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'Biblical Poetics' panel divides audience at LDS Film Fest

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 1 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

“Divisive” is probably not a word most people would use to describe the LDS Film Festival.

Independently established in 2001 as a way to showcase the work of LDS filmmakers for appreciative audiences, the Orem-based festival has for obvious reasons never courted controversy like its more prestigious counterparts Sundance or Slamdance — all three of which run concurrently during Utah’s thriving festival season each January.

However, a panel discussion held last Saturday elicited a surprisingly hostile response from several of the audience members in attendance.

Discussion focused on a paper co-authored by Dennis Packard of the Brigham Young University philosophy department, Jason McDonald from Church Media Services, and Preston Campbell, a grad student at New York University. Titled “Biblical Poetics for Filmmakers: A Manifesto,” the paper proposes a theoretical framework for writers and directors who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based on the literary structure of the Bible itself.

“Strictly speaking,” the manifesto states, “Bible films haven’t yet been made."

The authors (all of whom were in attendance) maintained, though, that “biblical filmmaking” is not limited to Bible stories or even religious subject matter. Rather, according to the manifesto, “the biblical film style can be understood as a style that brings the most realism to the screen, including the realism sought, often in misguided ways, by Neo-realist, Hollywood and art house filmmakers.”

For its creators, at least, so-called biblical filmmaking could be the key to success for LDS filmmakers — if not filmmakers in general. By relying on the tried and true narrative techniques of ancient scripture, Packard argued, filmmakers would no longer have to play catch-up with audience preferences the way they have struggled to in the past.

One audience member, however, questioned the entertainment value of any movie made to follow the dramatic beats of a Bible story. Is there really an audience for movies that feel like scripture?

Others remained unsure of how exactly the storytelling principles described by the panelists really differed from your run-of-the-mill writing guidebook (of which there is already an overabundance).

In an attempt to clarify their stance, McDonald explained that biblical filmmaking asked the question “What if, instead of Greek drama, Hebrew storytelling had been the dominant influence on filmmaking?”

Along with the three co-authors, participants in the panel discussion also included LDS author Guy Galli, Jay Packard (who scored a short film, "Seeing," which premiered at the LDS Film Festival as a test model of biblical filmmaking), and James D’Arc, the lead curator of BYU’s Motion Picture Archive (notably the Cecil B. DeMille collection, which includes an original print of DeMille's 1956 version of "The Ten Commandments").

When pressed for a comment on the manifesto, D’Arc called it “a good beginning” that “emphasizes comparisons and contrasts and promotes awareness” of the Bible as literature, but he also pointed out the fact that perhaps the determining factor in the form a film takes must ultimately be the audience it is trying to reach.

For more information about biblical poetics, an online copy of the manifesto is at www.greatcinemanow.com/paper.doc.

Currently, the manifesto’s authors, along with Guy Galli, are working on a feature-length adaptation of Galli's novel "Lifted Up" to demonstrate the practical application of the principles they define in the manifesto.

A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.

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