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An Open Mind is a Learning Mind.

I’m one of those people who needs to write. I’d go so far as to say my health – perhaps my very survival – depends on it. That isn’t me trying to sound melodramatic.

No, I, like many other writers, consider writing not simply a hobby or a method of making money, though it can and does fit easily into those categories. When I say I’m a writer, I’m saying it is as important an activity as eating or sleeping; to go without it for too long leads to moodiness and agitation.

Naturally with writing, one also ends up reading. To write means to record ideas on paper, and one can’t do that unless you’ve first gathered inspiration to form ideas worth recording. Ideas, information and knowledge are things I’ve treasured along with writing from a young age. In more recent years I’ve also become passionate about the importance of establishing the difference between ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’, whether historical or current, and the methods by which we go about establishing said distinction. Do you believe stuff based on evidence? What, in your mind, constitutes evidence? Hint: it isn’t always what people try to say it is.

To think about this is, I think, especially vital in the age of the Internet, where we’re exposed at ease to many opinions often presenting themselves as fact, and vice versa. Unless you want to believe everything, or nothing, or just stick to the inherent bias you grew up with, then you had better develop an eye for what constitutes evidence and a good argument. There’s a lot of bullshit out there, but that’s not to say I don’t value the Internet extremely highly; it has led to my generation becoming arguably the most open-minded of any generation before us. Growing up with so many easily accessible ideas around us has, in general, been healthy.

I find it hard being around people who do not care about these things, who may accept ‘truths’ just based on bias rather than applying critical thought; I find it offensive, and insulting, to see and hear that kind of thing in my presence. I’m not easily offended but this, you could say, is one of my ‘triggers’. Journalistic integrity and freedom of speech are two of the absolute pillars of a free-thinking society, while censorship lies at the opposing end of the spectrum (to be clear, by censorship I do not mean age ratings on products like movies and video games, which are often helpful and entirely necessary).

In my mind the acts of writing and critical thinking go hand in hand, though I know this is not the case for everyone – as I have read plenty in which it was clear the writer was not a critical thinker. Nor must one be particularly intelligent to write a lot, though to be a good writer (volume written doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality content) requires knowledge, not only of your craft but of the world around you.

Naturally then, the best writers also tend to be among the smartest, though it would depend on your point of view pertaining to how we should judge this kind of thing. Do we judge a writer by how clear and concise their style, or by how much knowledge they communicate through it? I suppose the best of them have both qualities. I certainly like to strive for both.

I grew up in a relatively ‘free’ family environment, with parents who weren’t overly strict and didn’t force any particularly weird rules upon me. It was an environment in which I was free to play video games, watch films, and read books without having to worry about which ones were ‘banned’, though at the same time neither of my parents were especially interested in those things and did not therefore instil any inherent bias for or against either. Each medium played their part in helping me grow up relatively open-minded and with an understanding that the world was bigger than my own little bubble.

To an extent, I do consider an open mind to be a privilege; one that many other people who grow up in different family environments aren’t encouraged to have (not that I was particularly encouraged towards it, but it wasn’t heavily discouraged either). Would I really have had the same learning opportunities, the same privilege of experiencing different sides to the world at an age where my mind had not yet grown hardened to them, had I grown up in a strict religious family for example? Likely not.

I find it a great shame when parents take it upon themselves to mould their children into who they want them to be (“for their own good!”), rather than allowing that child the space to discover themselves as an individual. This doesn’t just happen within fundamentally religious families either, and it isn’t always obvious. But as the subject of religion is a sore point for many, including to an extent myself (which I will explain a little further on), let’s stick on it for a moment.

Looking across the history of Western civilisation, our society and culture in the UK, US and Europe have been moulded by Christianity to the point where people have grown up believing – often subconsciously, before coming to ‘know Christ’ and being ‘born again’ later – in God, particularly the version of him portrayed in the Bible. Horror movies and literature in the West often portray demons or the devil himself as the source of all evil. In a court of law, people must place their hands on the Bible in some vague appeal to their conscience; a reminder that God is watching and they’ll be somehow punished for not telling the truth in front of Him.

Not that I want to get too deep into that issue here; what I’d rather do is illustrate how our ability to be open-minded about stuff can be inhibited simply through the culture or environment in which we grow up. If you grew up in the UK like me, you’ll be familiar with our inherently Christian culture. The US is similar, if not worse when it pertains to a Christianised culture, though the secular/ religious divide is arguably more extreme (or at least, more vocal) there as well. The UK, while moderately liberal, is also less willing to voice concerns over things like our monarchy, when we really should.

Now, I think it’s fine for people to acknowledge they’re not ‘open-minded’ about certain things, so long as they are aware of it. PC culture would dictate that we need to be respectful of everything, to the tiniest detail, but we’re all inherently different to begin with and naturally aren’t all going to see things in the same light. Some people don’t like swearing, others do. Some of us like eating meat, others don’t. People on either side, or somewhere in the middle, should be able to live how they want. Don’t rely on the approval of others for that. Equally, don’t expect everyone to be fully accepting of it.

Each of us have our inherent biases; open-mindedness is being able to recognise that bias and acknowledge there are people who’ll be coming from a different point of view. So long as that point of view doesn’t cause or advocate harm to others – which, again, is where religion can pose a bit of a problem – there’s no reason we can’t all respect each other as fellow humans while acknowledging our differences and not getting offended over stupid shit.

My own bias plays in to how I’m writing this article. Why is it, for example, that I feel the need to say swearing is okay, when really most people don’t need to be told that to do it anyway? Or why I focus on the importance of respecting points of view other than your own? Well, it comes back, again, to religion, more specifically Christianity; a religion that did not dictate too harshly how I should live my life growing up, but did at least subtly hold me back from fully expressing myself. Looking back on it, and seeing the effect it has on others as well, it’s clear this is what it does.

The unique thing about Christianity – at least, the Protestant side of which I have direct experience – is that it does not say you must obey its rules, and yet you kind of do, because if you don’t, it means you don’t really love Jesus and will go to hell anyway. A little slip-up is okay, but you must live the correct lifestyle consistently if you’re a ‘proper’ Christian. And boy, being told you’re “not a true Christian” is regarded as the highest form of insult. It’s something they’ll use against me, to discredit my own experiences, because in their eyes only someone who was “never a true Christian” could ever wish to turn away from it.

In many cases, Christians will use that one line as an all-encompassing excuse not to truly engage with issues raised by those who disagree with them. In fact, in my years of being around Christians, I can say in hindsight that many of those relationships, in the interest of ‘accountability’, involve carefully examining each other to determine whether one is a ‘proper Christian’, and each will make their determination, whether privately or publicly, about whether someone else is.

Christianity is supposedly about choosing to do the right thing through your own free will. But free will, of course, only goes as far as our inherent bias lets it – and this religion knows that all too well. It teaches the ultimate form of bias – that when we get to heaven, we’ll want to obey God without question, out of free will, because that will be our inherent nature. For now, on earth, we must deal with our ‘sinful’ nature, which wants to do bad things against God.

I’ll continue on that diatribe another time – there is so much more to say – but for now rest assured I’ve managed, though it has taken a lot of work, plenty of inner conflict, self-justification and thorough research, to largely let go of the hold Christianity had over me growing up and even up until a couple of years ago. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I have anything against Christians as people, though they can’t seem to help but take it personally (and I suppose one can’t blame them, if they believe with honest conviction) when others tell them they think their religion isn’t true.

The single biggest factor in breaking free from the confines of certain aspects of a religion, or anything else, relies on someone being open-minded enough in the first place to even consider whether they might be wrong. Of course I’m not saying that one necessarily leads on to the other (plenty of open-minded Christians have helped carry it out of the dark ages – while many conservatives/ traditionalists/ fundamentalists would claim that’s precisely the problem), but it’s certainly rare for anyone to leave their religion unless they’re open-minded enough to consider something other than what they’ve been conditioned to believe is true. They could, having considered everything else, still settle on Christianity being the truth, and I wouldn’t begrudge them that; it’s their prerogative to believe what they want, just as it is mine.

But if you consider it impossible for yourself to be wrong about something as ‘big’, as important as this, then you’re going to see opposing viewpoints through that specific lens. And naturally you’re going to shut yourself off from learning specifically why people might hold different points of view, because in your mind, in your version of reality, they’re already wrong and you – say, through the Bible – already have all the answers you’ll ever need.

Or maybe it’s more that, deep down, you’re terrified of realising you were wrong, having to admit it to others, and the damaged relationships that would inevitably result from that. I can understand that concern. I’ve seen it before, in people who stick with the Christian lifestyle not because they passionately believe in it, but because they perceive it to be simpler than the alternative, especially if they have a family of their own or friends who look up to them for spiritual support. The amount of Christian pastors hiding this kind of secret – feeling the weight of responsibility to ‘lead the flock’ and fear of letting them down – would shock the everyday church-goer.

I have realised I may need to pad what I say a little here, for those who may not know the full context surrounding my current opinions. First, if it seems I am overly negative towards Christianity, now or at any point to come, this is not necessarily an attack on its principles or even on the faith itself. Many Christians I’ve known are the liberal type who do not adhere strictly to everything the Bible says, or take what it says literally in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary. Those people are Christian simply because the lifestyle makes most sense to them, and that’s fine.

However, let’s bear in mind what I said about bias. I am a UK citizen, yes, but more than that: I was born and lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland up to the age of 18, at which point I moved over to England for university.

Now, I’m going to assume any potential readers won’t quite realise the significance of that, so I’ll divulge some more. In Northern Ireland, as most people will know, we have a bit of a history of conflict; a kind of Irish ‘civil war’ as such, originating from when Ireland joined the UK a few centuries ago largely against the will of the Irish people. Long story short, back in 1922 the Irish Free State was formed as Ireland won some measure of independence from Britain (though they still had to abide by an ‘oath of allegiance’ to the UK until achieving full independence via a referendum in 1937).

At the same time, the predominantly unionist (that is; loyal to the union of the United Kingdom) six counties of Northern Ireland decided they wanted no part of Irish independence from the crown, and this country itself was technically formed in 1922 as well. Republicans (that is; those who are committed to seeing a fully independent Irish republic) have always held issue with this, just as unionists held issue with southern Ireland trying to take what they saw as their British identity. Even today, Northern Ireland sits in a unique position, in which its residents can claim to be Irish or British and neither would be lying; we are, after all, entitled to dual citizenship from birth should we so wish to claim it.

A large part of the origins of that conflict between Ireland and the UK was this: Ireland was largely a Catholic country, whereas the UK, at that time in the 1700s and continuing since, was protestant. So while technically you could say that means they were both ‘Christian’, no. Trust me, growing up in Northern Ireland it’s impossible to see ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ as equally Christian. You’re either on one side or the other, and our version of ‘peace’ is tolerating the other side while those old grievances still reside in the back of our minds.

For me growing up in a predominantly Protestant area, I naturally also grew up with that bias. But now, at this stage of my life, I see it all for what it is. Some others of my generation – usually those who have not ventured outside Northern Ireland to live for any sustained amount of time – still hold that strong sense of bias, and probably always will, as I firmly believe it becomes harder and harder to let go of built-in beliefs the older you get. None of us want to feel we wasted years of our lives being wrong about something after all, so as time goes on we’re more likely to make excuses to ourselves that help us keep believing it, partly also for the pride of being known as someone who ‘sticks to their convictions’ rather than someone who ‘flip flops around changing their mind’.

The elephant in the room when it comes to religion and conflict in Ireland, of course, is the claim I made to myself and others for many years: that the violence perpetuated in the name of God was committed by those who “weren’t truly Christian”. This is like what I said before; Christians justifying actions they don’t like by those who seemingly share their faith by simply disregarding it as “not the God I believe in”. If other believers aren’t acting the way you think they should, just keep yourself happy by saying they’re not ‘proper Christians’ and move on, free of any guilt and/or responsibility on the part of your own personal faith in God. Something similar is happening on a more global scale with Islam currently, but I won’t be touching that hot topic here.

Obviously we shouldn’t paint everyone with the same broad brush. We’re individuals, and we’re human, which means we all have different tendencies. Some of us gravitate more naturally to violence, though again there are environmental factors influencing that. Still, it’s undeniable: the Irish ‘troubles’ have their origin firmly rooted not just in patriotism but in the religion that goes hand in hand with it.

Christians on the outside looking in may try to justify their own belief in the loving nature of God by claiming they don’t represent him, but that’s precisely why they were fighting. Unionists would resist Irish rule “for God and country”. In their place would you not do the same to defend your own deeply rooted convictions/ beliefs? The men on the ground, murdering each other for a higher cause, were doing it because they believed it was God’s will in both cases, on either side – and it would not have been uncommon to see those same men in church on a Sunday morning, having taken part in terrorist acts during the week and planning more for the week to come.

All of this leads up to where Northern Ireland stands today. Belfast itself is an impressively modern city, attracting tourists from around the world and parts of it, particularly the city centre, looking a world away from the depressingly grey colours associated with the 1970s. I truly enjoy being back for the most part.

But it’s not all great. Our government serves as a stark reminder of our recent history, not only in its finely balanced unionist/republican divide (to get into the intricacies of it would be too complicated a matter to delve into here) but in the hold that religion has over us. Gay marriage is still illegal and our majority party, the DUP, have vowed to continue blocking it (while consensual gay sex was only decriminalised in 1982). Abortion is only legal under extremely strict criteria, and Northern Irish women often need to travel to England for private treatment to carry one out. Bars and clubs are forbidden from serving alcohol before 11.30am (whereas in England you can grab a beer from 7am in Weatherspoon’s if you feel so inclined).

Whether you feel strongly about the above issues or not, it’s indisputable that Northern Ireland feels a little left behind, even when compared to other regions within the United Kingdom. Of course, we have enough conservative Christian unionists living here that our population is generally happy with things as they are, as they see it as sticking to the rules set out in holy scripture. For me, I feel almost embarrassed by this stuff, and can’t see myself ever coming back to live long-term in Belfast unless certain things change.

Living in England introduced me to many Christians who were more open-minded than the kind of Christianity I’d always known in my homeland. And well, I’ve simply carried on from there, never really wanting to stand still, always keen to learn more. I don’t feel any blind loyalty to one way of thinking, and I don’t consider myself a nationalist in any sense of the word.

There’s one other element that went into all of this that can’t be discarded; in fact it may be the most important one of all. I mentioned earlier, near the beginning, how films and video games had been an important part of my childhood. One can’t be truly passionate about either of these mediums without encountering other cultures in the process. Two of my favourite video games, for example, are the survival horror game Silent Hill and its classic sequel on the PS2 (both developed in Japan), which first introduced me to the subtle elements of atmospheric horror unique to Asia.

Around that time, J-horror was also starting to take the film industry by storm, with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu inspiring a 2002 Hollywood remake starring Naomi Watts. That ended up being rather short-lived, with Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) and its 2004 American remake coming along at the tail end of it, but it can be attributed to sparking my interest in Japanese cinema and, more broadly, Asian culture. Why is this significant? Well, naturally, the more you see of the world, the less you feel you lie at the centre of it. Perhaps something I read recently can help sum it up; “A stolid attachment to a monolithic set of institutional forms becomes much more difficult when one is constantly faced with the beliefs and disbeliefs of many other traditions” (from Ghosts and the Japanese, Michiko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken, introduction).

This, I believe, is why many Christians steadfastly refuse to openly engage with other ways of thinking; deep down they know it could lead to them questioning themselves and ultimately ‘losing face’ should they begin to doubt their own faith. So they build caricatures and stereotypes of other worldviews and belief systems, because that makes it easier for them to paint themselves as the ‘enlightened few’ who have the One truth. Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence summed up the inherent cultural differences and conflicts between East and West quite succinctly I think.

Sure, Christians may go on ‘missions’ with a view to ‘evangelising’ to those caught up in cultures they see as less enlightened, but they do not truly engage with the existing culture they meet when they get there, aside from the actions one must take so as not to appear awkward – such as taking your shoes off at the door when entering a home in Japan, for example. Even at the peak of my faith I could not help but feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at the idea of ‘mission’ to spread the gospel to those we see as less fortunate than ourselves. They’d return talking about how they ‘learned so much’… but I wonder how much they did learn, really?

I wanted to set this context so that anyone reading may understand my point of view a little better. I’m not saying others who were to go on a similar journey to myself would come to the same conclusions. I know some may read what I say about religion or Christianity and say “well, that’s not my experience”, and that’s cool. This is just me. Find your own way, but don’t let that way be dictated by blind loyalty, dodgy reasoning or a fear of changing your mind. Who knows… letting go of those things may help open the doors to something new.

Belfast Film Festival 2016

Mustang.

Mustang pic 1.

Very rarely does a film affect me in the way Mustang did… This film, unlike the vast majority of horror movies I’ve ever seen, actually inspired a rather unsettling dream within hours of watching it.

In this curious dream I was being relentlessly pursued by a group of well-meaning men and women who intended to forcibly marry me off – in the end, myself and a girl to whom I did want to be married had to go on the run from these people, using various escape routes through air vents and underwater facilities. And those are just the details I’m able to recall now as the memory of the experience fades. It felt strangely thrilling but also dangerous, as if to be forced against your will into an unhappy marriage was akin to a death sentence.

For the five young girls at the centre of Mustang, and many others in their situation in real life, this kind of dream is a reality; one they would wish to escape from if given the opportunity. The film opens with the girls innocently playing in the sea with a group of boys – for which they are scolded, beaten, and subjected to virginity tests when an old lady in the neighbourhood sees what they are doing and passes the news on to their grandmother. Such actions are unbecoming of girls who should be spending the majority of their time ‘wife training’.

You may think this is one of those films with a lot to say about a specific religion – in this setting, Islam. But that’s not the case. These girls, their relationships with each other and their fight for liberty, freedom from the oppression inherent within their culture and family life, are the focus of this story. Overt references to God and the religion to which they belong are absolutely minimal, if present at all. Do not come to it expecting some heavy-handed political agenda or bias.

It’s the directorial debut of Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Erguven – and you can add Mustang to the list of recent debuts that I’ve been massively impressed by. This delightful movie is emotional, humorous and thematically challenging in equal measure… one that deserves the accolades it has received in the past year (first screened at Cannes in May 2015 and winning numerous awards on the festival circuit since); and one that I’m already looking forward to revisiting.

10 / 10

Theology

Christianity and Art (or vice versa).

Religious art pic 2.

If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…” – Stephen King

I’m not here to talk about religious paintings. Or maybe in a way, I kind of am.

Let me preface this by highlighting that there are a lot of people who, given the opportunity, would like to control the lives of others. It is not a character trait limited just to the stereotypical dictators throughout history. Many crave it, others are rightly wary of it; that feeling of some kind of authority over another person, though one may justify it with righteous thoughts related to “only looking out for your own good” because they care about you so much.

We fear to lose that which we love – and often try to protect against this fear by controlling the object of it. You can likely recall such occasions in the past when you were on the receiving end of this kind of thing and, depending on what kind of person you are, you would probably have reacted in one of three ways: by submitting, rebelling or simply not caring.

Within Christianity, as within any religion, indeed within any group or commonly held worldview, there can be found these individuals who were first attracted to it because some part of them enjoys the social organisation it gives – and the subsequent opportunity for control over others that it can offer. Indeed it is often an inherent desire to have some outside force controlling their own lives, with the perceived comfort and security that comes with it, which first makes one open and willing to accept any religious claims at all.

This, I think, is why many prominent Christians (rather like North Korea and other dictatorships throughout history) fear art specifically, though they may not openly admit or even be aware of it. Of course, art that tells them they’re right about everything is usually fine. But the problem is, most of it tends not to play by such rules – and if it does, certainly doesn’t rule out breaking them.

Anything that hints, however subtly, that they or any part of their worldview may be wrong, often ultimately represents the enemy. Precisely because it dares to suggest, and present differing ideas; introduces concepts or reinvents old ones; holds the capacity to help people think clearly about things that may have been previously clouded in their minds, and then decide for themselves.

If one is secure in their beliefs, which can of course (and unfortunately) include some of the most extreme forms of dogma, there is little chance their minds will be changed by alternative viewpoints, nor am I necessarily saying they should be so easily swayed – but what I am referring to is more those who cannot accept or understand alternative viewpoints at all, and become offended just because other people dare to think differently from them. From here, their desire for control over others may become more apparent, as they look to mould everything around them to fit their own point of view.

Art is, indeed, a battleground for the free-thinking mind. And as one of those people who enjoys seeing ignorance squirm, raising its voice when confronted by an idea it can’t yet comprehend; who sighs in exasperation at those who gleefully declare they’ve won an argument only because their worn-out adversary walks away from it, I see art as vital to our cultural progression in whatever form it takes.

I say our knowing that many Christians will use the ‘in the world, but not of the world’ excuse to get out of paying any real attention to what secular art might have to teach them. Most art is, after all, full of sin – that includes ALL of it, not just whatever isn’t to your taste. You may think the old Western ‘cowboys and indians’ stories, in which indigenous native Americans were portrayed as frightening animals ripe for slaughter by the heroic white men who invaded their land, were somehow less sinful than wild rampant sex scenes and excessive swearing?

No; the difference between the two (aside from obvious genre/ narrative conventions) is mainly that the latter is under no illusion about itself and isn’t afraid of being so blatant about it. In fact if I had to choose which I have usually found to be more artistically tasteful, there is little question for me: it would be the latter, though this kind of thing should of course be judged on a case by case basis.

If art’s intention is to do anything, regardless of whatever beliefs or worldview may lie behind the eyes of its artist, it is to reflect our perception of the world around us. It is, in its purest form, an interpretation of life. This can be its greatest strength – for that reason, I’d consider it inherently dishonest were it not full of this thing Christians call ‘sin’ in some sense (allowing, of course, for appropriate exceptions – though even within some of the most wholesome children’s stories there can be found dodgy themes lurking beneath light-hearted exteriors). Art reflects this earthly reality in different forms, whether for you to get offended over or mindlessly enjoy, and it’s not really for me to decide which of those categories you fall into when you consume it.

Yes, it is a minefield out there, but it’s a glorious one of self-discovery as you find out where your own strengths and weaknesses lie as it pertains to personal taste. That is something only YOU can discover, no matter how much others may try to force something down your throat, or say you’re a bad person simply because of an opinion that’s different from their own. Though many of us would admit; you can’t really have what you like without also having to deal at some point with what you don’t. Because art, like anything created, is based on and reflects the individual tastes of the artist who creates it – for as many who have the same taste as you, there will be many others who do not.

Apologists for art, one of which you may consider me to be after all this, are known for saying it should be provocative. I think it certainly should be, but the only thing provocation really means is to instigate an emotional reaction. Often this reaction is positive – laughter, love, empathy. But it can also be very offensive. In fact it is arguably when art is at its most offensive that we can actually learn much from what it’s trying to communicate. Offensive material stands out and catches our attention – you must give it that, if nothing else. Whether it does that simply for the sake of it (which it has every right to do, if one so wishes), or to make a greater point is, of course, a different kind of debate.

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend the UK premiere of an Irish film, Patrick’s Day, in which the director stood up beforehand and said something to the effect of “I hope you enjoy my f**king film… if not, Spongebob is showing in the next screen.” The comparison could not be more fitting – Spongebob, a light-hearted children’s movie not likely to cause any real offence, and Patrick’s Day, a film about a 26 year old schizophrenic man who’s spent his whole life under the care of his over-protective mother before falling in love with an older woman bearing secret suicidal tendencies. One of these films left its audience with much to consider about a subject they may have been ignorant of beforehand… the other, was nothing more than silly entertainment that I question is really worth anyone’s precious time or money. What kind of person you are will likely define which represents which for you.

This, I think, was precisely the director’s point. Those who did not enjoy Patrick’s Day, perhaps due to the uncomfortable way it made them feel, are likely the kind of people who prefer a light-hearted, easy going film such as Spongebob. Also, by freely swearing in an environment otherwise considered ‘polite’, he sent a message to the audience that if they were easily offended, they should probably brace themselves for more to come.

It told me: here was a filmmaker who was not afraid of making a film that would confront and openly challenge its viewers – and you know what? Considering its main theme was mental health, one of the few topics still broadly misunderstood and brushed under the carpet by many in today’s society, I was delighted by this man’s sheer audacity.

After all, mental illness is far from polite. It can be rude, obnoxious, hurtful and even dangerous. These are just some of the reasons many people are uncomfortable approaching the topic. Often, whichever side of the ‘carer/ cared for’ divide one falls on (Patrick’s Day portrayed both perspectives in an impressively honest and heartfelt way), these are things to which you must become accustomed. Mental illness is a killer of polite conversation if ever there was one.

I felt towards Patrick’s Day the same way I feel about films in general – that they are vital for helping us understand more about others and ourselves, useful for exploring certain subjects that are harder to tackle in everyday conversation, and can be a vehicle for communicating the perceived faults of others (or indeed, ourselves) without having to bluntly say it to one’s face.

So what does any of this have to do with Christianity? An interesting question; one you might pose as if ‘Christianity’ is somehow separate from everything I’ve been talking about thus far. As if it is some tangible thing one can grasp in their left hand, while films and other forms of art are grasped in their right – rather like the divide between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’.

But of course many circles in contemporary liberal Christianity would scoff at the thought of being considered ‘religious’. We don’t follow religion, they say, we follow Christ. And I certainly see the merit in that sentiment – no one is ever truly happy being compartmentalised by those who casually judge from the outside looking in – yet many of them risk becoming hypocrites. They readily categorise other aspects of everyday life into stereotypical boxes, while scorning the idea that their beliefs should be confined to the umbrella term of ‘religion’, without realising these tendencies are pretty much the same thing.

Films, for them, might become the immoral cause of rising violence and premarital sex because of the images they portray. Video games are senseless entertainment for teenage boys. Even religion itself, the thing they find so frustrating to be associated with, is seen as a caricature: some emotionless system of rules and misguided authority, those within it hopelessly deceived – when the truth is that every ‘religion’, while sharing certain similarities, has unique qualities that mean it’s probably just as big an injustice to broadly label them as such.

My point, though, is that in acknowledging the act of ‘following Christ’ as more than a simple religious act in the traditional sense, you would presumably be ready to accept that this equally broad term I’ve been using called ‘art’ is not so easily classified either. Furthermore, these two things are not actually so separate at all. There is no real divide, aside from that which people like to create themselves.

One might say Christ is sovereign; in that case, all of this falls under Him. You might well see him reflected in everything you watch, read, play, or any other activity you enjoy partaking in – even despite of everything else you see there that is considered ‘sinful’. You would only be following His example; when Christ looks at you, does he not see something worth loving despite the sinfulness of it?

Art can make you question what you believe, and why you believe it. In that sense, some think it dangerous. Why do you follow a religion or God? Why do you not? What do you support with your money? Who or what inspires you? These are the questions to which answers help contextualise one’s life, and I think they are personal answers everyone should know. Think about why you know those answers; what led you to them? Be prepared for new information that might make you think twice. This is the kind of thing art has taught me, though with all of it, as with everything else, I take a pinch of salt.

Storytelling through art, whether in the form of a painting, a piece of literature, film or however else you define it, has the capacity to communicate ideas, beliefs and/ or concepts better than simple words could. It can help us deal with things otherwise left unspoken, communicating them in creative and interesting ways. You may like the way some do it; others you might detest with a passion. And that’s all fine.

I myself can think of numerous examples when I have felt both ways about certain storytellers (and I use the term very loosely in some upcoming cases) who – in sticking with our theme – have presented their Christian beliefs through art. Thankfully, if the reception and wider impact of their work has shown anything, it is that good quality always rises to the top, regardless of the worldview held by its makers.

On one side, you have films like Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, which had a ‘resounding’ victory at the Golden Raspberry Awards earlier this year. This followed other overtly Christian films such as Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead from 2014, the latter of which was deservedly panned critically and came across as nothing more than a naive propaganda piece to the average discerning eye.

Kirk Cameron’s subsequent reaction to the negative reception that greeted his film – calling those who disliked it ‘haters’ and ‘atheists’ – showed that the man had no interest in whether or not his movie was actually any good by reasonable objective standards. Rather he wanted to see his own set of values promoted through any means necessary, with anyone who dared not like his style degraded for not agreeing with him.

This situation prompted some thoughts within myself at the time related to these questions: what should a good ‘Christian’ film, or any other Christian work of art for that matter, actually look like? Is a film like Saving Christmas, only liked by those who feel a strong sense of loyalty toward its clear intentions, the best you can hope for or expect as it pertains to conveying a specific Christian message? Is that message even necessary to put the Christian ‘spin’ on something? Are Christians going to learn at some point that to criticize something does not mean you’re working for the devil? Otherwise how would we feel free to judge the difference between good and bad quality at all within Christian art/ media, if to say something’s bad is only going to garner derision and accusations from your peers?

Well, those are questions to be thoughtfully considered and hopefully answered another time. On the other hand, there are many positive examples of Christian art that has found mainstream success. In fact one of the greatest fantasy tales of modern times, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, was bedded in Christian beliefs, from its characters to its mythology. Ironically though it is one many Christians would be wary of, for its elements of witchcraft, sorcery and of course the fact that it is ‘fantasy’ in the first place, therefore demanding a fair suspension of disbelief if one is to find their own meaning and enjoyment in the story. This accessible nature – not to mention Tolkien’s legendary attention to detail – was a large reason the tale found such mainstream success.

Of course I cannot talk about Tolkien without also mentioning one of my other favourite writers, C.S. Lewis, who felt Christianity was a means by which to see the world more clearly, rather than an excuse to remain ignorant of it. A filter, if you will, through which you can view not only the real world, but also fantasy and myth, which were particular interests of Lewis during his academic career alongside Tolkien at Oxford.

To Lewis, Christianity did not negate the importance of diverse storytelling; rather, it illuminated and enhanced the need for it. As the sun shines light on the physical world around us, so Christianity can shine light on our creativity and imagination in a way that helps us better contextualize and understand the things it produces. And likewise, how this creativity comes through in filmmaking, even if we should disagree on the finer details of how it is used in the end, is glorious. I daresay Lewis would have agreed, if he had shared the same passion for movies that he had for literature (the two are, after all, of the same extended family).

Writers like Lewis and Tolkien represented a more refreshing approach to Christianity in storytelling than the otherwise drab options available today. They both felt stories, fantasy in particular, and by extension the world around them as they understood it, didn’t have to be restricted or dictated by their beliefs, but rather set free by them. They took unique approaches, but Christian elements can be clearly seen in both of the respective classic stories these writers are most famous for.

Not that I’m saying we should just go backwards and copy what’s already been done in the past. For the pure sake of originality, I’d love to see new ideas emerge and different styles embraced. Some themes have been played out across all art over many centuries (I swear if I hear one more Hollywood trailer talk about someone being ‘the one’ to save us all in their perpetual regurgitation of cardboard cut-out Christ figures…) – to try something different would, in artistic terms, restore some respectability to how Christianity is viewed in the public eye.

So no, I’m not here to talk about religious paintings. In fact what I’ve written on this topic thus far probably comes across as a rambling selection of thoughts better suited to a book where they’d presumably be fleshed out in a more structured and detailed fashion. Perhaps I will do that. For now I’m happy just to leave it here, and hopefully, just maybe, it will have encouraged you, should you have taken the time to read through it, to come with your own considered conclusions.

Film reviews

The Water Diviner.

"I did it! I became a Director!"
“I did it! I became a Director!”

It seems appropriate that The Water Diviner should get its UK release over the Easter weekend. A film for all the family, with a feeling of deep spiritual significance; it is one of the few truly conservative Christian-friendly recent movie releases. Even the most easily offended are unlikely to find something to hate about it. Aside from the fact, maybe, that it’s directed by Russell Crowe, ‘the guy from that Noah film’ last year which dared to take liberties with its source material.

This being Crowe’s directorial debut, one cannot blame him for coming up with what feels like a rather safe effort here. A ‘historical fiction’ drama, the film sees main character Joshua Connor, played by Crowe himself, going in search of his missing sons thought killed in conflict during the first World War. Upon discovering that one of them could still be alive, and led by an unknown (almost prophetic) compulsion which people will likely attribute to God’s divine guidance, Connor intensifies his search for the lost son in the same way a shepherd refuses to stop pursuing a lost sheep – even should that sheep not wish to be found.

Along the way Connor becomes romantically involved with a recently widowed Turkish woman (French actress and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko); a plot detail I would have found more believable had Connor himself not just buried his own wife before setting off on his journey, after she committed suicide in the film’s opening. This element contributes to an overall feeling of ‘going through the storytelling motions’ – I got the sense that the only reason The Water Diviner contained romance at all was because it is simply what one puts in the script for any typical big budget historical drama.

Interestingly my favourite parts of the film had little to do with the characters themselves or their relationships with each other. It has a couple of political statements in mind regarding war-time ethics and the fine moral lines that are sometimes crossed by those whom we would otherwise consider to be the ‘good side’, in order to get the best outcome for themselves. The film does have something useful and informative to offer about Turkish-British-Greek relations in the aftermath of the first World War, and Turkish cultural norms are also challenged, in this case predictably for the sake of love. But in truth none of these things are unique concepts that had me excited about this film.

That The Water Diviner tied with The Babadook for Best Film at this year’s Aacta awards (the Australian equivalent of the Oscar’s) was, I think, indicative of a certain conflict within some sectors of the film industry when it comes to pleasing their audience. On the one hand, it represents a great injustice that these two films are made out to be equal in their quality. As directorial debuts go, Jennifer Kent blows Crowe out of the water. Hers is simply the superior film by far…

Yet I know many in an average audience may disagree. Those who don’t like to be provoked to think too much about their viewing experience will perhaps prefer The Water Diviner; a film that wears its heart and all of its other components on its sleeve. You have here all the parts necessary for a typical ‘feel-good’ experience, with a conservative romantic subplot and a happy ending to follow a story of tragedy. If that kind of thing sounds good to you then, by all means, don’t let the fact that I found the film to be a distinctly average, unoriginal movie harm your enjoyment of it.

For the rest of you, The Babadook is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

5 / 10

Film reviews

January Roundup.

Some months in the year are just purple patches for good movies. With the two big awards ceremonies coming up (BAFTAs tomorrow night and the Oscars two weeks following), January and February tend to be those months in the UK, where we typically get big releases such as Selma and Big Hero 6 long after their Autumn releases in the US. In addition, there are occasionally smaller releases during this period that get overlooked, and it’s nice to focus on them too.

I could write individual pieces for all the important cinema releases and other movies I’ve seen over January. I think on this occasion, with so many that I’d like to give my attention to, that option would be counter-productive and time-consuming. So I’ve decided to sum each of them up in one post instead. The following are films I saw in January but haven’t yet written about.

Boyhood – Finally, I got around to seeing Richard Linklater’s unique coming-of-age drama after missing its original release back in July 2014. Shot over 12 years as the director followed the physical development of his core cast in real time, it would be easy to think of Boyhood as a film that earned plaudits more for the sheer effort that went into it than its own merit as a standalone piece. However, this one-dimensional way of looking at it is ultimately unfair to an experience that only really works – and works magnificently – precisely because of its elongated production.

Boyhood pic 1.

The two (process and finished product) organically go together to create a skilfully crafted whole. As the viewer you feel as if you’re growing up with the characters over time; as you get to the end you do indeed wonder where all the years have gone. When Patricia Arquette exclaims about her kids growing up so fast, you’re right there with her emotionally because you’ve been right there all the way through. The film’s greatest strength is the perspective it gives, not only on its own characters, but also on growing up and even on life in general. Breathtaking and insightful, I wonder whether there has ever been a more truly ‘human’ film than 2014’s Boyhood. 10 / 10

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Few films in recent memory are as critically and creatively astute as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s stylish dark comedy.

Birdman pic 1.

Starring Michael Keaton in a role that half recalls his previous one as Batman, Birdman shows us both sides of the critic/ creative divide, and confidently attempts to pass itself off as a classic satire of modern Hollywood in the process. The obvious homage in its title says as much, and it does a pretty entertaining job of convincing you it belongs in such company. Perhaps not quite the technical achievement that some will try to say it is (the ‘one-take’ trick is not as difficult to pull off as it once was), this is still an essential film, one of 2014’s best, and thoroughly deserving of its place among the big hitters in this year’s awards categories. 10 / 10

The Theory of Everything – The well-publicized adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir about her marriage to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Eddie Redmayne is, of course, the film’s shining star, though there is more here to catch your attention than just his and co-star Felicity Jones’ fine performances. Ironically the film is lacking in actual theory; its sights are clearly set on a more accessible piece encompassing… well, everything, from debilitating illness to the difficulties associated with married life. I initially found it hard to get over the sheer sentiment of it all, but if you can manage that, there is a top quality film here waiting to be discovered. I really liked it – which is more than I was expecting beforehand, frankly. 9 / 10

Stations of the Cross – German film that provided a nice change of pace against the backdrop of big budget awards season. It’s hard hitting and ‘to the point’; following the life of a normal teenage girl being driven to depression by a domineering, strict and unreasonable Catholic mother who is representative of the wider church they are part of.

Stations of the Cross pic 1.

At the same time it is surprisingly unbiased in its message, leaving open the possibility in the end that God is very real. Acts as a stark warning to those who wrongly think there can be no harm in misguided religion; on the contrary, when you remove the human element from relationships and use religion to fill that gap, it doesn’t lead to anywhere good. Not a comfortable watch, but a crucial one. 9 / 10

Leviathan – A visually majestic Russian film with much to say about the hierarchy of its native country, to the extent that it’s somewhat surprising it hasn’t been embroiled in controversy. The fact it was put forward as Russian selection for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (an award it’s likely to win) and has had a successful run internationally is heartening for an industry that has recently felt its right to freedom of expression threatened. Was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and ultimately won Best Screenplay at the festival. While this may put some off who would label it a “critic’s film” with the unfair connotations associated with that, there are indisputable dramatic and emotional moments in Leviathan to be appreciated by any viewer. 10 / 10

Enemy – A curious movie that I first watched last May at the BFI in London, Enemy had a (very) limited UK release this January. If you were fortunate enough to see it, your reaction was probably one similar to most: what the hell did I just watch? Not in a bad way; rather in a “I don’t know if this is a masterpiece or just confused” kind of way. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as a History professor and low-rate actor.

Enemy pic 1.

The premise? One day while watching a movie in his apartment, the History professor sees this actor, literally his double, in a small background role and subsequently becomes obsessed with meeting him. Enemy was first released in 2013 and I’ve yet to come across anyone who reckons they’ve figured it out (the story’s based on a novel – The Double – by Jose Saramago, so that probably contains some hints). An intriguing film to say the least; one you must see, even if I don’t feel confident in giving it a proper rating quite yet. But rest assured: I’ll certainly be returning to this one in the near future. ?/ 10

Ex Machina – One of the most intriguing British films of the past few years, Ex Machina touches on some very interesting themes without exploring them fully. If it had gone as far as I would’ve liked (I’ll perhaps return to this another time), I think it could have been one of the all-time greats of its genre. As it is, it’s still a pretty damn good movie. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson play off each other well as the two male leads, though the true star here is Alicia Vikander, who plays the charming AI, Ava.

Ex Machina.

They make up the core cast in a film that feels appropriately small scale and almost claustrophobic in places. It also boasts a subtle, haunting soundtrack that I liked very much. Overall it’s an intelligent sci-fi thriller; such a combination isn’t too common in an industry that could do with more of this and less loud explosions. 9 / 10

Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film has a large cast and even larger ambition. Shot in grainy 35mm with added effects to give it a vintage 1970s feel, Inherent Vice certainly can’t be accused of lacking ‘character’, but has understandably split audiences and critics with a winding plot that often ends up on the wrong side of disjointed.

Inherent Vice.

Lose concentration for a moment and you may find yourself lost for the remainder of the film (though this can be attributed to the ‘stoner’ culture that it aims to encapsulate – and does so very well). On the other hand it is filled with entertaining performances from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro and Reese Witherspoon, among others, and is more likely to win you over with its charm than not. Does it sometimes feel like it’s trying too hard to be ‘cool’? Perhaps, but at least it is trying. Sometimes that’s what counts most, and the vintage style provides a fresh change from anything else currently on the market. Highly recommended, if not ultimately satisfying. 8 / 10

Film essays, Video Games

Two Months, Four Hits: The 21st Century fight for ‘freedom of expression’.

creative expression pic.

It was a significant Christmas/ New Year season for this thing we call artistic expression. Over the months of December and January we’ve seen a petition succeed in getting Grand Theft Auto V withdrawn from certain outlets in Australia and New Zealand; The Interview have its initial release cancelled due to terrorist threats from a group linked with North Korea; Hatred get pulled from Steam Greenlight without consultation from its service users in an unprecedented act from Valve; and of course, the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in response to an offensive printed cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

Two of these I have previously touched on – the second in another article I wrote at the time. The third received least mainstream attention out of the four, due no doubt to the much smaller scale of its publisher. The last has been written about, spoken about, dissected and argued over at length over the past month and hardly needs my input to say anything that hasn’t already been said.

Together, though, all of these situations form an interesting narrative of where art, and the artists producing it, stand going forward into the rest of this century. On the one hand you may argue recent events show greater attempts at control and inhibition; a subsequent lack of freedom to say what one truly feels needs to be said. But conversely I think the reactions to all of them are what the future will focus on – what it will see, is an outcry in defense of things like decision-making and the right to hold your own individual thoughts and opinions. What some perspective will show is, in fact, a victory for the sides that came under attack in these instances.

That’s not to say it didn’t come with a high price. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, their freedom of expression came at the terrible, unjustified price of eleven lives. Yet if those same journalists who were murdered could be given the choice, I’m not sure they would’ve changed anything about what led to their deaths – to do so with such foreknowledge, would have been to say this sort of violence actually works. Whether or not you agreed with their decisions or their opinions, you must realise that for them to have then changed their opinion on threat of death, if they had been given the option, would not have been a victory for anything but fear.

It all sounds so absurd. You can’t force someone to change an opinion to suit your own – sure, you can try fooling them into it using propaganda, and if you must do so that’s certainly the classier method, but there is a good reason this hasn’t led to lasting success for those groups or governments that have relied on it. Sooner or later, people wise up to it. Sooner or later they begin to see behind the curtain. At that point they will arrive at an important choice; whether to form (and act on) an opinion of their own, or stay quiet for (perhaps) the sake of their lives, at the expense of all that makes them a unique individual.

However, I’m jumping ahead of myself there. And I don’t want this post to bear too much of a condemnatory tone, as the best way to fight the forces you disagree with is not through empty threats or angry, isolated statements, but rather with balanced, persuasive arguments and (ideally) evidence to back them up. Such conviction is what drives me to use my free time to do this kind of thing, after all.

Let’s start at the beginning – of December, that is, when the first of these newsworthy topics emerged.

December 3rd/4th: Target AU, K-mart and a major retailer in New Zealand pull Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves because it is apparently “not a product our customers want us to sell”. This was due to a petition started on 29th November and clearly written by people who had never played the game but were keen to sensationalise its contents to suit their own ends. By 3rd December, this petition had 40,000 signatures. On 4th December, Target AU withdrew the game from its shelves as requested, though precisely why they were doing so remained unclear. If it was to protect the ‘little boys’ whom the petition claimed this game was having such a bad influence on, then they should not have been marketing a clearly 18-rated game towards that demographic in the first place.

Grand Theft Auto V is actually one of the most beautifully detailed games on the market...
Grand Theft Auto V is actually one of the most beautifully detailed games on the market…

In their subsequent statement in response to the petition, Target AU seemed to imply they were making this decision to satisfy their customers following “extensive community and customer concern about the game”. However, this petition did not actually represent the majority view of their customers, and there was no indication given that Target had widened the net to take other views into account.

Moreover the woman who started the petition did so after seeing clips of the game on YouTube. One does not need to look too closely at it to get a sense of the offence caused by said ‘YouTube clips’ (we can’t account for the possible bad taste of the gamer who posted them, nor can we really know whether they were in bad taste or if the petition is simply exaggerating, and forgive me for being cynical but I’d place my bets on the latter). It claims in the opening paragraph that “the incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points”, going on to say “GTA V literally makes a game of bashing, killing and horrific violence against women”, while it “links sexual arousal and violence”.

Wow, that sounds like a pretty horrific game. Maybe I’d sign a petition too if such a game was really being marketed towards boys. The trouble is, that description is not representative of Grand Theft Auto V in the slightest. While it is possible to kill people (men and women) in the game, this alone is not its overall ‘incentive’. Furthermore I’m confused by the use of the term ‘sexual violence’. True, you can choose to sleep with prostitutes. True you have the capability to commit violence against them if you really wish (just as you can do so against most other people in the game world).

However, this is not encouraged or seen as mandatory in order ‘to proceed’, and the two acts are not directly linked at all. It is possible to have sex (though the act is never explicitly shown) and commit violence but to commit ‘sexual violence’? It sounds like you’re making up your own narrative there.

GTA V’s ‘health point’ system, if that primitive term is what we’re using, isn’t linked to killing or violence in the game, nor is there any special reward for treating women as the petition describes, and in fact there is much more violence committed against men than women in the overall plot.

Also I must clarify, if further clarification is needed, that in my own experience of a very enjoyable play through of Grand Theft Auto V, at no point did I myself feel outwardly violent, or abusive towards women, and certainly not sexually aroused by such things – nor did the game ever intentionally try to spark these connections in the mind of its player. If other gamers have these experiences while playing then I’d daresay they have certain underlying issues that have nothing to do with the game itself and should probably seek help, or at least have a (presumably) much-needed conversation with someone they trust. And as an actual player and consumer of this product, frankly I feel more qualified than the petition’s author, who is neither of those, to determine its potential qualities and the effects it can have on other gamers.

Basically I’m trying to highlight that this petition is blatantly misrepresentative of the game, and this kind of thing is especially important to me because it itself is representative of a larger consensus that video games serve no better purpose than playthings for little children and adolescent boys. Furthermore it tries again to link violence in video games with violence in real life (for which there is literally no evidence in support). This is all summed up in one seemingly authoritative yet grossly misleading statement from the petition; “Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women”.

You may be one who also finds the content of GTA V to be crude and offensive. You may find the very idea of what it lets you do through your own free will to be abhorrent. That’s your opinion, and it’s fine. You don’t have to buy the game or expose yourself to it if you have no wish to do so. However, when you then see a petition like this you may feel excited by the fact that other people agree with you, and more than that; they are claiming this game is a great burden and possible danger to your sons and daughters. Future generations are at stake and it requires action! And when it’s put to you like this, your inclination of not liking this game, or any game in general, could be only one small step away from subsequently branding them all evil and thinking you need to ‘protect’ future generations from their influence.

See how easily people can get caught up in something because it was presented to them in a convincing way? But make no mistake: this petition is based on no evidence, therefore should not have been successful, and the only way it got so much support was through fear-mongering in its use of sensationalised wording.

...don't you agree?
…don’t you agree?

In normal circumstances sales figures would tell a retailer whether or not customers are happy with a particular product. After all, if you don’t like a product, you don’t buy it, and by not buying it you are not supporting it, and this is ultimately the deciding factor for any business when it comes to the decision-making process of which products they should continue selling. I realise that high sales figures don’t necessarily correlate with the best products (as someone who still loses sleep over the fact that the general public contributed to Transformers: Age of Extinction becoming 2014’s highest grossing film, it hurts me as much as anyone), but it is still the right of the consumer to decide for themselves what they give their money to. In this case the consumer’s decision was taken out of their hands, and that’s the main problem.

Having said that, this decision – even more curious considering it came over a year after GTA V’s original release on PS3 – by these few retailers on the other side of the world will have no lasting impact on the game’s success in the long run. Grand Theft Auto V is still the bestselling entertainment product of all time, and that will be its legacy. What’s important here is the principle of the matter – what it could mean for smaller publishers and studios who don’t have the kind of commercial success behind them that the GTA series has. Which brings me to our second case study…

December 15th: A video game called Hatred, developed by the appropriately named Destructive Creations, is pulled from Steam Greenlight after briefly appearing on the service. Now, for those who are not PC gamers, this will need a little explanation; Steam Greenlight is a service through which gamers can help choose which games are added to Steam (hence being given the ‘green light’). Steam itself is a digital distribution service – basically somewhere gamers can go to download current releases. So Greenlight is kind of like a preview service to the real thing, partly to gauge how a game may be received but mainly just to check that it actually works gameplay-wise.

Developed by a company called Valve, Steam is very much a service for the users. However, on this occasion, Hatred was pulled from Steam Greenlight without consultation with its users. So the users, who usually decide which games to approve, were for some reason (which remained unclear) not allowed to make the decision for themselves this time around. This was a pretty unprecedented move by Valve, as far as I know.

Further context gives us a hint as to what they may have been thinking. Hatred is, after all, a pretty unprecedented game itself, at least as far as its content is concerned. In it you play as a merciless serial killer who goes on a ‘genocide crusade’ for no reason other than that he passionately hates humanity. Sounds tasteless, I know, and probably not a game I’ll be investing my time in at any point soon, but I’d still argue that it is important for games to be able to touch on these kinds of things without people suddenly concluding that gamers “can’t handle it”.

Hatred pic 1.

Psychopaths have been portrayed in movies for many years, so why are games seen as inferior in the topics they’re permitted to tackle? You could argue it’s different because a game actually puts you directly in control of a character rather than observing from a distance, but I think this makes games more effective, not less, at tackling taboo issues. The idea that one is going to turn into a serial killer purely from playing this game is rather absurd, considering how unattractive the experience is, and someone who has the capacity to genuinely enjoy killing other people will have, as I said before, other issues that will be present regardless of the media they’re exposed to.

If anything, allowing one to experience the effects of such things first-hand, in the direct shoes of a character, is more likely to put you off ever wanting to try it in real life, providing it’s done effectively courtesy of good game development (as a side note, there is actually closer evidence to suggest this kind of thing than there is for the ‘video games cause violence’ argument).

Think of rape, for example. Yeah you may cringe at my mentioning it and you might not like even thinking about it, but that taboo right there is precisely why so many rapists get away with their crime, and predominantly why so many people are disgusted when video games even dare suggest approaching it. To tackle the issue, to show the horrible impact it can have on a woman, or indeed a man, is a very good thing if it helps to educate those who perhaps don’t appreciate the awful psychological effects it can lead to in a person’s life. Video games have the potential to explore this in even greater detail than films ever could, if they’re given the freedom to do so, precisely because they do put you directly in the shoes of a character.

I firmly believe video games must be given this liberty, to achieve these kinds of effects and truly take their place alongside books and films as a respected artistic medium. Yet despite being at a development stage where they do have the capacity to tackle such topics, they’re being creatively stifled by a mainstream society that still thinks any game which doesn’t appeal to children or teenage boys is somehow inappropriate. For as long as that mode of thinking persists, publishers and developers are going to be much less confident in their creative freedoms.

Curiously, on December 16th, only a day after Hatred was removed from Steam by Valve, it reappeared with a personal apology from Gabe Newell (co-founder and managing director of Valve). Was he not involved in the original decision? What were their reasons for taking it down in the first place? Such questions remain unanswered, leaving us to fill in the rather obvious blanks, and the game was subsequently approved to Steam on December 29th. As far as its sales figures go, time will tell on that one. But whatever the reaction from the industry, the least this game will do is get people talking about issues they could easily have gone without talking about, and I think that can only be a good thing in the long run.

You're up, Kim Jong...
You’re up, Kim Jong…

December 16th/17th: Sony pulls American ‘action comedy’ film The Interview from theatrical distribution before it’s even released. Another somewhat unprecedented move that I have already covered, though there is some helpful further context I could set…

In June 2014, the North Korean government, having gotten wind of the film’s production, threatened ‘merciless action’ if the film’s distributor (Columbia Pictures) went ahead with the release. Thus release was delayed from the original date of October 10th to December 25th, while the film was apparently edited to make it more ‘acceptable’ to North Korea (this itself, if true, was an absurd concession, though the planned Christmas day release was perhaps a sign that certain powers sought to maximise profits from their headline-making film). In November, Sony’s computer systems were hacked by a group believed to have ties to North Korea, the “Guardians of Peace” (GoP), who branded the film a “movie of terrorism”.

On December 16th, the GoP threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that dared show the film. No evidence existed to suggest they even had the means of carrying out said attacks, though the threat alone was enough for a number of North American cinema chains to cancel screenings ‘in the interest of safety’ on December 17th. Sony it seems had ‘no choice’ but to cancel the film’s release – after all, they would have been left with a pretty farcical situation if they had went ahead with it but cinemas refused to actually screen it.

Despite initially saying it had no plans to release the film, Sony has since done so digitally and opened the film in a limited run in selected cinemas. It has consequently become Sony’s most successful digital release, earning $40 million in digital rentals alone. While they may still ultimately lose out on the money they could have gained with a full theatrical run, there’s no question that The Interview’s unorthodox publicity has played a large part in boosting sales for what is actually, from all accounts, a rather average movie. So ultimately, we could justifiably ask: who’s the real victor in this situation?

The film has also, somewhat abruptly, arrived on UK shores (literally; it opened theatrically today). I inevitably feel inclined to see it myself for a review, at which point I will give my final thoughts on what it potentially means for a film industry in which an average movie can become the most talked about of the year, while something like The Babadook goes largely under the radar. In that sense there is an injustice here.

In another sense, though, it was incredibly encouraging to see prominent public figures, including President Barack Obama, stand up for the right to make such a movie as this, even though it does contain offensive content from North Korea’s point of view. While we could question whether someone like Obama was speaking up more because the precious pride of his country was at stake (it was, after all, a little humiliating that North Korea was essentially holding their film industry at ransom), this vocal support for ‘freedom of expression’ was nonetheless a heartening reminder of how highly regarded movies have become in modern culture. They can now offend entire countries and be defended for their right to do so.

To be ‘offended’ in this way is perhaps not quite the great injustice some make it out to be – in fact usually we can learn a lot from sensing it within ourselves – and even if it was, this again represented a simple case of “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it”. We know ultimately, of course, North Korea didn’t want the film to be shown only because it could harm the god-like status their leader holds, thanks to the intense propaganda created by their government. Is showing this status to be potentially false an ‘offence’? From some within North Korea, it certainly is. Does this make it wrong for a movie like The Interview to contain such provocative suggestions?

Whether you think it wrong or not is beside the point; being permitted to make this distinction for ourselves in the first place is the real point. And it is the very idea of this kind of conversation happening at all that North Korea found inherently offensive, which represents the real problem. This leads on nicely to my final case, which actually bears a few striking similarities to this one.

Now before I continue, perhaps it is best that I preface the following with a caution. I know some of you reading this may feel stronger about the Charlie Hebdo situation than you felt about the previous cases. I am no exception.

Not only would I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right of freedom to print the offensive Muhammad cartoon that led to this tragedy, I also unequivocally think it was the right thing to do artistically, for similar reasons as I have detailed above relating to how North Korea views its god-like leader. The situations are largely similar; the main difference here is that we live among Muslims in our own country. It can be a little more difficult when those voicing their offence are somewhat closer to home.

But when it comes to how we view religion there exists another taboo, both inside and out, that says their own respective god-like figure should somehow be immune to the critique and (dare I say) satiric mockery that we would apply to most other things deemed more ‘acceptable’ targets. This is largely due, I think, to the negative arguments, insults and bitterness that already exist in interactions between certain groups and their subsequent need to become vigorously defensive over their own beliefs – some of which dictate that all others must be wrong. If Charlie Hebdo has shown us anything, it is that this current climate has to change (and ‘Je suis Charlie’ may just be the spark that triggers it) – because these murders ‘in the name of…’ are exemplary of how dangerous it can be.

I’m not saying you need to simply ‘get used to it’ or that you have to like opposing views to your own. The same rules apply to the likes of a Charlie Hebdo magazine as in any other situation; if you find it offensive, you’re under no obligation to give it your support or your attention. But you must accept that other people will, and other people do, and this is within their freedom of choice to do so. You have no right, for as long as you are human like the rest of us, to take that away from them. You’re welcome to give them reasons why they shouldn’t support something or give it their attention, but when you start using unnecessarily dramatic language and picking things out of thin air to pass of as ‘facts’ in support of your own biased argument (as was the case in the above GTA V petition), you are being dishonest not only with that other person, but with yourself. I understand it’s tempting to do this kind of thing when you feel passionate about a particular subject, but in relaxing it a little more, it’s not unthinkable you could actually learn something new from those you would otherwise consider your opponents.

This train of thought all stems from an incident on January 7th at 11.30am: two masked gunmen, armed with assault rifles, force their way into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. They fire 50 shots while shouting “Allah Akbar” (Arabic for ‘God is the greatest’), killing 11 people and injuring 11 others.

On January 11th, about two million people including more than 40 world leaders gather in Paris for a rally of national unity – a further 3.7 million people joined in demonstrations across France. The phrase ‘Je suis Charlie’ became a common slogan to show solidarity and support for those involved in the tragedy and communicate one clear message: our freedom of expression is worth defending in principle, even when we don’t necessarily agree on how to use it.

The remaining Charlie Hebdo staff team has continued weekly publications; issue No. 1178 sold out a print run of seven million copies in 6 languages. This is in contrast to its typical French-only 60,000 run. Again this is exemplary of the aggressor’s tactics backfiring on them; in the modern era, with the news coverage that a story of this kind receives, a tragic story inevitably turns into profitable publicity. Sentiment is a powerful marketing tool, after all.

Many more people have witnessed the Muhammad cartoon now than would ever have been the case otherwise. Those who killed in his name have only succeeded in degrading it further, rather than instilling the fear they sought to create. Ultimately, Charlie Hebdo has become a kind of martyr for free speech; in the end it seems quite the opposite of the death knell for ‘freedom of expression’ that some have made it out to be.

Yet in their first issue after the attack the remaining team didn’t call for any reaction except forgiveness, alongside a tearful cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover. No, this wasn’t a stubborn sign that they wouldn’t back down; it was a sign of solidarity, not against Islam, but with it (albeit in their signature satiric style, which looks likely to remain intact going forward). For all the criticism that has gone their way since this incident happened, I think it was the classiest response they could’ve given. Not one of fear, but of forgiveness, humour and even an offer of friendship, from a team that have lost many of their own closest friends.

But I don’t find their ‘humour’ funny, you may respond. And here’s a little secret: neither did I. The cover that provoked this whole situation isn’t exactly hilarious, or even well drawn (perhaps that was the problem). Heck, like most of you I had no idea this magazine even existed until a few weeks ago. I didn’t care before all of this happened and I’m not suddenly rushing to buy a subscription now. They can go back to their own niche market when all of this has subsided and none of you have to endorse them or pay them any more attention. Ironically, I think religious extremism has already done enough of that in this case.

Whether their style is to your own personal taste or not is, again, beside the real point. This entire post covers my best attempts to explain why, and moreover, what that real point actually is. But perhaps one final ironic comparison will help, both to punctuate what I’ve been trying to illustrate and to eradicate any suspicion of bias you may have of me.

You see, I’m far from the only one to have realised the ignorance of that GTA V petition. It was exemplary of how much you can distort the image of something when you take certain parts of it out of context. And there were some hilarious tongue-in-cheek responses to it, as many other people started coming up with absurd petitions of their own to highlight the faults of the original (satire once again proving it’s the best mode of cutting through that mythical curtain).

None of them highlighted this to better effect than this petition to ‘withdraw the Holy Bible from shelves’, which uses much of the same language as the GTA V version (and incidentally has 62,000 supporters to GTA V’s 48,000). Like its GTA counterpart, it takes the Bible completely out of context, portraying it in a way that seems more bloody, more violent and more abusive to women than GTA V could ever be. And you know what? When you decide to play by these rules, that’s exactly what the Bible becomes; a bloody, violent, misogynistic text.

If you’re a Christian yourself, you can probably recall a point when you’ve been left frustrated by others labelling the Bible in this way. Gamers who’ve played and know GTA V well, will feel a similar way when people put the kind of ignorant labels on video games that this GTA V petition did. If you can understand that thanks to such a tongue-in-cheek illustration, then we likely find ourselves on the same page in relation to everything else I’ve talked about here. Or maybe not, and that’s fine too.

Conversations are fine, and many opinions have been changed because of them. But one must understand that for someone else to have a different opinion to you is also fine, and changing it accordingly should be their choice to do so. If they do that because you’ve won them round with a persuasive case, that’s great; certainly a better victory than if you’d done so through deception.

I think most of us would agree on that. But if, perhaps, you’re one who thinks you already have all the right answers to which you must only ‘win others round’ using the occasional scare tactic, word trickery or verbal abuse, I’m afraid you may be left frustrated, even disappointed, by the direction society is heading in.

Film reviews

Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Exodus review pic.

2014 has been labeled the ‘year of the Bible movie’. It was also the year in which audiences decided Transformers: Age of Extinction would be the box office’s highest grossing film (something I think you should all be ashamed of). In the form of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, we have an interesting mix between the two; perhaps the most anticipated of these ‘Bible movies’, and certainly the closest of all of them to a typical Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ in the breadth of its vision and scope.

You may think it inevitable then that I would be critical towards the film, if only for its gallant use of an inflated budget to tell a story previously told many times before. But this is not necessarily the case – remember I gave Noah a positive review earlier last year. I did wonder then whether any other director could achieve the kind of emotional beats and clever effects that Aronofsky did with his somewhat ambiguous vision of a flawed character from a much-debated text. Though if there were to be another of them out there, it would surely be he who gave us Alien and Gladiator: Ridley Scott. With Exodus he at least matches Aronofsky’s biblical effort, and in some ways surpasses it.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is an interpretation of the story of Moses and the liberation of his people, the Hebrews, from their slavery in Egypt around 1300 BC. In terms of its narrative content at least it is no more, no less, and doesn’t appear to wear any ulterior motives on its sleeve. Now you can choose whether you would like to read certain things into it that aren’t there, or judge it based on how you think it should have been done without allowing for the possibility that other people’s opinions are okay too.

To do this, though, would be to change the terms by which the film itself adheres to. Film is an art form. There is no ‘right or wrong’ way to do it, though there are ‘good or bad’ ways it can be done. Frequently you will find viewers, and even perhaps the occasional critic, who confuse the two.

How you react to this film should not, therefore, be dictated by how strict your subjective stance on whether or not it should be a ‘biblically accurate’ interpretation. If you’d like to do that then go off and write an essay about it by all means, but unless you can put these feelings to one side for the purpose of a review, you are not qualified to give an informative opinion that could prove helpful to those outside of your own social group.

Look what I’m doing now, for example. This is in danger of not being a review at all, but an argument for my stance on what’s right and wrong. And that doesn’t really belong here – I should be talking about whether or not the acting and directing is any good, whether it is effective at telling its story, how its soundtrack measures up to previous Ridley Scott films…. These things would accompany any normal review. For me, a deeply personal stance on any films content should not and (I hope) would not affect whether I think the film is actually any good at doing what it does, because the two are categorically different things and should be clearly classified as such if one chooses to comment on the former while discussing the latter. Indeed knowing this films makers were not out to create a strictly Christian movie means it would be inherently dishonest of me, from a critical perspective, to judge it by such criteria and try passing that off as an objective opinion.

If on the other hand Exodus did have obvious ulterior motives dictated by the bias of those who made it and if, say, those motives severely harmed its overall quality – as was the case for one of 2014’s worst films, God’s Not Dead – then I think it would be more appropriate, if not completely vital, to widen the conversation as it pertains to your own personal stance. After all, ignorance breeds ignorance, hence why one must rise to fight it with intelligent discourse when such matters arise.

But in this case, Ridley Scott’s take on the story is as unbiased as it is illuminating for the open-minded viewer. While not shying away from identifying the Hebrew God as its deity (getting itself banned in several countries as a result), it leads with a refreshing ambiguity around its main events, taking into account the distinct possibility that this story, even if based on truth, may have been exaggerated over time on its way to becoming a kind of Old Testament myth that everyone is aware of to varying extents.

Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton step into their respective lead roles as brothers Moses and Ramesses confidently, with Edgerton showing he is more than capable of matching Bale in the spotlight when it would have been easy for him to be overshadowed here. Though beyond this, casting choices for the films other roles seem questionable. Ben Kingsley appears to be going through the motions as Nun, one of the slaves who help reveal Moses’ true identity, while Sigourney Weaver’s inclusion, as the Egyptian Queen Tuya, feels wasted to the extent that I had forgotten she was in the film until seeing her name credited at the end. This disconnect ultimately could be attributed to the heavy edits made to Scott’s original four hour cut of the film (I suspect this also robs the relationship between Moses and Ramesses of some of its depth), but it still leaves you questioning whether this movie really needed any other big names present aside from its two lead actors.

Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack is suitably epic in all the right places and knows when to stay silent in others – which is of course the secret to all the best soundtracks, though this one isn’t quite memorable enough to be one of your core lasting impressions of Exodus. This is still a major Hollywood film, after all, and therefore numerous qualities, such as its grandiose use of music and consistently impressive visual effects, are things we have become overly accustomed to. Even the aforementioned Transformers series is capable of pulling off such things and has not gained much critical success for it. No, these are not what truly set Exodus: Gods and Kings apart. What does that is what it chooses to do differently from what you’d expect.

Having said that, you may still find the story’s perceived accuracy (or lack of such in places) – especially if it’s a meaningful, personal story for you – directly affects your enjoyment of the film. Let me tell you then where Exodus: Gods and Kings will most likely struggle to gain your trust. The ‘plagues’ that affect Egypt are afforded practical explanations and shown to be potentially due to natural causes (at least until the awkward point of all the Egyptian first born children dying in one night).

God appears not as a voice from the sky, as in The Ten Commandments (DeMille, 1956), but as an authoritative ten-year-old boy. Moses’ initial encounter with Him is set up after a rock hits him on the head, and the nature of subsequent encounters are left somewhat ambiguous as it is shown on more than one occasion that Moses is in fact the only one who can see ‘God’, even among his fellow Hebrews. Therefore, the possibility remains open that these encounters are simply the result of a hallucination by Moses, or perhaps a sign of his deteriorated mental state (indeed, for someone who did not already know the basic plot, whether this entity is really God at all would also be up for debate).

Furthermore, details such as the nature of the ‘parting of the Red Sea’ sequence and a lack of true supernatural intervention on show in the film will serve to irritate those who perhaps came expecting to see their God glorified through the use of enhanced CGI. Within the context of this modern world in which Exodus has been released, though, I found its approach to be appropriate. It doesn’t touch DeMille’s legacy in The Ten Commandments, but what Ridley Scott has admirably shown is that he never intended to merely present an updated copy of the former film, which was made in a different era to this one.

Exodus is very much its own film that takes certain risks. It doesn’t pander to any section of its potential audience. It doesn’t get everything it tries right. It attempts to present an objective vision of what, for many, is a very subjective issue. Of all of last years ‘Bible movies’, it was arguably the best at doing this, and for that at least, I think it’s worth recommending – for any audience.

8 / 10