Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Confession: I Am In Burnout

It's true. I'm there. Burnout is here.

About two months ago, I read Carey Nieuwhof's 9 signs you're burning out in leadership. I have all nine. 100%.

I had been telling others for awhile that I was living life at an unsustainable pace, that I was feeling drained and weary, that I felt headed towards burnout. Reading Carey's post made me realize I wasn't headed there--I was there.

I hesitate to say I've burned out. It's in the past tense, and implies "I quit. Finished. Over. Caput." There's a sense of defeat or devastation with this phrase. Yet I'm not done with ministry, because Jesus isn't done with me yet. I still am called to be a pastor, still passionate about youth ministry and leadership development and the local church.

No, I'm in burnout. Present tense. I may be in the shadows of a valley, but I am certainly not finished. There is no defeat here, only a season of spiritual, emotional, and physical exile, where the exhaustion runs deeper than simply being tired. There is a weariness in this place, a numbing fog that makes the world a bit more grey and dim.

What exactly is burnout? 

Imagine a car engine running for an extended period of time, only without changing or adding motor oil. This engine can keep going for a long while without much maintenance, despite emitting worrying noises or some fits and spurts. However, at a certain point, when things have been pushed for far too long, the engine wears down. Gears grind to a halt, metal pounds upon metal, and the whole thing seizes up, unable to continue forward as it should. To keep the engine running would begin to cause irreparable damage. The engine needs to stop, to be cared for and repaired. This is a picture of burnout.

Burnout is an overwhelming and holistic exhaustion due to prolonged stress. It is pervasive, affecting the physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects of a person. In its wake lies depression, low energy, lack of immune system defenses, emotional numbness, and a sense of spiritual discouragement or defeat. That's what I'm feeling. It sucks, because it's not me. The feelings of cynicism, the lack of desire to be around people, the constant underlying frustration and stress--this isn't the typical people-loving naively idealistic hopeful Joel.

What caused your (Joel's) burnout?

One word: pride.

That's the root cause, at least for me. There were all sorts of external factors that were the causes of much stress, anxiety, and frustration. But the internal primer that ignited the flames of burnout was a reliance upon my own strength instead of the Lord's. I would try to talk myself into things being better than they were. "I'm fine. I'm good. I've got this. Everything is going great. If it's not going great, it's going to get better soon, just you wait. This busyness and exhaustion is just a season. I'm unstoppable." For two years, I have been pouring myself out for others at a much faster rate than others have poured into me, straining to keep up with unrealistic expectations and the desire to please others. But this strain has led me to act in defiance of my own personal values and vocational leanings. I've spent a great deal of energy trying to be and act like someone I'm not.

How does someone recover from burnout?

Here's another image I've found helpful: imagine ministry as a marathon, not a sprint. I have been running in this marathon since 2003, with a few short breaks and moments of rest along the way. I've had people to pace with me for much of my ministry career, kindred spirits who are partners in the gospel. This past ministry season, it's been like the trail has taken an uphill turn and I've picked up both some heavy burdens and increased momentum. I've been running at an unsustainable pace. With burnout, it's as if I've twisted an ankle or torn a tendon in this race. I'm in a great deal of pain or numbness, depending on the moment, and it's slowing me down. I need to stop and rest and let the wound heal. Yet if I keep running--which is what I'm prone to do--it will certainly cause irreparable damage, certainly to me and possibly to others around me.

The only way to heal from burnout is to slow the pace, lessen the burden, and lean into Jesus and community for healing and strength. If I keep running in the marathon with a significant wound, I'm likely to ultimately wound others. So, I'm taking some significant action steps to recover, including stepping away from my current youth pastor position at my church in Langley, BC. Along with this resignation, our family will be moving from Canada back to the Portland, OR area to be closer to family, for me to pursue graduate studies, and to take a season to discern and heal. By this Christmas, the chapter of our lives in Canada will come to a close.

I'm recognizing that what got me here was my own pride, choosing to trust in my strength and try to tell myself things will get better. As Carey Nieuwhof writes in his post about recovering from burnout, "Only humility will get you out of what pride got you into." I just quit my job so I could be a better pastor, husband, and father. I'm not saying everyone has to do this, but it's my act of faith and obedience.

Where is God in all this?

We each go through spiritual cycles, and burnout is a season of spiritual exile. I long for the days when I felt "at home" and there was a deep joy in life and ministry. It's not that I don't experience joy now, but it's a different sort of joy--a sustained internal contentment and hope that God is with me and for me, regardless of circumstance or feeling. Katie and I are quite confident of God's presence and guidance through all this, particularly in our decision to leave our church and Canada. We just want to be obedient.

As I write these words, a morning fog has covered the hillside where my home sits. The grey mist has engulfed the slopes and trees, obscuring the world around in a blanket of murk. I cannot see much beyond what is directly ahead of me, but this isn't absolute darkness either. It's a temporary opacity, the blue-grey of the early morning. Suddenly, a brightness pierces through, illuminating the haze into a warm yellow tone. The sunrise warms up the world, offering hope for a new day, recalling to my mind a passage of Scripture that feels appropriate for this season of exile and awaiting redemption:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
Lamentations 3:19-24

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What I'm Working On

Just thought I'd give a brief update on some of my recent writing and speaking projects:

LeaderTreks. I regularly write blog posts for LeaderTreks, and recently wrote a two-part series on evangelism and discipleship (and why those aren't opposites). From Good News Sharers: Giving Students a Language for Evangelism and Disciple-Making:
Training students to view themselves as disciple-makers and bearers of the good news of Jesus is essential before they can grow as confident gospel-sharers. Sharing the gospel is more than just one of many tasks for Christians; it’s an identity we embrace. When evangelism is isolated as just another religious obligation, or something only specially gifted uber-Christians can do—e.g., evangelists or pastors—students’ desire to share their faith may become stunted or questioned.
From Show and Tell: Remove Students' Crippling Fear of Sharing the Gospel:
Ultimately, evangelism doesn’t make sense if our lives are not being transformed by the good news of Jesus. If we’re all tell and no show, our message won’t come across as good news. One of the recurring reasons Millennials are leaving the church in college is that they view Christians as hypocrites. That’s not a guilt trip to force students to act perfect (that’s impossible). But it is a push for students to match their message with their actions. They should live lives of humility and service, not criticism and condemnation, to demonstrate the effects of grace in their own lives. Encourage students to follow Jesus and grow deeper in relationship with him, and they’ll find themselves more equipped and open to sharing about their relationship with him.
Youth Worker Journal. I wrote a full article for YWJ's November/December issue entitled Jesus Goes to the Movies: Helping Students Develop a Theological Framework for Watching Films. An excerpt:
When we engage with the powerful medium of film with thoughtfulness, humility and a posture of receiving, we can begin to model to students not only a theological understanding of film, but also a healthy posture for our relationship with the Divine Artist. We look for the grace and truth of Christ in all corners of culture, asking deeper questions, being honest about our own boundaries and brokenness. In the darkness of the cinema and the brilliance of the silver screen, His presence is there. 
Leading Up Webinar. Just after the second birthday of Leading Up: Finding Influence in the Church Beyond Role and Experience, I'll be leading a webinar for Catholic youth workers in Delaware about the concepts in Leading Up and ways for discouraged or frustrated youth workers to navigate the difficulties of church politics and environments. The cool part about webinars--I get to see and interact with awesome youth workers from across the globe in the comfort of my own home.

If you'd like me to write for your publication or speak to your group, just contact me here!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On Opinions and Identity, Or Why I Still Love You Even If You Liked Interstellar

I think I'm in the minority on this one, but I'm gonna throw it out there: I wasn't particularly impressed with Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic Interstellar.

Sure, it has its moments of grandeur. In between the lengthy exposition where characters say Things That Are Really Deep and Important, there are some compelling questions about human origins and the nature of love, even if I think the film's answers for those questions aren't particularly enriching or true. I found myself more impressed with the ESA landing the Rosetta probe on a comet this week. Science fact just trumped science fiction. Here's what I wrote on Letterboxd as a brief review of Interstellar:
Some beautiful cosmic images, but not as beautiful as THE TREE OF LIFE. Some intense outer space action, but not as intense as GRAVITY. Some philosophical musings about our place in the universe, but not as thoughtful as CONTACT. Some exploration of the psychological effects of human beings in outer space, but not as interesting as MOON. Some mind-bending wormhole exploration, but not as mind-bending or memorable as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Some funny talking robots, but not as funny as STAR WARS. Some portrayals and expositions on love, but no love here as affecting or true as, dare I say, WALL-E.
Here's the thing: I know plenty of good people who absolutely loved Interstellar. Like, it's their new favorite movie. It impacted them in profound--even spiritual--ways. It's a film that means something to them. And their opinions aren't unworthy or lacking in merit. They had genuine thoughtful and emotional responses to the film. Some of my favorite film critics have great things to say about Interstellar (read here and here). I value their opinions; I just sorta disagree with them on this one.

There's a phenomenon I've noticed when talking about and evaluating movies: people often attach their identities to their opinions. Many students (and adults) have strong emotions with their opinion about films, even an ontological connection. If I don't like their new favorite movie and critically tear it apart, they’ll often feel like I dislike them, not just the film. Similarly, if I love and affirm a movie they love, they feel genuine care and empathy, even though I'm really only sharing my opinions on the movie. 

In my experience, this identity connection with movie opinions goes far deeper than personal sentiments about music, books, or other media—people feel respected and honored when I choose to respect and honor the films they love. Similarly, when I share my personal affection for Star Wars or Terrence Malick films, others begin to see and understand more than just my opinions about movies—they are invited to see a bit of my heart.

The opinion/identity attachment goes far beyond movies. Politics, religion, ethnicity, even sports teams--we can turn a personal opinion into a social marker that defines us from them. It's something that happens in middle school and continues throughout the course of our lives. We begin to define ourselves and associate with People Who Think Like Me, and start to avoid (at best) or condemn (at worst) People Who Don't Think Like Me.

This polarization can be a dangerous approach. While we cannot fully separate our opinions from our identities--they are our opinions, after all, and if we didn't agree with them, we wouldn't have 'em--we may need to hold both our identities and opinions with an open hand and an open ear. Martin Buber writes about individuality and identity in I And Thou
Individuality makes its appearances by being differentiated from other individualities. A person makes his appearance by entering into relation with other persons. The one is the spiritual form of natural detachment, the other the spiritual form of natural solidarity.
We must be willing to allow relationship with a Thou to impact us for the better, having a posture of humility which allows us to listen to differing opinions with a reverence and respect often not found in our world. We also need to have our own individualities and opinions that brush up against other individuals with a posture of grace. If Christians in particular could adopt this posture--if we were known as the best listeners and most respectful of those who disagree with us--I imagine that would be considered good news in a polarizing and opinion-spouting world.

If you liked Interstellar, I love you. If you didn't like Interstellar, I love you. If you haven't seen Interstellar, I love you. I hope you love me, too. Would that we lived in a world where our opinions and identities were united by that mysterious and powerful dimension everyone longs for in Interstellar: love.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Movie Review: Fury

Too long have I lived
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
but when I speak, they are for war.

(Psalm 120:6-7)

The young Norman (Logan Lerman) could have penned the latter verse of the above psalm. He hasn't been in enough battles to write the former line. As the new soldier assigned to join a US tank squad hardened by the horrors of three years of battles, Norman (read: "normal man") is naive and frightened about the realities of war. He signed up for this military gig, but he doesn't really want to kill anybody.

Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) could also have written the psalmist's line, only his words would hold a bit more weight than Norman's. The leader of the "Fury" tank squad, Don has been to hell, but he hasn't been back yet. He sees Norman's inability to kill, and knows this inability will get their entire team killed if something doesn't change, and quick. Don is neither naive nor frightened any more; war is hell, and one has to sacrifice a portion of one's humanity and ideals in order to survive.

Don and Norman's paradigms collide with Norman's inability to kill leads to the death of another tank commander. He doesn't pull the trigger, and a US solider dies a horrible death. Don pulls Norman aside, shoves a gun into his hand, and brutally forces him to shoot a captured Nazi soldier in the back. Don doesn't need anyone on his team who can't kill Nazis; that will lead to a dead tank unit, something Don isn't willing to let happen. After all, they're in this war for one purpose: "We’re not here for right and wrong; we’re here to kill Krauts."

Fury is a grim study of the effects of war on ordinary men in April 1945. Wardaddy's team is an eclectic bunch united by their shared experience of living inside a metal gun for three years in World War II. Akin to most diverse filmic teams--there's the mean brute, the kind-hearted Christian, the wise-cracking minority, the scared new recruit, and the revered steely leader--the tank unit commands the titular tank with grit and duty. "Best job in the world," they say with irony. What job is that? "Killing the g*dd*mn Nazis." Don embodies these contradictions with his stoic charm. He certainly cares for his unit while also remaining aloof; he's their "war daddy" after all. He knows what needs to get done in this war and is willing to kill Nazis with seeming indifference, yet breaks down into tears when he is alone, overwhelmed by the weight he carries. He berates the religious soldier of his unit--"do you think Jesus loves Hitler?" he asks with a smirk--yet is later finishing that soldier's biblical quote from Isaiah 6 as they enter into a standoff where survival is unlikely. "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent," Don says to Norman in a brief moment of rest. Yet we are unsure if he truly believes this, or whether it's a phrase he tells himself to stay alive in this depraved reality.

Fury is not an anti-war film, but it's also not a pro-war film. Akin to The Hurt Locker, it is a film exploring the effects of war on the human spirit, both how war arises from and fosters human depravity. Neither Don or Norman are really "right" in their evaluation of the situation. This is not liberal pacifism, though Fury does show us the power of compassion and the choice to avoid violence for the sake of saving life. It's also not a blanket celebration of military power--these are ordinary men pushed into extraordinary circumstances, forced to the brink of insanity in order to stay alive and accomplish the mission. This is not a celebration of the Greatest Generation; this is a mud-and-blood-and-sh*t story. It is entirely appropriate that the whole film has the tone and quality of a muddy grey, washed out and dirt-speckled. This is a grim and brutal story, violent and bleak. I left the theatre feeling an absence of hope, yet appreciating the willingness of ordinary men to enter into the fray. Perhaps its appropriate to write this review on Remembrance Day weekend, these few days intended for us to recall both the horrors of war and the bravery of the soldiers who fought in those horrors.

Jesus once said, "blessed are the peacemakers." I believe him. I think Don would quietly agree.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Choose Your Battles: 6 Questions to Ask in a Ministry Conflict

Photo Credit: JWPhotowerks (CC)
Leadership in the church can be a series of uphill battles.

Why is it this way? Policies, politics, and preferences, which all have a common thread: people. Conflicts and disputes with people can take a lot of time and energy. Sometimes those battles feel completely unnecessary, causing ministry leaders to expend lots of sideways energy for a conflict that isn't worth fighting. Some battles are worth dying for; others didn't need to happen in the first place. It's these latter conflicts I hope to address here. Too many battles simply weren't worth fighting in the first place--they had to do with quirks, personal preferences, or simply weren't worth the time or energy.

Good ministry leaders know which battles to fight. I hesitate to use the word "battle" for its warlike connotations, but conflicts between people in the church can get downright ugly, especially if they're done poorly. Yet conflicts are an important part of relationship--we need iron to sharpen iron, to hone and refine and clarify.

Honest, humble, gracious conflict can ultimately be life-giving. But it won't be if we're fighting the wrong battles, expending lots of undue energy and time on issues that aren't really important or distract from the overall mission.

Here are 6 questions to ask yourself as a ministry leader in a current or potential conflict:

1. What are my values? Having core personal and professional values can offer a helpful framework for discerning whether a conflict is worth the time and energy. If a person's actions or words completely conflict with a core value, it may be a battle worth fighting. For instance, if one of your core values is growing small in community, and a ministry leader decides to dismantle all small group ministry programs, it's likely a conflict worth pursuing. One of my ministry values is creating environments of belonging. If a student or youth leader is mean-spirited or overly sarcastic in their tone and making others uncomfortable, it's not just a personality issue--it goes against a core value, and needs to be addressed directly. However, if a new non-Christian student is a bit unruly or distracting during a talk, the value of an environment of belonging allows me to give grace instead of calling that student out and potentially hurting the relationship.

2. What are my motives? Check your heart--why did this particular situation become a conflict for you? What is the history behind this relationship and conflict? What planks might be in your eye that need to be removed? Can you approach the situation with authenticity and self-awareness?

3. Who is affected by the ripples? Every conflict has ripples. These are the emotional and relational shockwaves that impact and influence other relationships. This is a question of systems thinking, viewing the conflict through the lens of overlapping relationships. Who are all the people affected by this conflict? How will having a conflict be beneficial or detrimental to these particular people, both in the short and long term? Knowing the relational impact will help you know the weightiness of the conflict at hand.

4. Am I throwing pearls to pigs? Jesus's statement in Matthew 7 is somewhat strange, but it's set in the context of judging others. I think Jesus is implying that some battles aren't worth fighting due to the other person's hard heartedness and inability to change their opinion about the issue. Of course, there isn't anyone beyond redemption or change. But if it's a battle that keeps getting fought over and over and over, it may be worth setting boundaries for yourself and not wasting time offering valuable input or advice to those who won't hear it.

5. What is my relational equity? If your relationship with this person(s) was a bank account, how much do you have invested? How much time and energy have you spent with this individual or group? What sort of relational withdrawal are you willing to make? If you choose to engage in a conflict where you don't have much equity invested, you may find yourself bankrupt and the relationship lost. You'll have to ask, is this relationship worth losing for me?

6. What is the Spirit guiding me to do? This is the ultimate question--what is God calling you to do in the situation? Regardless of personality, conflict styles, or personal preferences, God may be calling you to lovingly engage in a conflict, or to back off and give grace and patience.

May you engage in loving, gracious, truthful, life-giving conflict and know the battles you need to pursue!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Top 15 Youth Group Cliches

Check out this snarky and silly video from Blimey Cow on the top 15 youth group cliches (click here to watch if you can't see the embed below):

Love the awkward side hug, the "sloppy wet kiss vs. unforeseen kiss," and the cameo from Derek Webb as the angriest youth pastor ever. It's all a bit over-the-top, and kinda cringe-worthy in its accuracy.

What do you think? Which cliche stood out to you? What would you add to the list?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My Movie Rating Scale

Some of my personal all-time favorite films
How do you decide if a movie is "good" or not?

No, really. Take a minute and think about it. What are the qualities of a “good” movie, versus a “bad” movie?  A good moral message? Well-made and aesthetically interesting? Depicts something true or beautiful? Personal taste for the genre? You just sorta liked it?

It's an important question to consider, as it brings to the surface our motives, paradigms, values, and practices when it comes to engaging with art and culture. Why do you like what you like?

Everyone needs to find a system and framework that works for them. This isn't just pragmatics; this is an exhortation to do the hard work of figuring out your own tastes and learning how to thoughtfully expand them. As someone who has built a reputation for my love of film and faith, I've recognized that I need to have a sort of public framework, a ratings system akin to the ones critics use in their reviews. 

Let's be honest: nowadays it's all about the numbers and ratings. In a world of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, actually reading whole written reviews and reflections has (tragically) gone by the wayside for many people looking to critics for whether or not to see a film. I have never placed a numerical value or rating within my film reviews on my blog, but I do record them in my Film Journals. But seeing a number or some stars doesn't tell you much. So allow me to unpack the numbers, offering some clarity behind the system I use:

5-star Rating (100-point Rating) Personal / Aesthetic / Spiritual
5 (95-100) Favorite / Masterpiece / Divine Encounter
4.5 (88-94) Exceptional / Well-Crafted Work of Art / Enriching and Transformative
4 (78-87) Great / Exciting, Affecting, Memorable Achievement / Enlightening
3.5 (68-77) Very Good / Interesting Concept and Execution / Evoking
3 (58-67) Good / Interesting Concept or Execution / Eye-Opening
2.5 (48-57) Mixed Feelings / Flawed but Worthy / Moderately Insightful
2 (38-47) Disappointing / Mediocre and Uninteresting / Secular
1.5 (28-37) Regrettable / Notably Flawed and Frustrating / Guilt-inducing
1 (18-27) Enraging / Wholly Deficient / Shameful
0.5 (8-17) Failure / Offensive / Toxic
0 (0-7) Atrocity / Gouge My Eyes Out / Sinful
The first aspect is a 5-star rating scale. Some publications use only 4 stars--Christianity Today and Roger Ebert come to mind--but I've chosen the 5-star system for its easy parallel to IMDB, Netflix, and Letterboxd. If I've rated it 4 stars here, it has 4 stars on Netflix and an 8/10 on IMDB. (You can read more about the origin of the "stars" criteria and other ratings systems in this enlightening WSJ article.)

The second part is a 100-point scale. This is akin to a school grade, a more nuanced system for rating, as it can show the difference between two films given the same star rating. For instance, I gave both Class Enemy and Horse Money 4 stars, but I'd grade them as 83 and 78, respectively. Not much of a difference, but enough to show which film I liked better.

The third aspect is a breakdown of the personal, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions of the film. Personal focuses on what the film was about, and whether or not I found it enjoyable or beneficial. Aesthetic focuses on how the film was made, its level of craftsmanship and artistic merit. Spiritual focuses on the truth of the film, its moral and spiritual themes and its transcendent nature.

In my Film Journals, I've highlighted the 4.5 and 5 star reviews in blue and red, respectively. I hope this allows for someone doing a quick scan of my journal to see the films which are personal favorites and films worth your time and energy to experience.

The difficulty lies in personal tastes and affections vs. critical appreciation. Is Pulp Fiction a masterpiece? In a historical and critical acclaim sense, yes. In my opinion, not really. I don't think its aesthetics outweigh its depraved subject matter and its Trying Really Hard To Be Cool tone. So, I'd give it 2 stars on my scale above. What about Ferris Bueller's Day Off? I gave it 5 stars in my journal, because it's a personal favorite and a film I frequently return to, particularly on sick days and when I'm feeling like I need a dose of the 1980s. But is it a film that would appear on a Top 100 Movies of All Time? Not likely.

Do my tastes change over time and repeated viewings? Of course. A recent example is The Giver, which dropped significantly from a 3.5 to a 2.5 after a second viewing and some time to ponder. Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love was a film I declared "too artsy" in high school, only to fully appreciate it ten years later as a married adult who had seen a few more films and could appreciate Anderson's vision. My #1 favorite film in high school was The Matrix, but while I still would rank that film on a personal favorites list, it wouldn't even break the Top 20.

I'm admittedly prone to giving slightly higher reviews than many critics. Most of the films I watch will have a rating between 2.5 and 4, and rarely does a 2 or below end up in my journal. Perhaps this is because I've honed my tastes and judgments to a point where I can tell if I'll appreciate or enjoy a film before I see it. I don't have the time or energy to waste two hours on something that will get less than a 50 on a 100-point scale. Most of those films in my journal were surprises or risks I took. In my Film Journals, I couldn't find a single 0.5 rating, though there were a few 0-star reviews (Sharknado and Birdemic).

Keep in mind: just because I gave a film 4 or 5 stars doesn't mean you should see it or will enjoy it. Similarly, just because I gave a film a low rating doesn't mean I think you're a moron if you happened to like that film. There's value in finding and reading film critics who will make you think and challenge your paradigm, and I appreciate writers who will cause me to rethink my reactions to a film by offering a different perspective. I hope to encourage those who read my reviews to be wise and discerning, open to what a film offers while also using caution in determining whether or not to see that film. For example, I gave 12 Years a Slave a 5-star rating. While it is a powerful film on all levels, it's certainly not a film I'd want to revisit in the near future, and I would caution viewers who may just click the film on Netflix without realizing the violent and disturbing content it contains. I also really appreciated and enjoyed the film Noah, and gave it 4 stars, but I recognize that many viewers disagree with my perspective (you can read my review of Noah here).

I hope this helps you, the reader and film-lover, as I continue to watch, review, and reflect upon films of all varieties. Thanks for taking the time to read and share my film reviews, and I look forward to sharing more of them in the season to come!

Monday, October 13, 2014

VIFF: Winter Sleep; Leviathan; Class Enemy

I'm attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, featuring over 350 films over 16 days. I'll be seeing less than a dozen of these films, and I'll record my reviews and reflections here.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan). The winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Winter Sleep is an intimate familial drama centered around one man's relationship with his wife, his sister, and the small community where he holds significant influence. This man, Aydin, is a former actor who runs a small hotel in the mountainous region of Anatolia in Turkey. The community is quite literally in the hills--homes and rooms are carved into the rocks like ancient cave dwellings, yet Aydin's hotel is equipped with modern comforts. It was strange to see the anachronism of Aydin typing away at his Apple Macbook inside his rocky grotto of a study that looks like something out of Middle Earth.

Winter Sleep centers on the dynamics of separations--class, family, and marriage. Aydin is a wealthy man in his tiny community, and his indifference to the lower class and their plights are met with his amusement. A young boy throws a rock at Aydin's jeep, causing an awkward confrontation between the boy's father and Aydin's steward. The boy and his family rent a home from Aydin, and the rent has been due for months, causing an underlying tension based on finances and class divisions. While Aydin is typing out op-ed articles on his Macbook on how to make society a better place, this family wallows in the mud of his property. There's a disconnect here; Aydin spouts his ideals about spirituality, charitable giving in his writings, yet he rarely seems to practice what he preaches. Aydin is also at odds with his sister, Necla, a recently divorced woman whose strong opinions are often in conflict with Aydin. They have long dialogues about religion, marriage, and their own personalities, typically ending with some type of argument. Necla has a penchant for pushing buttons, even with Aydin's wife, her only companion in the hotel.

The most complex relationship in Winter Sleep is the marriage between Aydin and his young wife Nihal, a beautiful and intelligent woman with her own sense of philanthropic ideals. Those ideals differ from her husband, and while he seems to want to support her, she keeps him at a distance, annoyed with his interference in her life. There has been an underlying tension building over years between this couple, a sense of bitterness from Nihal for being trapped in the cold, hard environment Aydin has fashioned in the Turkish hills. There is a parallel here between Nihal and the wild horse Aydin procures and keeps in a stable for the sake of his hotel patrons. Aydin controls and keeps things the way he wants them, seemingly oblivious to others' desires or aspirations. His idea of freedom and philanthropy doesn't match with Nihal's, who goes so far as to invite him to leave his own home while she conducts meetings to help the schools of their village. It might even be appropriate to call Winter Sleep a "marriage movie," as the relationship between Aydin and Nihal is of primary importance to the whole.

Winter Sleep is a mixture of long, elaborate conversations with scatterings of beautiful scenes of the Turkish countryside. There were a few moments where I felt the three hour running time, but those were have been due to my semi-cramped seating in the theatre and not the mesmerizing character study portrayed on the screen. It's a subtle film, full of complexity and intriguing characters that never feel stilted; they feel wholly human, beautiful and flawed, navigating a winter season together-yet-apart in the crags of the steppe.

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev). When I told my father that I was seeing a Russian film based on the book of Job, he told me, "oh, that sounds depressing and sad." He was right. Leviathan is a bleak and cynical indictment of the major social systems in Russian culture. From politics to religion to marriage to parenting to friendship, every form of system is dismantled and critiqued, revealing the hypocritical and ugly sides of all parties, leaving no one unscathed.

The film centers on a conflict between Nikolai and the mayor of the small town on the edge of the Barents Sea in northern Russia. A mechanic by trade, Nikolai lives in the ramshackle home with his second wife, Lilya, and his teenage son, Romka. The mayor wants to evict Nikolai and take the land, but Nikolai has some outside help--an old army buddy, Dmitri, has come into town from Moscow with some compelling evidence to change the mayor's mind. Yet what begins as a simple land dispute and legal battle begins a spiral of circumstances leading to violence, infidelity, and the splintering of relationships.

I went into the film expecting more overt spiritual themes, as the film had been described as a modern retelling of Job. Yet apart from the titular beast described in Job chapter 41 cited by the village priest in an argument with Nikolai, I would never have thought of Job. Job is described as a righteous man, and the injustice done to him was never due to his own behavior or lack of faithfulness to God. Nikolai is an impulsive and passionate man, prone to outbursts and heavy drinking. He never addresses God, apart from a drunken prayer asking why these terrible things are happening to him. In fact, none of the characters are truly righteous from a holy or pure standpoint. God is strikingly absent from Leviathan; the religious elite are either corrupt or unable to offer empathy or support to Nikolai and his family in their time of need. Where the book of Job ends with God arriving in his sovereign power and gracious compassion, God never speaks here, and the film is certainly a tragedy. Perhaps better biblical parallels would be Ecclesiastes or Lamentations, books which mine the depths of grief and existential crisis. Leviathan is well-crafted, beautifully shot, ambitious, and quietly compelling, but its despair was too overwhelming for this viewer to find it worth revisiting.

Class Enemy (Rok Bicek). When the favorite teacher of a classroom of high school seniors goes on maternity leave, their new harsh substitute teacher, Robert, quickly finds himself antagonized and the focus of a a growing rebellion. Rigid and authoritative, Robert singles out students and shames them, particularly a sensitive and quiet girl named Sabine. When Sabine goes home and commits suicide after a harsh conversation with Robert, the rest of the grieving class place the blame on the teacher.

What makes Class Enemy so fascinating and why it works so well is its ability to navigate the realms of the morally grey with apparent ease. Even the color palette is stark, using natural grey lighting from Slovenia to give a pale and monotone look to the film. At first, I felt sympathetic to the students and their desire for justice; Robert felt like a monster of a teacher, aloof and cruel in his methods, and the students lashing out was reasonable. Yet as the mob mentality began to grow and the students became more vocal and belligerent, it was difficult to find a true protagonist, and I found myself wishing the students would give up on their tirade. As the rebellion escalates, the entire situation feels both exaggerated and authentic; I could see a similar situation playing out in a local high school, particularly surrounding a suicide. Even Sabine is difficult to pin down; her own best friend doesn't know her particularly well, and she's portrayed both as saintly and selfish.

I almost wish Class Enemy played out more like 12 Angry Men or similar morally complex films, staging the entire story within the classroom itself, creating a claustrophobic tension. The strongest filmic parallel--perhaps Class Enemy's brighter twin--is Monsiur Lazhar, a wonderful Canadian film about a substitute teacher who helps a class of children process their grief together after the suicide of a beloved teacher. Both films address suicide, grief, and the impact of a teacher on a classroom. Yet while I found Monsiur Lazhar to be the more hopeful and affecting film, Class Enemy certainly made me think more, especially about what I would do in a similar situation. As a youth pastor and a cinephile, Class Enemy is right in my wheelhouse--a tense, relentless morality tale which kept me on my intellectual and philosophical toes for its entirety.

Monday, October 6, 2014

VIFF: Two Days, One Night; Listen Up Philip

I'm attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, featuring over 350 films over 16 days. I'll be seeing less than a dozen of these films, and I'll record my reviews and reflections here.

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes). I'll admit up front--I am a huge fan of the Dardennes brothers and their films. Like modern-day parables, the Dardennes films are simple stories embodying profound moral and spiritual themes. Two Days, One Night follows this structure, focusing on Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her struggle to keep her job. Her employer offers her co-workers a vote--they can choose to keep Sandra as part of their team, or opt to get a 1000 Euro bonus. After Sandra and a friend get the boss to cast a re-vote, Sandra has a weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their financial bonus so she can keep her job.

It's a moral situation in the vein of sociologist Lawrence Kohlberg--what would you choose to do, and why? It's a simple situation, yet there are so many factors and motives to consider. Initially, the vast majority of employees (understandably) take the bonus. It's only when Sandra begins showing up on their doorsteps and looking them in the eye where the choice becomes more difficult. Her message is the same--she feels the vote was unfairly influenced by their frightening foreman and she wants them to reconsider. Many ask the question, "who else has said they would vote for her?" Some change their minds; others don't. The emotional response to Sandra ranges from anger to pity to indifference to deep empathy. In each case, Sandra's brief interaction forces a moral choice, a knee-jerk reaction and a revelation of values and principles.

This is more than just a film about moral choices, though that's central to the narrative. Sandra was not at work for a season due to struggling with depression, a personal battle where she has only recently begun to find victory. To walk up to her colleagues and look them in the eye, asking for their charity and grace only to experience a stream of rejection--this requires enormous emotional strength and fortitude, something Sandra doesn't believe she has. Supported by her husband, who drives her to these confrontations both literally and emotionally, Sandra must rely on an inner determination to keep both her job and her sanity in the face of such an emotionally-draining circumstances. If you've ever been in a situation where every decision feels like an uphill battle, where all conversations feel like closed doors and no one seems to take your side or understand your position, Sandra's plight will be familiar. She wanders about town, bright in her pink tank tops and sorrowful in her blue eyes, looking for someone who will stand up for her and choose to forgo financial gain for her sake.

Two Days, One Night is the most accessible and mainstream of the Dardennes films. Typically filmed with unfamiliar actors--apart from a few Dardennes regulars, like Olivier Gourmet and Morgan Marinne--the inclusion of Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard and the overt three-act narrative arc allows audiences unfamiliar with the Dardennes style to begin their journey with these remarkable filmmakers. Yet this isn't a lesser Dardennes film at all; its simple beauty and strong performances are quietly marvelous. I was moved to tears by the final cathartic scene, and this is the strongest film I've seen both at VIFF and in 2014.

Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry) Writer Philip Lewis Friedman is at once irritated, neurotic, arrogant, and insecure. He vacillates between viewing himself as above everyone and the victim of everyone. As he awaits the publication of his second novel, he finds himself increasingly at odds with those around him--his publishers, his girlfriend Ashley, even the whole city of New York. When novelist Ike Zimmerman invites Philip to use his cottage in the country for rest of mind and to focus on his work, Philip takes him up on the offer. A strange mentorship begins between Ike and Philip as two strikingly conceited individuals are drawn into each other's orbits, mutual sycophants and adversaries, clinging to the energy of the other.

Listen Up Philip is a comedy in the vein of Woody Allen--witty, cynical, highbrow, heavy on the dialogue and exposition, filled with neurotic and well-educated characters wandering aimlessly with New York as their backdrop. It had a bit too much voiceover narration for my taste--many scenes are simply the characters walking through New York while the narrator explains their feelings and motives, blatantly resorting to telling, not showing--and Philip isn't a particularly likable protagonist. Yet I laughed enough and found myself nodding along as Philip struggles with defining what success looks like for him as his idol in Ike is found to be an empty false god. The whole cast is admirable, particularly Jason Schwartzman as Philip and Elisabeth Moss as his photographer girlfriend, Ashley. Filmed with intimate closeups and a homemade begrimed quality, Listen Up Philip was an amusing diversion in an otherwise weighty film festival lineup at VIFF.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

VIFF Reviews: REEL Youth Film Festival; Horse Money; Maps to the Stars

I'm attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, featuring over 350 films over 16 days. I'll be seeing less than a dozen of these films, and I'll record my reviews and reflections here.

REEL Youth Film Festival. Featuring a few dozen films from filmmakers under the age of 20 from all across the globe, the REEL Youth Film Festival was fascinating, particularly as someone who has a passion for both films and the emerging generation. Documentaries, animation, public service announcements, and short stories were included, ranging from filmmakers as local as New Westminster and as faraway as India, Iran, and Sierra Leone.

Despite the global diversity, the style and themes from youth filmmakers were surprisingly consistent. There was a *lot* of narration and voiceover, indicating a youthful desire to express unspoken internal feelings and musings. Key subjects included identity questions, sexuality and romance, anxiety and depression, and bullying. This latter theme was so prevalent it almost became monotonous--bullying and social pressures were often the overt focus in the films. There were at least two "unplug" films exhorting the viewer to take a break from technology and screens. Underlying many of the social issues was a theme of justice, i.e. doing the right thing. Whether it was taking care of the environment or standing up to bullies, these teen filmmakers expressed a desire to see moral balance and fairness in the world.

Passionate, diverse, eager, creative, and at times a bit confusing and too overtly clever, these adolescent films and filmmakers showed great potential. Ranging from the hilarious to the depressing, the affecting and the obnoxious, the festival was directly in a youth worker and cinephile's sweet spot.

Horse Money (Pedro Costas). This is the most challenging film I've witnessed at VIFF, and perhaps one of the more provoking films I've ever seen. Hallucinatory, foreboding, haunting, and enigmatic, Horse Money is an exercise in endurance and disciplined film-viewing. Focusing on Ventura, a key character in Costas' previous films (none of which I'd seen before), Horse Money is like a living nightmare as Ventura wanders the dark hallways of a hospital/asylum/purgatory, colliding with ghosts of the past. The film defies classification, and I wasn't sure by the end whether it was brilliant or a bore...or both. Essentially, the film is a series of dream-like scenes and dialogues, culminating in a long internal "conversation" between Ventura and a living toy soldier in an elevator, told in voiceover and with multiple personalities. Costas is less focused on telling a direct story and more on eliciting feelings through images, flashes of memory and moments and emotions. There are some striking images and moments, particularly a scene where Ventura is wandering the darkened streets of his Portuguese neighborhood in his underwear, followed by a tank and armed soldiers. If you're interested in challenging yourself through a hallucinatory journey into darkness, Horse Money is your film and Pedro Costas is your filmmaker.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg). A satire about the gruesome and dismal side of glitzy Hollywood stars, Maps to the Stars is a film about selfish, greedy people doing self-destructive, greedy things to each other. Perversely funny, it revels a bit too much in its denouncement of Hollywood culture, containing zero likable characters and leaving the viewer with a lingering sense of despair. Now, a film can be darkly comic and have no truly likable characters and still be a worthy film--some of Lars Von Trier's films come to mind--but Maps to the Stars is an exercise in deliberate depravity. There's a solid ensemble cast here--Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattison--and Moore stands out in her portrayal of a neurotic, washed up actress (she won Best Actress at Cannes). She's a plastic person, someone who smiles for the cameras and acting acquaintances, yet rejoices at the death of a child or the pain of others. Haunted by the past--this is another film where ghosts appear in hallucinatory moments--Moore and company are all in a downward spiral into insanity, culminating in their own destruction. For all its comedic bite, Maps to the Stars felt like reading a bitter letter sent to an ex-lover, a despairing and harsh look at a self-centered Hollywood subculture. More nuanced and thought-provoking films have been made about the delirious madness of Hollywood, particular Sunset Boulevard or Mulholland Drive. And if you're anticipating Cronenberg's signature violence, it's here, brief but graphic. I generally appreciate Cronenberg (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are both remarkable), but this was my least favorite film of VIFF thus far.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Reflections on Open Vancouver

This past weekend, Trinity Western University and North Langley Community Church hosted the first Open Vancouver, an open-source youth ministry training event. Created by The Youth Cartel, the Open movement has spread to seven cities, with Vancouver as the first Canadian gathering. Eighteen presenters shared about a wide range of ideas and practices, and we focused mainly on youth ministry in the Vancouver area. Having been a part of Open Seattle for two years, I was eager to be part of the organizing team putting together Open Vancouver, and loved seeing how this little event felt like a glimpse into the kingdom of God. I was stoked that my Youth Cartel friends Adam McLane and Mark Oestreicher could attend this event too. These guys mean a lot to me, and it was sweet to have them on Canadian soil.

Here are three aspects I loved about Open Vancouver:

Variety. We had such a unique diversity of presenters and participants from all over the Vancouver area and beyond. Mennonites, Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, non-denominations, and my friend Chris, who described himself as a "former charismatic moving into the orthodox church." We had people share on deeply theological concepts, to as pragmatic approaches to culture and church ministry, as well as personal rants or exhortations. I met Father Terry, an elderly Catholic priest serving in Vancouver who wants to reach young adults with the gospel.

Conversation. I loved seeing conversations happening around tables and in hallways, people sharing ideas and contact info with one another. The beautiful part about Open events is their collaborative and conversational tone. It was sweet to catch up with awesome people like Morgan Schmidt and Jason Ballard and Geoff Stewart and Blair Bertrand, and meet new friends Let's just get a bunch of awesome people in a room and let them share ideas with each other.

Simplicity. Open Vancouver wasn't flashy or high production--it cost $25 per person, and that included a lunch. Yet it also wasn't mediocre or slapdash--the presenters gave quality content, the setup and registration were top notch, and everyone did their part to make the whole event awesome. We didn't have a worship band or tons of breakout sessions or hundreds of people; we kept it simple, local, inexpensive, and accessible.

Thanks to Adam McLane, Matt Wilks, and Clay Imoo for being the organizing team for Open Vancouver this year. You can see more at the Open Vancouver website, and listen to the audio from some sessions at under the Open Vancouver tag.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

VIFF Reviews: Wild; Foxcatcher

I'm attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, featuring over 350 films over 16 days. I'll be seeing less than a dozen of these films, and I'll record my reviews and reflections here. I was present for the opening gala at the Centre for Performing Arts and viewed two biopics about unstable individuals struggling with the consequences of their decisions, featuring Oscar-worthy performances from their lead actors:

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee): Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee follows up Dallas Buyers Club with the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her journey from heroin addiction to freedom via the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1000+ mile hike from the border of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. Cheryl is portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in what is sure to be an award-winning performance of physical and emotional weight. Told in a series of flashbacks as Cheryl reflects on her choices, circumstances, and what brought her to make the rash decision to embark on such a grueling journey, Wild is directed in a manner to embody the scattered, reckless, and emotional nature of Cheryl. There are lots of fits and starts, quick cuts and edits, followed by long moments of quiet as Cheryl treks across the wilderness. Cheryl is a parallel to the backcountry where she journeys--beautiful and rugged, wild and delicate. It's a surprisingly funny film too; Cheryl's outbursts and silly determination made the audience often. Whether she's throwing her boots off a cliff, attempting to put on her enormous backpack, or being interviewed by a "journalist" for the "hobo news," Witherspoon fills Cheryl's journey with both humor and pathos.

Witherspoon's performance is laudable, yet it's Laura Dern as her spunky and joyful mother who caught my attention, reminding me of a more grown-up Poppy from Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky--she embodies proven optimism on the far side of pain. A single mother trying to make the most of raising two children on a waitress's paycheck, she never quite falls into the common trope of the "wise fool." She has a simple philosophy on life, and simply wants to choose happiness over cynicism, hope over despair. Brief flashbacks to Dern dancing in the kitchen or sitting with closed eyes in the warmth of the sunset are comforting contrasts to Cheryl's darker memories.

While God isn't a central figure in Wild, he's quietly present in the midst of Cheryl's pain. In one scene, Cheryl and her younger brother pray for their mother's health, with Cheryl taking on the classic prayer posture of closed eyes and folded hands. Her brother chides her for her attempts at spirituality. Neither seems to take the prayers too seriously at first. Yet in a few moments, both are quietly offering their prayers and hopes into the atmosphere, hoping their wishes for a miracle will be answered. When that miracle never happens, Cheryl's response to God is one of rage, screaming a hearty "f**k you" into the heavens. There are a lot of these middle-finger moments with Cheryl; she's got quite the vocabulary for expressing her pain and frustration, shifting from poetry to cuss words with seamless ease. Take caution: Wild is difficult film to watch sometimes, and Cheryl's downward spiral involves addictions to sex and drugs.

As I think of the similarly gritty Dallas Buyers Club, I think Vallee focuses his films on characters who are pushed to the edge of darkness by their own unhealthy choices, then find unique and determined ways to pull themselves out of the darkness. There is a theme of individualism in both films--both Cheryl Strayed and Ron Woodruff are singular personas making the most out of terrible circumstances, taking it upon themselves to fix their problems. They rarely rely on outside help, and when they do, the focus still remains on the individual arc. While there are quirky and beautiful secondary characters who end up playing significant roles and giving powerful performances (Laura Dern in Wild, Jared Leto in Dallas), these are individual journeys, one man/woman's dogged fight against what life has thrown them. Yet the light of hope is brightest only in contrast with our deep valleys of brokenness, and Cheryl's journey from her valley of death into freedom is both compelling and affecting. Wild is a remarkable film, and a solid opening to VIFF.

Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller): Foxcatcher is a filmmakers' film. Excellent direction, a compelling and well-crafted script, phenomenal breakout performances, and nary a bad scene in the whole movie. I'd encourage the viewer to go in cold to the film, with as little knowledge of the true events Foxcatcher is based upon. A brief summary will suffice: two brothers and Olympic wrestlers, Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively), find themselves caught up in the dream of wealthy sponsor John du Pont (Steve Carrell), who wants to win another gold medal for America. Over time, this triangle of relationships becomes more complex and volatile, leaving none unscathed.

Director Bennett Miller is an expert in crafting fascinating biopics about bizarre real-life stories and the determined, exceptional men who lead them. Capote earned plenty of award nominations and gained Philip Seymour Hoffman his only Oscar for his performances as the titular eccentric author. Moneyball was more accessible, following Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he took the Oakland Athletics on a journey towards a potential championship through unconventional methods. Miller's first film, the 1998 documentary The Cruise, follows the quirky Tim Levitch, a New York city bus tour guide whose passion for the Big Apple is palpable. Foxcatcher fits perfectly in this vein, expanding the singular determined eccentric protagonist to three. There is also something distinctly American about each of these stories. From a passionate exposition on the largest city in the United States, to a biopic on one of the most influential American authors of the 20th century, to a heart-warming story on America's favorite past time and sport, to a political satire and thriller disguised as a sports movie (du Pont declares they are winning gold for America)--Miller clearly has something to say about the American dream, its strengths and weaknesses, its glory and its shadows.

The three leads are phenomenal in their portrayals of Mark, Dave, and John. I never thought I'd say this, but Channing Tatum might have the strongest performance of the lot, despite Steve Carrell's chilling transformation into du Pont, prosthetic nose and all. While the performances are excellent, the script doesn't allow us to truly know each man and their motivations, to see inside their heads and understand why this particular story unfolds. As I was exiting the theatre after the screening, the world that came to mind was aloof. Distant and cold, watching Foxcatcher unfold was akin to entering an unknown museum to look at the artwork--it may be beautiful to behold, but I was never fully engaged with the characters. Mark is mostly silent, communicating in grunts and wrestling moves. John is downright creepy. Dave is the most relatable, a family man who cares for his little brother; yet even his motives for staying at Foxcatcher farms are never understood.

Foxcatcher is disturbing, amusing, powerful, and detached. It's at once a sports film, a thriller, a family drama, and a political satire. I have no doubt it'll earn plenty of attention when award season rolls around, and those awards will be deserved. Yet Foxcatcher, for all its merits, never fully captured my attention or my heart. Du Pont, for all his dreams of winning gold, never won me over to his vision.