allows the principals to speak for themselves, and it tells a compelling story. And second, it does what my favorite documentaries always do: it gives me understanding of something of which I was only vaguely aware.

Of course, I had heard of Ammon Bundy, and I knew something was happening in 2016 at an Oregon wildlife refuge where there didn’t seem to be much else going on. But I couldn’t quite understand what it was all about. Anti-government protest? Okay. Ranchers? Right. But why did they choose to do things this way and what did they expect the federal government to do or not do? The striking thing about this film initially is how close it is to the events. This is not a film shot years removed from what it documents, involving interviews of people who were present a long time before. The filmmakers are in and among, embedded right in the middle of everything.

There are also later interviews with others, including the county sheriff, and at least three members of the press. But that is analysis of what we watch unfold in real time on the screen. And what unfolds is a fascinating story with fascinating characters, and enough drama (ratcheted up by some of the players themselves) to keep the story moving.

As you might expect, and as other, recent protests have demonstrated, the overarching concern of a given protest puts out a wide umbrella. So the Bundys at Malheur draw to themselves anti-government activists of every stripe, nearly every one of them armed with rifles and handguns. For the first part of the story, those differences are drawn together by Ammon Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, and others. They seem to concentrate on over-reach of the federal government in claiming land in Oregon, the government not allowing ranchers to use the land as they wish for grazing, and a distaste for federalism in general.

If the viewer watches without already formed conclusions and biases, as I did, the Bundys and many of their concerns seem reasonable and considered. (What the film doesn’t say is that the Bundys are not from Oregon, and that they arrived there to protest the sentences of two ranchers who set fires on what the federal government said was federal land. But the film does show that apparently very few of those occupying the Malheur refuge were actually from Oregon.)

Because this protest (fed by social media) draws so many different people, with different complaints, it becomes harder and harder to hold it together. And, in fact, the lack of direction and the lack of any plan beyond the original protest causes it to fall apart. There do seem to be reasonable people with serious concerns (to me, Jason Patrick—not to be confused with Jason Patric—is one of the most thoughtful and reasonable, to the extent that he tries to calm some of the protesters when their rhetoric starts to incline toward inevitable violence).

But there are also unstable people with guns, the naive and inexperienced, and those simply spoiling for a violent confrontation. There are people motivated by racial concerns (although I wonder if the number of times an anti-Black-Lives-Matter sign is shown matches the percentage of the participants whose motivation is racial). What is clear is that very few of the protesters are concerned about Oregon or Harney County in particular. The location seems to have provided a convenient place to stage the Bundys’ protest against the federal government.

One aspect of the occupation that is shown, but not in its specificity, is the religious aspect. More than once, people at Malheur are shown praying, confident that what they are doing is God’s will. There is also one shot of a copy of The American Patriot’s Bible with a copy of the U.S. Constitution next to it. One is led to assume that the protesters are the “typical” American, “God and Country” Evangelicals. But, in fact, the Bundy brothers, as well as LaVoy Finicum, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that distinctly American religion. Apparently, the Bundys have claimed to have received divine messages directing them to undertake things like the occupation of the refuge. That is, at least for most Christians, a step beyond simply “God’s on our side.”

Not only does it highlight some of the problems with a mystically inclined enthusiasm that claims private messages related to God’s will, it also shows a virtual interchangeability of “God” and “Country.” Further, this goes beyond the idea articulated in the film that the Bundys have a vision for America that is competing with the contrary vision of the residents of Burns—not to mention much of the U.S. citizenry. It is also a vision of the relationship of Church and State that is far distant from many Christians in general, and Lutherans in particular.

Whereas the Bundys and their fellow travelers (of whatever type) are absolutely certain about the rightness of their cause and their actions, Christians who belong to the Kingdom of God first will always be ambivalent about any political cause, process, or government. But what the protesters (or many of them) view as their constitutional stance, contrary to the anti-constitutional actions that they oppose, has become (I don’t think it’s too much to say) their de facto religion. It has ceremony, rituals, order, and martyrs.

While a Christian might, as a citizen of the United States, agree with some of the opinions and interpretations of what this country is supposed to be and be like, that same Christian cannot be whole-heartedly for “the cause.” No one can serve two masters. As concerned as I might be about what looks like an unjustified shooting, about the curtailing of freedom, about the way the federal government (and all government, really) always advances and extends its powers and never recedes in its authority, about the surveillance that seems to grow with technological ability, and about the complete lack of what the Roman Catholics call subsidiarity, none of that will ever lead me to put all my time, money, and energy into defending one or another competing vision of the Constitution, or of liberty, or of the American founders’ conceptions of the limits of the federal government.

That doesn’t mean I won’t exercise my rights as a citizen to promote the vision of the nation that best seems to serve the common good (which, in my case, would mean a governmental power far more limited than what we see today). But it means that, finally, my life is bound to the cross of Jesus and not to the Constitution or to any form of patriotism. There are, indeed, enemies of the American self-understanding—some of which have been and continue to be within this nation itself. (Read, for one example, Whittaker Chambers’ description of them in Witness.) It is right and good to oppose such enemies.

But that can never be an unconditionally certain enterprise, as it is for most of the people in No Man’s Land. As far as Christianity goes, since we are strangers and exiles within whatever land we find ourselves, it is always and everywhere a serious mistake to assume any kind of direct overlap between American and Christian understandings of citizenship. One is temporary and conditional, the other is eternal and absolute. As fascinating as this documentary is in terms of our current political and societal divisions, the division between a Christian’s finite loyalty and his infinite loyalty is the more interesting and the more fundamental.


The Real Us?

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 2.]

The shocking thing about watching Christine (available on Netflix) in 2018 is maybe not that Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on live television in 1974. The shocking thing is that we haven’t seen such a thing, or something like it, in the forty years since. She took the logic of “if it bleeds, it leads” to its extreme conclusion. What surprises me is that the Idiocracy hasn’t descended further and faster than it has. I wonder whether Christine (an excellently monotone Rebecca Hall) does what she does because her mind was clouded or because she was more clear-eyed than everyone else. Is she irrational and, therefore, “crazy”? Or is she mentally ill in a Nietszchean way, seeing what everyone else refuses to see?

While such events are, thankfully, few and far between, we know intuitively that where there is disaster and blood and death, there will be viewers. We condemn such naked grabs for attention, clicks, views, and shares, but I wonder how much of it is faux outrage so that we can be justified in watching. I’m intrigued enough to watch the recent documentary Kate Plays Christine, to see how it deals with the events in a film-making context.

Though the actual footage of Christine’s shooting has not been seen since 1974, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gained a lot of views were it ever to be released publicly. We are drawn to train-wrecks. Once we tire of the fake and false, we go searching for ever more realistic—even real—depictions of depravity. It’s not a coincidence that in nearly every serial killer’s background there is extensive use of escalating, violent pornography.

That’s where the film leads me culturally and philosophically. But I don’t want to let such questions cloud the human tragedy of mental illness and suicide that is the real subject matter of thousands of lives and therefore of this film. This is, in the end, not really a film about media and the news business and its crushing pressure to produce whatever will gain viewers. That theme is present, but mainly as a backdrop for Christine’s slow descent into inescapable despair. The film produces a realism as we watch people unknowingly make decisions that feed Christine’s depression. When all is said and done, the cumulative effect of all of those words and actions comes clear in an instant. I imagine that there was enough guilt to go around the newsroom in the days following that fatal newscast.

If Christine Chubbuck were in the news business today, would she have gotten the mental health assistance that she so clearly (in retrospect) needed? Or would her driven ambition been enough to hide her deep need, as it appears in the film? Her mother calls her outbursts of bitterness and anger her “moods.” If mental illness is simply “moodiness,” who needs professional help? And, of course, there are plenty of people who receive professional help who go on to commit suicide in spite of it.

Maybe that’s what strikes me about the film’s realism: no matter what signs a person exhibits, there will nearly always be a feeling of helplessness associated with serious mental illness. If the individual refuses to seek or accept help; if she knows something is wrong, but doesn’t know how to get help; if he thinks it will get in the way of promotion or professional ambition; how will anyone force a person into being helped? You can see, after the fact, what words or actions helped her along the road, but you can’t see how it could have been any other way.

Christine Chubbuck’s actions (at least, as depicted in Christine) are fed and pushed forward by the particular environment in which she worked, but you are left with the impression that if her suicide didn’t take place at a news desk, it would have happened wherever she had been employed.

At one point, an inebriated George (Michael C. Hall) says to Christine, “People are just so funny. … It’s like we all have these different versions of ourselves competing to be the real us.” And that, I think, suggests that maybe mental illness is more by degree than a black-and-white yes or no. While some of us live with the dissonance created by the different versions of ourselves, others are unable to do so. What we present to other people is—can only be?—one version of ourselves. Even in our closest relationships, we find it impossible to convey everything we think, desire, and hope for. We cannot make known in words the depth of our inner experience. No one can feel exactly what we feel, and vice-versa.

There are a number of effective films about mental illness. (The two that come immediately to mind are Krisha and The Beaver.) Add Christine to the list of realistic and heart-breaking depictions of depression on the screen.