Religion in Film

Mar 3, 2018

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Religion in film is an interesting topic to me that very few people ever talk about. I am a pretty religious Jew myself. I’ve gone up and down on my level of religiosity but I still observe the sabbath or for those who are frum themselves or who have seen The Big Lebowski I’m “Shomer Shabbos.” Essentially what that means in a nutshell is that I don’t work or use electricity from Friday night to Saturday night. That can be really tricky if you want to make independent movies because a lot of the time weekends seem like the only option to make stuff, but so far I’ve been able to work around it without much of a fuss.

So as a religious Jew what do I think about religion in film? I think it’s generally washed over and not discussed without much respect or subtlety at all. Anyone who has gone up and done in their level of religious observance knows that there is a huge inner-struggle that goes on with many different forces pulling you in different directions. But that’s rarely, if ever, seen on film.

Hollywood is by and large a group of left-wing atheists

That sub-title sounds a lot more angry and generalizing than I actually am, but I do believe the default position for people in Hollywood is left-wing atheist. There are a bunch of people who are culturally religious. There are tons of people who celebrate Christmas and Channukah but they’re not religious Christians or Jews by any stretch.

I’m totally fine with people practicing or not practicing any form of religion they want (as long as it’s non-violent and doesn’t intrude on other people’s religion) but a big reason why we don’t see more religion in film is because the people making movies in general have a distaste for anything related to God.

Religious films are often looked down upon because they’re too preachy

That being said, there is a huge religious population in America who are ready willing and able to pay for movie tickets and as a result the audience has created a niche market of religious films. These films are often looked down upon because their message tends to be a little heavy handed and they come off as preachy. I think the reason religious films come off as being preachy is because they are – the producers are trying to give the audience what they think they want which is a message that is inline with their religious views.

I think the reason religious films come off as being preachy is because they are

If you’re a producer and you’re strictly looking at a religious film as a product to take to the market you are going to think about it in terms of sales instead of story. That happens all the time. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in with producers where they tell me that all they care about is the logline and who’s in the film. The reason these producers make religious films – which are all Christian of course – is very simple….

Religious films make money

Because America is filled with so many good-hearted Christian people who want a wholesome film they can see with their kids, films with Christian messaging and a family-friendly rating have a somewhat predictable business model. As long as you don’t spend too much money making these movies you can actually make a very nice profit.

The producers who miss the boat on this business model always make one of a few mistakes. They either spend way too much on production (usually by hiring marquee name actors who demand a high salary), they make the film a little too edgy with an R rating that goes against the demo’s core belief system, or the writing/directing/performances are HORRIBLE and even the Christian audience rejects the film for its lack of technical execution.

I really wish more of the inner-struggle was on film

I know that I have personally had fights between my body and soul about what’s right and wrong and how the right thing to do is so hard. That struggle to choose good over evil or right over wrong is something with which many people can relate. But, unfortunately, it’s usually portrayed in a melodramatic way or just glossed over. I don’t need to see someone choosing between heroine and going to church every time. What about someone choosing between going to church or going to the game? That’s enough of a struggle for most of us. Those little struggles aren’t seen often.

I do remember one scene though that was done quite beautifully though that really made me smile. It was in Happyness. Will smith’s character is really struggling to provide basic food and shelter for his son and at one point close to when he hits rock bottom they go to a church service with other people stricken with poverty and he has a moment where he clearly is just thanking God for being alive. He does it all with his eyes, there’s no heavy dialogue and there’s no other reason for the scene to exist other than to show the character has a bit of hope left and a bit of gratitude to the almighty. It was, for me at least, a pretty powerful scene.

It would be nice to see more religion as just one aspect of a character

It would be nice to see more characters have religion play a small part in their life. The scene in Happyness is a great example of that. He’s not a preacher, his family isn’t a herd of bible thumpers or anything crazy that would label the film as a Christian film – it’s just one aspect to a person who has many interests and ambitions.

Everytime there’s a movie about Judaism I typically try to give it a watch. Most recently I saw Menashe with my mother thinking she would like to see a movie in Yiddish since she spoke it growing up. Unfortunately, the Yiddish they speak in the Chassidic world is vastly different than the street Yiddish of 1930’s Poland and Germany (which is what my mother spoke) so the nostalgia factor wasn’t quite there for my mom.

Also, it really bums me out that everytime a Chassid is on film the main purpose of the movie seems to be to show how horrible the insular world of chassidim can be. I’m not a Chassid myself but as a religious Jew I think it’s sad that the only aspects of Jewish life that seem to make it to the big screen are horrific criticisms of people who live religious Jewish lives. You never see movies about religious Jews who help the community, volunteer at schools and soup kitches, raise a beautiful family but maybe struggle financially or have an estranged brother or something.

I get that the audience for a movie like that is tiny but still – it would be nice to show that aspect of the world in addition to the uglier sides.

Here’s a pitch for a TV show

It would be called Chassids. It would revolve around a group of Chassidic New Yorkers who are in the diamond business. They’re loaded with cash, have a mafia-like structure to their world and for the most part are as corrupt as the most violent criminals you could imagine – but there’s one guy, our lead character, who is a Chassid trying to live an honest, religious life.

It could be an HBO show like Big Love about a world that most people don’t know about. Lots of great set pieces and art direction. Fantastic acting and even great prosthetics and costumes and it would show the sexy, naughty side of religious hypocrisy that everyone already assumes as well as those who are trying to lead a pious life. You can do both and still make it good – in fact I think it makes it better…and it would be a show I would love to write and/or watch.

1 Comment

  1. Jeremiah Jahi

    Hello Jon…I just read your article on religion and film. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I am a devout Christ follower and grew up keeping the Sabbath day as you stated. I still believe in it, but admit to being shaky on keeping it. No doubt all you said was so true. Definitely difficult navigating this business being more than a cultural religious believer. Anyway…nice read.


    Jeremiah Jahi


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