Jewish festival has an unlikely focus

Opening film looks at Christian evangelicals

Boston Globe/March 22, 2009

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and arguably none could be stranger than the relationship between Jews and this country's 50-million-plus evangelical Christians.

If there's any doubt, check out "Waiting for Armageddon," which kicks off Jewishfilm.2009, the National Center for Jewish Film's 12th Annual Film Festival, at Brandeis University on Wednesday.

It's not just that evangelicals contribute millions of dollars each year to Israel, even as many of them are convinced that the End Times are at hand and most Jews will vanish off the earth when the Rapture happens. Or that many Jews who care about Israel find it expedient to have evangelicals as an ally.

What is most surprising is what you discover when filmmakers who have earned the trust of Christian Zionists let the camera run and really listen. That's when those of us who have only had a sketchy understanding of theological concepts can really start to get how evangelical leaders are influencing the power elite in Washington and shaping policies in the Middle East.

There is something a little jarring about hearing a well-spoken mother calmly state that we're so close to the end of times she doesn't think her kids will graduate from school. Or seeing a tour guide in Israel give his take on the significance of the Holy Land: In order for Christ to return and redeem the planet, Israel must remain in Jewish hands and a new temple must be built on the current site of the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic holy site.

"There's no place for the mosque. It has to be removed," a woman on the tour elaborates.

"Jews are the actors in [evangelicals'] big play," said the film's co-director Franco Sacchi. "Jews play a fundamental role in their unfolding of history."

He adds: "The evangelical community is one of the least understood aspects of American culture and one of the most surprising. If you don't understand it, you don't understand this country."

Sacchi, 43, is a freelance video editor and filmmaker-in-residence at the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University. He grew up Catholic and had no prior interest in religious topics until this one came along; his interest was piqued by an article he read in 2005 about evangelicals in Harper's magazine. After that he began to pay close attention to how often the evangelical movement factored into the news.

"Not a day went by when you wouldn't find an article about them, whether it was about evangelical protests at a Darwin exhibit at a science museum. Or about Terri Schiavo. Or parallel tours at the Grand Canyon with an alternative creationist explanation of how it was formed," Sacchi said in an interview in his Back Bay apartment. "This evangelical fundamentalist movement seemed to have such an impact on our cultural landscape."

And yet for all their air time and impact, he didn't know any personally, and had only the sketchiest understanding of their theology, including concepts like the Rapture, the Tribulation, and Armageddon. "They seemed so pervasive and yet it wasn't easy to connect the dots," he said.

Sacchi, who was born in Africa but grew up in Italy, has a penchant for making films about communities of people who aren't well known or understood. His first film, "American Eunuchs," explored the underworld of men who choose to be castrated. Next came "This Is Nollywood," about the struggling, low-profile Nigerian digital film industry. A film about evangelical Christians began to tantalize him. He ran the idea by two friends, Hermine Muskat and Roberta Dougan, both first-time filmmakers.

"We were questioning what it would take to make a film about this," said Sacchi. But they all wanted to do it; Sacchi decided to direct it and Muskat and Dougan were co-producers. It took about three years and they put up their own money, at first, to get it started until they were able to secure funding.

Later, they got into one of those knotty situations endemic to independent filmmaking when a pair of Sacchi's friends, New York filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, also indicated they were making a film about evangelicals.

"They were thinking of doing exactly the same thing," he said. "So what do you do? You merge. This explains the three directors and five producers. I made the film with a big family."

He adds: "As David would say, there was no blood on the floor. Our friendship is as good as ever."

Sacchi's goal from the beginning was not to make a polemical film about evangelicals but "to listen and understand them. We wanted to open a dialogue," he said. "It could be dangerous to have millions of people who see the world from a completely different paradigm. It's not good for dialogue or peace and understanding."

They interviewed evangelicals across the country, including families, clergy, professors, and other professionals -"impressive men and women who work in significant industries, not wide-eyed radicals," said Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna, who will speak about the film when it's screened at the festival.

All were certain that the world as we know it will end with the Battle of Armageddon in Israel and when this happens they will be members of Christ's army. And only one young woman interviewed seemed peeved about the prospect of being "raptured" or lifted into the skies to join Christ while the rest of the world suffers for seven years during Tribulation.

"It doesn't seem fair," she said. "If you're done at 24, then there's only so many experiences you get to have."

The centerpiece of the film is an evangelical study tour to Israel, with Sacchi, et al., following along. One stop on the tour is Megiddo, known to most Israelis and tourists as a site of major importance to the ancient world, but to the evangelicals as a "staging ground" for the final battle.

A film about evangelical Christians may seem like a strange choice for the kickoff film for a Jewish film festival. But, "the Festival is about the diversity of Jewish experience, and is not always from a Jewish perspective," said Lisa Rivo, the film's executive director. "This is somebody else's narrative and Jews are central to that narrative."

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