- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

A new brand of American film festival is looking for God in celluloid and encouraging young filmmakers to feature spirit on the silver screen.

Both are on the west coast. Now in its first year, the Damah Film Festival in Seattle has attracted 230 short entries that try to capture "spiritual experience" on film. The term "damah" is Hebrew for a "metaphor that transforms."

Festival judges include Hollywood filmmakers and entertainment critics. Winners were secretly picked Monday and the awards come during two days of screenings and workshops in Seattle beginning Oct. 10.

Two weeks later in Los Angeles, the eighth annual City of the Angels Film Festival will sponsor "four days of faith and films" at the Directors Guild of America.

"We have the leading venue for this kind of critical reflection on film," said Robert K. Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., a main organizer of the event. "We have different themes, but we're not trying to promote an agenda."

This year the theme is "Touches of Evil" — asking, in effect, what God has to do with horror films.

"We'll ask whether this genre has anything to contribute to spiritual discussions in the church and society," Mr. Johnston said.

The festival will show the best of new and old horror flicks, sponsor a session with macabre moviemaker Wes Craven and offer workshops with theologians and Hollywood screenwriters who are Christians.

Though the Los Angeles festival does not recruit new work, Mr. Johnston said, it draws plenty of filmmakers interested in carrying religious attitudes into a professional career.

In Seattle, the Damah festival will unfold in some of the most artsy scenes in town, beginning in the new Experience Music Project building, then moving to the Seattle Art Museum and the city's Performing Arts Center.

"This first year out, the caliber of our judges is unheard of," said Stewart Burke, an Internet entrepreneur on the Damah festival board.

The jury that will hand out $15,000 in awards includes filmmakers Howard Kazanjian ("Raiders Of The Lost Ark"), Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost" and "Deep Impact") and Ralph Winter ("Planet of the Apes"). It also includes film critic Michael Medved, Entertainment Weekly's Michael Levine, and actor Mako, who appeared in the movie "Pearl Harbor."

"I think people in film are looking for the opportunity to tell deep, powerful stories," Mr. Burke said. "We are judging the best in the show by a powerful story, not by the technical effects."

The call for entries, sent to all the nation's film schools and to several abroad, was for "short films that capture raw, truthful moments of spiritual redemption, struggle, inspiration, surprise, etc."

Categories range from 60 seconds to 30 minutes. Mr. Burke said longer films will be included as the festival reputation grows, but "we wanted to be 'doable' the first year."

The festival accepts documentary and animation, but recommends parable, an ancient teaching form used by Jesus that organizers hope will spur a revival in modern film. Parable can have a moral insight, Mr. Burke said, but can also use anti-heroes, grittiness, surprise and satire.

The Damah project has Christian overtones with backing from evangelical groups in arts and media, including the Mars Hill Graduate School, a Seattle-area seminary. Mr. Burke said the goal is to achieve general interest quality, and show there is a "difference between art and propaganda."

Amid this new surge of film festivals, however, some say there is nothing wrong with propagating the faith while also cultivating new filmmakers.

When the Rev. Billy Graham founded World Wide Pictures, the rationale was "spreading the Gospel." Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright spent $6 million in 1979 for a Warner Bros. production of the Gospel of Luke, now known as "The Jesus Film," for the same evangelistic reasons.

The most recent box office efforts to convert people have been apocalyptic movies such as "The Omega Code" or "Left Behind," which were underwritten by multimillion-dollar ministries.

Some of this genre comes from the Miami-based Christian Filmmaker Film Festival, now in its third year. The festival also wants to encourage new filmmakers, and defines its kind of movie as one "where the main story line or ending deals with (or is based on) biblical Christian principles, morals or beliefs."

The more artsy approach was preferred last month in Chicago, where Cornerstone, a ministry and Christian community, added to its summer "Flickerings" film festival a segment that screened 23 works by new filmmakers.

This was followed by a forum on "What is a Christian film?"

This year in New York City, the U.S. Catholic bishops' office on films also opened its first festival, which showcases classics with spiritual themes. "We want to show how film can better our faith," said Anne Nevarro, chief movie reviewer for the film information service.

The nation's hundreds of film festivals showcasing independent and emerging filmmakers are nearly all small, regional, or specialized — with a few, like the Robert Redford-revived Sundance Film Festival in Utah, towering above the rest.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles festival hopes to stimulate what Mr. Johnston, the seminary professor, called a decade-long changeover in Hollywood that has made it more open to religious-minded artists and film themes.

The City of the Angels festival was conceived after the 1992 riots in south central Los Angeles. The festival opened in 1994 with a theme on how Los Angeles is portrayed on film. The next year's theme was "The Quest for Reconciliation in Cinema."

Both the Catholic archdiocese and Fuller Seminary have been prime movers behind the event, and Fuller added a "Reel Spirituality" forum, which draws hundreds of clergy, Hollywood professionals and filmmaking novices.

Under this year's "Touches of Evil" theme, the Oct. 25-26 forum features Wes Craven speaking on guilt-ridden Judas figures in film after the showing of his year-old film "Dracula 2000." Paulist Productions' "Judas and Jesus," which the Catholic group will air on ABC-TV next spring, will then be shown as a contrast.

Other sponsors of the four-day festival include eight Catholic media groups; the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles; Cine & Media, a forum for religion and movie professionals; InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; the Faith & Values cable interfaith association; Showtime Networks Inc. and the Hispanic Internet provider PortalUno.

"When City of the Angels began, we were encouraged not to 'out' the Christian artists," Mr. Johnston said.

Now, he said, filmmakers with religious drives or imaginations can pretty much do what they want, if they've got talent. "Our concern is not to clean up Hollywood, but to bring a spiritual presence to bear.

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