The Faith and Film Festival short film competition: a reflection

Editor’s note:  This year, sadly, with all of the ambiguities that we continue to experience in the course of this pandemic, we had to cancel our Faith and Film festival. It was especially unfortunate this year since we also had our first ever short-film contest. The theme of the contest was “hope.”  And so, because hope is particularly in short supply these days…because, crucially, the Christian life is animated by the hope of the Gospel … and as a kind of down payment on our hope that we will gather again next year for Faith and Film, we will post some of the finalist short films here in the next several posts. 

The relationship between what inspires hope among people outside the church and that which supports the identity and life of those who belong to the church is an interesting one which urgently begs deeper reflection and conversation. It is this kind of conversation and engagement that stands behind the purpose of the Faith and Film festival. Film is a powerful and popular cultural medium that shapes our society in both personal and public ways.  Sometimes this medium reinforces or deepens themes that Christians value. Other times it challenges or undermines the Christian view of the world. Engagement, anlaysis, critique and theological reflection –these are the activities that we will miss this year but, hopefully next year we will take them up again the Faith and Film, 2023!

We are thankful that Rev. Dale Ward coordinated our short-film contest this year and asked him to give his reflections on this process, presented below. Dale Ward began making short films in middle school and continues his passion for movie making. He was the producer and executive producer for the Emmy-winning national talk show “On Main Street,” produced for Lutheran Hour Ministries. Currently he is the senior media producer at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in video/film at Webster University in St. Louis. His other films include “Ragman,” “Walther,” “500: The Impact of the Reformation Today,” “There’s Something in the Basement” and “The 2 Sons and Their Crogzookles.” His work has earned him five regional Emmy awards.

 

Fade in …

We began planning for the 2022 Faith and Film Festival as soon as the final credits ran at the end of the virtual event in January 2021. Wouldn’t a short film competition be great for giving voice to amateur filmmakers around the world? In these continuing days of COVID-19, the festival planning committee members thought a theme of hope would be a beacon of light in this world that seemed so dark and troubled. Could this short film competition serve as an avenue for artists to reflect positively on the world around us and let us experience their uplifting outlook?

And so it began. We wondered if we would get many submissions. Ten or twenty? Wouldn’t it be great if we got 100?

Act One …

The floodgates opened. The opening submission day for Concordia Seminary’s first-ever short film competition was June 30, 2021, and we received 22 films. By the end of the first week, we had reached 100. One month went by and we had received almost 400 films. All told, more than 28 hours of nonstop running time.

As the short film competition coordinator, I had told the panel of nine judges that as a new contest, submissions would be low. But, in the hopes of encouraging submissions, we made our contest free. After watching the first dozen or so, it was clear that many filmmakers sent their work to every free festival even if their film was not the right fit. This became painfully obvious as I realized that these films were anything but hopeful. Most of them were downright hopeless — depression, suicide, murder, kidnapping, trafficking, despair, doom, and destruction. This became my world as I watched film after film. I was nearing the 100th film when I came across a quirky little film that was well-made, visually driven, and made me feel good. It was the first hopeful movie I had encountered of the dozens of submissions I had viewed. The film, absurd man, is about gifts from above showering down upon a lonely man on a deserted highway and how he reacts to these gifts. I placed the film in my “yes” pile.

After the second month, we had more than 500 films with six weeks still to go until the contest deadline. We decided that I would watch each film and only send my “yes” pile to the other judges. There were simply too many films coming in. My “yes” pile grew, and it was refreshing to see quality films of every type: music videos, documentaries, narratives, experimental, even dance-driven films, and to my surprise, many high-quality animations that would rival Disney and Pixar for production value. Each film was rated on originality/creativity, direction, writing, cinematography, performances, production value, sound/music, and of course, the expression of hope.

Act Two …

In our contest with a theme of hope, about 80 percent of the films were dark and desperate, 10 percent neutral and only 10 percent hopeful. Why so much despair? Of course, every film got a fair shot. I watched all the films. I had to. Otherwise, how would we know if the film was moving toward hope or despair? Some films didn’t reveal this until the final scene. Would it fade out at the end of a rope or end with a lifeline?

I struggled to keep up as the films rolled in. With about 700 films submitted, I noticed I was moving through the days feeling low. I was in a bit of a funk. My wife said, “Of course you are. You’re spending all your time in the middle of despair.” It was like watching Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List over and over for three months straight. I needed films with hope.

Act Three …

As we neared the closing date for submissions, films that seemed made specifically for the festival began to come in, and the theme of hope finally crystallized.

By the contest deadline we had a total of 1,294 short film submissions. These came from ninety-five different countries in dozens of different languages. One thing was clear: hurt and brokenness and despair is everywhere, in every corner of the world. There is a real need for hope. And we know the only real hope is in Jesus Christ.

I ended up with 40 films in my “yes” pile, a collection of 40 well-made, high-quality films on finding hope. We had hoped for this amount in total submissions, and to have this number on our five-star list was rewarding. It was still a substantial number, a total of five hours viewing time. We decided that each of the forty would have at least four judges watch and rate them. From this list, seven films became the front runners, and the positions of each film shifted as each judge made his or her final choices.

Finale …

The deadline arrived. The four films with the highest scores became finalists. It was close. Only two points separated the top-rated film from the fourth-rated one. The finalists were:

You Know Me
This 7-minute film from the United Kingdom, as seen through the eyes of a son, explores the effects of isolation and loneliness brought on by quarantine.

The Winner
A 9-minute film from the Russian Federation explores how as the world changes, hate remains a strong force needing to be addressed.

My Lovely Man
In this 10-minute film from Los Angeles, a young woman meets with her brother to discuss her future, and the result is a conversation she will never forget.

Absurd Man
This 8-minute film from Turkey explores how a lonely man on a deserted highway reacts to gifts from above.

I like to think that our Concordia Seminary’s Faith and Film Festival – through our short film competition – was able to shine the light of our Lord Jesus Christ to 95 countries. As the filmmakers researched what this festival in a place called Concordia Seminary was all about, did they discover a piece of the hope that we know in Christ? Did they learn where real hope is found? I pray they did. Seeds were planted – seeds of hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As always, we leave the seeds in the hands of the Holy Spirit. And we hope.

 

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