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Paul Allen Williams and Michele Desmarais
Paul Allen Williams and Michele Desmarais.  photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Religion Meets Film

by Teresa Gleason

Paul Allen Williams and Michele Desmarais are not filmmakers.  Nor are they studio heads, publicists or movie distributors.

Yet Drs. Williams and Desmarais, assistant professors of religion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), will be among the throngs of industry types headed to Utah this month for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. The event, set for Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah, is considered by many to be the premier U.S. showcase for American and international independent film.

What's an academic to do amidst a sea of Hollywood elite, a boisterous press corps, parties that start late and never seem to end, and the goggle-faced herd just there for the skiing?

Plenty, it turns out.

The duo, along with several of their UNO colleagues, will be watching films and examining them for religious content – ethereal as well as actual.  They will be representing the Journal of Religion and Film (JR&F), an international online publication (http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/) founded by William Blizek, professor of philosophy and religion at UNO, and the late Ron Burke.  The journal, established in 1997 and published twice yearly in October and April, examines the description, critique and embodiment of religion in film. 

Dr. Williams is the journal's editor, and Dr. Desmarais is an associate editor.  This will be the second trip to Sundance for each of them.  The editorial staff also includes associate editor Guy Matalon, assistant professor of religion and a specialist in Judaic Studies at UNO.  The managing editor is Kathryn Cox Schwartz.

Many films, directly or indirectly, serve a "religious" purpose, Dr. Williams said.  Like religions, they present meanings that people give to life and showcase the values they embrace.  "The films themselves, then, are part of the fundamental religious struggle with the ultimate problems of human life," he noted.

As a result, the journal staff examines not only films that explicitly highlight traditional religious images and themes, such as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," but also movies that explore the assumptions that underlie everyday human talk and action.  Articles and discussion on a variety of film types are welcome – commercial and academic, foreign and documentary, and classic and contemporary.

The annual Sundance event is a great match for the JR&F, Dr. Desmarais said, because it allows the editors to expose their readers to independent films that may not make it to the local theatre circuit.

This year, Drs. Williams, Desmarais and Blizek will be joined by Beth Ritter, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at UNO and director of academic programs in the Native American Studies Program.  Dr. Ritter, a newcomer to the festival, plans to teach a course on Native American film.

Despite their proximity to personalities like Paris Hilton or Brad Pitt, the UNO faculty have no real interest in the celebrity component of Sundance, Dr. Blizek said.  He won't deny, however, that it's sort of fun walking into a Park City restaurant for breakfast and seeing Chris Noth ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "Sex and the City") in a corner booth digging into a stack of French toast or being seated with a view of the door just in time to see William H. Macy ("Seabiscuit," "The Cooler") usher in Felicity Huffman ("Transamerica," "Desperate Housewives").

Dr. Williams agrees.  "You get the opportunity to run into actors and filmmakers in a non-fan way and can engage in casual conversation," he said.  One such opportunity resulted in a 40-minute chat between Dr. Williams and actor Gary Farmer ("Smoke Signals," "Ghost Dog") while they were waiting for a screening to start.  "It's so cool to interact with people at that level in the industry," he said.

The JR&F staff, though, is indeed in Utah to work.

It begins by poring over the Sundance film guide and circling potential movies to check out, as the 2006 event will screen approximately 120 feature-length films and 60 shorts.  Once the JR&F staff arrives in Park City and settles in, they'll spring into press mode, joining reviewers from media outlets that range from Rolling Stone to Allhura TV.

Each day begins with a stop in the crowded pressroom, a space that's half office/half lounge.  It's here that reviewers check the daily press screening schedule, wrangle with publicists for director interviews and file their reports to meet deadline.

At this juncture, the JR&F staff and the mainstream media part ways, at least philosophically.  The UNO contingent frequently ends up at press screenings the majority of the media in attendance passes on.  "It's not unusual to be in a room of 10 people or less," Dr. Desmarais said.

This demarcation deepens when it comes to the review process.  "Whether it's a good movie or not is irrelevant to us," Dr. Blizek added.  "We're not looking for quality or popularity or commercial success.  We're all trying to examine that connection between religion and film."

Because the journal has no "set in stone" formula that each review must follow, its content provides readers with very different connections to religion, all of which are based upon the viewpoint of the reviewer.

Although their approaches to finding this connection may differ, the JR&F staff does agree on one thing – their interest in seeing the 2006 festival's screening of "Smudge," a 12-minute Canadian short that examines how a small group of Aboriginal women celebrate their right to worship in the city their way.

Each trip to Sundance results in the production of a special report, which has not gone unnoticed by Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute in 1981.  In a framed letter dated May 10, 1999, that sits on the windowsill of Dr. Blizek's Arts and Sciences Hall office, Redford writes:

"Your analysis is fascinating and quite a reward for our efforts.  Thank you.  I have shared your essay with our entire staff at the festival."

The journal's 2005 Sundance report is available online at http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/Vol9No1/sundance2005.htm.

Below is a list of JR&F staff favorites from their attendance at past Sundance festivals, the majority of which are short films.

"The Art of Farewell" (short)

An elderly gentleman asks a tattoo artist to come to his home to create a tattoo. 

"Swim Test" (short)

Danny must pass the swim test in order to graduate from high school.  He doesn't want to take his clothes off to enter the pool, and everyone believes it's because he is overweight.  The truth later emerges.

"Happy Texas" (feature)

This comedy follows two escaped convicts who get caught up in a small-town "Little Miss Fresh Squeezed" pageant by pretending they are famous gay directors.

"Hustle and Flow" (feature)

DJay, a streetwise Memphis hustler, tries to find a voice and realize his long-buried dreams.

"Fuel" (short)

A nice couple runs out of gas and finds themselves in a hellish situation.

"Plains Empty" (short)

Sam recently has moved to an isolated mining camp with her husband.  While he is at work on the minefields, Sam realizes she is not alone.

The Journal of Religion and Film at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is indexed by the Modern Language Association of America and the American Theological Library Association.  It will soon be available through the online databases EBSCO and LOCKSS.  Its editorial board consists of faculty from Emory University, the University of Rochester, UNO, Columbia University, Hendrix College, the University of Arizona, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  For more information, contact Kathryn Cox Schwartz at 402.554.2628 or kschwartz@mail.unomaha.edu.

Teresa Gleason is director of communications at UNO.  She can be reached at tmgleason@mail.unomaha.edu.

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