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    February 1st, 2012 @ 5:29 pm by admin

    For the past several afternoons I’ve been teaching documentary writing to a class in Perth, Australia. The interesting thing is, I’ve been doing it from my office in Abbotsford, BC via the oft-overlooked miracle of Skype. I’ve never done this sort of thing before, but I think it’s a great solution to what is often a punishing travel schedule.

    As we’ve worked through the fundamentals of documentary writing, something I’ve pounded into them is the importance of coming up with a strong premise, a story question that’s compelling enough to make viewers stick around and see how things turn out. This is where every film succeeds or fails, in my view. The premise is the foundation for everything that follows. So if the premise is weak, the story will fail.

    Because dramatic feature films typically deal with hypothetical situations, the premise can be phrased in the form of a “What if?” question. For example:

    What if a quarreling couple goes on a romantic cruise as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, only to have the cruise ship overrun by zombies?

    I’ve never written that film, but I think it would be a fun one. The premise is strong because the stakes are about as high as they can be–life or death. And if that cruise ship ever makes it back to port, it could spell doom for the entire world.

    And let’s not forget the couple’s marriage. If this film is done right, the only way to save themselves–and the world–is to overcome whatever problems led them to take the cruise in the first place. So you have a nice internal struggle exacerbated by an external struggle. Probably one of them (let’s say the wife) really wanted to go on the cruise, but the other one didn’t. So there’ll be a blame game going on at first, but then the sheer desire to survive takes over, and by the time it’s all said and done, they have a new perspective that enables them to see their past problems as rather insignificant now that they have a new lease on life.

    Or, if you want to give it more of a tragic (and comedic) ending, they reconcile just in time to prevent the ship from getting in to port, but then they have to sacrifice themselves in a last-ditch effort to stop the zombies and save the world. So the postscript involves the coast guard boarding the ship and finding all of these dead people lying around and determining there must have been something wrong with the egg salad.

    But I digress…

    When it comes to documentary films, you’re not dealing with hypothetical situations, you’re dealing with actualities. To be a bit more specific, I like to think that documentaries help you move from perception to reality–or at least to another point-of-view on reality that is (hopefully) a better approximation of what is actually happening.

    Another way of thinking about it is that documentaries are really studies of human behavior. They seek to help us understand why we do what we do.

    With that in mind, rather than phrase a documentary premise in terms of a “What if?” question, I find it’s more helpful to phrase it in the form of a “Why?” question, a “What on earth would compel someone to do such a thing?” question, a “Will he/she/it/they survive?” question or something along those lines.

    Example #1: Bowling for Columbine – Why did Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacre their classmates at Columbine High School?

    Example #2: Grizzly Man – What on earth would compel Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend to risk their lives by living among the Alaskan grizzly bears?

    Example #3: Big River Man – Will whiskey swilling Slovenian long-distance swimmer Martin Strel survive his attempt to swim the entire length of the Amazon River?

    Which brings us to Hellbound? So far my elevator pitch for the film goes like this:

    A growing number of Christians are challenging the traditional Western view of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment. Are these people a bunch of heretics, as we’ve been told, or are they onto something?

    I think that’s fairly effective, but it’s pretty long compared to the examples I gave above. So as I was teaching this yesterday I thought perhaps I should take my own advice and see if I could do a better job of distilling the film down to it’s essence. So I came up with this:

    Why is the doctrine of hell such a contentious issue?

    It’s succinct, but it’s also kind of flat. How about this:

    What on earth would compel a growing number of Christians to defy 2,000 years of church history by challenging the traditional Western doctrine of hell?

    That’s a little better, I think. It’s more character-driven, and the stakes are higher. Let’s see if we can raise them a little more:

    Will the growing number of Christians who are challenging the traditional Western doctrine of hell survive their attempt to overturn 2,000 years of church history?

    Hmm… Not bad, but I think it could be bordering on the absurd. After all, this isn’t an armed conflict–at least not yet.

    I’m still not sure I’ve nailed it completely, but this sort of exercise certainly helps me keep my focus as we pull this film together.

    With that in mind, back to the editing room…



leave a comment on this post (9 Comments)

  1. Coincidence? Yesterday I was just mentioning to Emile that I wonder why that documentary was made, what was the purpose. The only thing that I could come up with is that it will incite people to reflect on that particular subject, a matter that is in no way negligible.
    I tried to argue that it is not how I would proceed to find the truth about any subject. Emile reminded me that the purpose was most certainly to get people interested so that they eventually could find their own way to truth, a way that might be different from mine.
    I find your ‘pitches’ quite contentious which makes it that much more difficult for the documentaries to deliver the goods.
    Perhaps the difficulty I find with that subject is that it raises to many closely related questions; a fact that would have made your work that much more difficult.

  2. The answer to your question is quite simple. In fact this is nothing new, it’s all been played out before in history. This heresy has inflicted the faith for centuries, appearing now with new packaging. What would compel Christians to try to denounce 2,000 years of history on the doctrine of hell? Simple, the idea of hell is repugnant. Our wooden interpretations of key texts pit a loving God against the idea of hell, and contrary to Jesus teachings on it, too numerous to list here, repugnancy wins over honesty. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have already demonstrated that if you create an appealing set of sanitized doctrinal perspectives you can create quite a following. Their religion was created largely in order to eliminate hell. While I believe references to hell are metaphors, using hyperbole they nevertheless cannot be extricated from Christian teaching. Doing a study of Christ’s often teaching on the matter should be enough to settle the question, but for those nursing an agenda, nothing is sufficient. I believe hell could look exactly like life on this earth right now, only without the presence of the Holy Spirit, where loneliness, alienation, separation, greed, violence and all the other vices, would reign supreme, on a much grander scale than we see now. As C.S. Lewis described it, you get to have the idol, the thing that kept you from submitting to God, and your desire becomes your constant reminder of your separation from your source, something you only came to understand fully, when it was too late. The ‘new reformers’ are on on a slippery slope. They’ll create a harvest of insipid weak followers, because Jesus is now “all love”, and they will at the same time endanger throngs to eternal separation from all goodness, because “who cares”, “the risk is not so great, I’ve just been encouraged to continue my rebellion toward God.” This is heresy based on reading into the texts. At least Rob Bell has Gene Simmons on his side, he recently tweeted that he buys into Bell’s no hell nonsense.

  3. Do you realise how hot the water is that you are jumping into with this documentary? LOL I’m sure you must — and I hope you won’t get into too much trouble! I am so looking forward to this!

  4. I haven’t seen the tweet. I was being sarcastic although i actually picked it up in a thread that originated from something related to the film. Having Gene Simmons endorse something Christian is like the Taliban endorsing something American. This whole diatribe against the doctrine of hell is a regurgitation of Marcionism, one the great heresies of the early church that was actually the catalyst for the formation of our canon so insidious was it. The dark side of the Emergent movement want’s so badly to be liked by the world, that they must reform Jesus into this post-modern, non-judgmental deity who’s tolerance embraces everyone. What this means is that heaven is compulsory, it’s deterministic, you must and will go to heaven, you will be there even if you are a misfit totally out of your element, and God’s tool must only be, ultimately coercion. You will be refined and suffer until you get it. Then you graduate. It’s more akin to reincarnation really. You keep getting another chance until you get it, and if you don’t, God busts your knee-caps one more time until you acquiesce. Nonsense really.

    • Hi Jim: That doesn’t actually sound anything like the types of Universalism I’ve encountered. Have you ever read Thomas Talbott, for example?

  5. Jim, you said,
    “I believe hell could look exactly like life on this earth right now, only without the presence of the Holy Spirit, where loneliness, alienation, separation, greed, violence and all the other vices, would reign supreme, on a much grander scale than we see now. As C.S. Lewis described it, you get to have the idol, the thing that kept you from submitting to God, and your desire becomes your constant reminder of your separation from your source, something you only came to understand fully, when it was too late.”

    Your view has sin, rebellion, hatred of God and death cycling forever in the universe like an oozing open wound never to be healed. And this all parallel a holy God, forever. This is dualism.

    In your paradigm when do people bow the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (not Judge btw)? What kind of attitude would bring you glory from your children? The standing up on the inside kind? The Bible says God HATES insincere worship so this passage cannot be suggesting forced obeisance.

    God cannot be sovereign over all if He does not have loving sincere worship from all. Just as the Christ-hater Saul became the lover-of-Christ-and-His-people Paul we know that God has the power to “draw all men to Himself”.

    It appears that you are a proponent of free-will. If man has ultimate free-will why then does God violate it when He “forces” everyone to bow and confess? As well if free-will is sacred then why does it not apply to God who loses His by not receiving those “He is not willing should perish”?

    I believe in free-will. But I believe that God heals it and gives it back to us so that we may be restored to our original glory as image-bearers of Himself.

    There are 150 more questions and thoughts to reveal how true universalism (not your description) is not something being smuggled into the Church but rather it is inherent in our Christian DNA, written on our hearts by God Himself.

    godslovewins.com

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