Should Directors Protect or Explore?

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I attended a one-woman show last night followed by workshopping roadshows with two keynote speakers. The juxtaposition of the two events was enlightening and inspiring. All three of us benefited from the discussion that opened up our eyes to new concepts.

This morning, I reviewed the Cana Wedding short story and broke it down based on what I had learned last night. I suddenly understood a new perspective on why there is a dramatic difference between directors who create redemptive films and those who create faith-based films—making sense of why faith-based films do poorly and redemptive films always succeed.

Here are three clarifying factors that make the difference between a redemptive story and a faith-based story.

Start Where the Audience is At

Redemptive movies always start with a realistic view of where the protagonist is at in life. The person’s situation is negative and the character needs change but is clueless about his situation. In other words, his life requires redemption. This might show up in the form of a rags-to-riches story, or clueless-to-enlightenment, or a liar-to-truthteller, or selfish-to-selfless, and so on.

This starting point always helps the audience to see the flaws in the main character, which allows them to bond or relate to them. While their circumstances may not be the same, the audience has their own hurting element that seems to stop their hopes and dreams from becoming a reality. This might include self-sabotage, anger issues, or not being good enough.

Faith-based films (and I’m not speaking about redemptive films that some audiences claim are faith-based) start with a good person doing good things and their only problem is that they need to grow from good to better—something audiences can’t relate to because we all know our true shortcomings.

The biggest issue, in this case, is that the film opens with a person who is better than the audience, which the audience can’t relate to. Sure, the audience can understand the person is better, but the director hasn’t built a bridge for the audience to move them from where they are to where the protagonist will eventually end up.

Redemptive films start where the audience is at, and moves them to where they need to be through the protagonist’s life choices. Faith-based films start with where the audience should be and move the protagonist to an even better place without bringing the audience along to see how to implement the same ideals in their life—an unachievable utopian world.

Demonstrate the Struggling Process

There is no story without conflict and redemptive films explore all aspects of a character’s struggle to move forward and find a solution to their life. A redemptive story also demonstrates the experimentation process and the results that make the protagonist waver in their search. Audiences are pulled into the story and find themselves cheering on the main character to overcome the numerous obstacles blocking his path toward a changed life.

Faith-based films rarely have deep thought-provoking scenes where the character considers anything but what the scripture says. Oh, he might be hesitant, as if that develops raw conflict, but essentially the real-life issues are avoided. In fact, one of the most popular methods used in faith-based films is having the first half of a film being about one protagonist and the second half being about a second protagonist, forcing the lack of time to stop an in-depth exploration of the character’s flaw or issue.

The truth is that the medium of film is an argument and without the conflict to reveal both sides of an issue, the director is unable to explore the subject and lead the audience from where they started in life to the new place the director would like to see them live. This lack of argument has driven many to refer to faith-based films as preaching to the choir.

Clarify the Thesis World

Redemptive stories start with a scenario that exists in the audience’s world. Directors call it the thesis world and fill act one with all the background information the audience needs to relate their life to the protagonist’s normal life.

The second act is referred to as the anti-thesis world. This is where the main character’s life is turned upside down and everything comes against him. He has to learn the very thing that will save him by the climax of the film while overcoming numerous obstacles that enlighten him to all the misconceptions and viewpoints that might cause the main character to stray from a righteous life.

By the third act, referred to by directors as the new thesis world, we find the protagonist regroup, enter into the final battle for what is right, and achieve the transformation that brings him back to his once normal world with a twist revealing that his life is new or redeemed.

Everything in the story leads to this moment. The darker the main character’s life in the beginning, the more dramatic his change in the end. The apostle Paul talked about the person that is redeemed from numerous bad life choices is given far more grace than the person who only needed to change a little bit. That truth also works in film. The greater the contrast in the character’s normal life from his new life, the more powerful the story or his God.

However, faith-based films don’t want to demonstrate the person’s before life for fear of causing someone watching the film to fall into that same temptation. The director opts to hint at the problems and only shows the good, unknowingly reducing the character’s God—sometimes to the point where He is not needed by the audience.

The only way for a faith-based director to transition to redemptive storytelling is for him to understand that when right and wrong are plainly demonstrated in front of an audience, the audience will know the truth and be able to make an adult decision about how they will proceed in life. But when the director decides to take that adult choice away from the audience in order to protect them, the audience doesn’t get to watch the full argument unfold in act two and subsequently doesn’t know how to address their own life struggles when they hit.

My stories will always start where the audience is at, have the audience follow the protagonist through the life obstacles to learn how to face them, and demonstrate what their changed life would look like through the eyes of the protagonist, so the audience can make the adult decision to choose or deny receiving redemption in their own life.

Bonus Thoughts

I liken the parable of the sower to the difference between redemptive and faith-based films. The director uses film to sow seeds. Some of the seeds fall on rocky soil. The plants quickly grow, but when the scorching sun hits, the plants wither because they had no depth of soil.

Faith-based films have little depth. The depth of soil is the deep exploration of counter-arguments to demonstrate all sides of how things work in real life. For instance, let’s say a faith-based filmmaker creates a story about prayer. If the film doesn’t explore unanswered prayer, the story stays on the surface. When the hot sun of life struggles hits the audience a few weeks after seeing the film, they will have no understanding of how to face or overcome their real-world situation.

A redemptive story is like a seed that lands on good soil and has deep roots that can withstand anything that comes against it. Not only does it give audiences a full understanding of the counter-argument and how to handle it, but the seed produces a crop—the audience tells all their friends about their new revelation from the story. Suddenly, others flock to the theater in order to gain that same enlightenment.

This is why Jesus only told redemptive stories. This is also why redemptive stories always make more at the box office. Audiences need the story to start in their normal world, no matter how dark or disjointed, and then move the audience with the protagonist through his struggles for truth, and find themselves in the third act having overcome all and receive a redeemed life.

There is nothing stronger than the testimony of a changed life—a redeemed life.

Copyright © 2020 by CJ Powers

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