Blog Archive Posts

vacilando: when the experience is more important than the destination

A Fuller Frame


I attended my first documentary film festival this month, and it felt like home. Like home, Full Frame pulsed with the lifeblood of kindred storytellers. And like home, Full Frame required immense physical and emotional stamina to fully engage with the humanity of each story.

Cameraperson, the (kinda meta) memoir of director-cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, is the story of a life dedicated to telling stories. I resonated so deeply with each scene that, by the end, I had added "Find an artist I trust to tell my story" to my bucket list.

Yet her memoir also left me with the question, "What is the line between sharing a story with compassion and actually doing something within my power to improve the subject's life?"

The same tension arose in me when I watched Speaking Is Difficult, a short by AJ Schnack that juxtaposes everyday scenes of towns affected by mass shootings with the initial 9-1-1 calls. As each new town (including Newtown, CT) appeared onscreen, I felt myself become more desensitized, to my chagrin. In Schnack's words, during "a film where the events themselves become this nonstop echo of each other," my unconcealed anguish in the first minute paled to a grey shiver of resignation in only fifteen minutes.

For the first time, I read this statement by Joseph Stalin yesterday: "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." I read it again today in a reflection by social psychologist Christena Cleveland, who writes,

When we witness injustice in an up-close-and-personal way – like if we’re personally oppressed or we’re in close relationship with a person who is oppressed – we tend to open the floodgates of compassion toward the one or few individuals with whom we have a personal connection. But when we witness an injustice from a distance, and this injustice affects masses of people (e.g., police brutality towards black people, the oppression of the Palestinians, etc.) we are easily overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. Rather than fortifying our compassion in response to such need, our compassion collapses and we disengage into hopelessness.


After conducting research on this collapse of compassion, social psychologists Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne concluded that “large-scale tragedies in which the most victims are in need of help will ironically be the least likely to motivate helping.”


But when we are intimately connected to systemic pain and tragedy, either personally or through close relationships, we are often able to respond with compassion and hope.

During the fifteen minutes of Speaking Is Difficult, my compassion collapsed, and I disengaged into hopelessness. Even while being actively aware of it. Stalin was savage, but he understood the limits of human empathy.

With this concern in mind, I want to share a profound reflection by Wesley Hogan, Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke (Full Frame program, page 2). I intend to read it often, especially when I'm trapped in the hard questions, because it reminds me why I do what I do.

Most of the stories told throughout human history, writer Julius Lester has said, were spoken into the darkness, around a fire with a vast impenetrable night surrounding teller and listeners. Then as now, stories aren't created from thin air; they already exist, as Lester so evocatively describes, "singing in our genes and in our blood." And stories, especially now, help us to learn that we can be thrown into a fiery furnace and not be consumed. Through stories, Lester says, "I learned that I could withstand the heat and flames and walk out of the furnace, strutting."


In order to be seen, stories have to be retrieved from the darkness. The light of film can do this. Documentary, at its best, gives us stories that empower us to not only strut, but also to behold. Whether they illuminate great challenges and triumphs, or share simple observations of daily life, documentarians give us fresh eyes. To see clearly. To see critically, and skeptically. To see from multiple perspectives. To perceive with all of our senses.


Documentary reminds us that even amidst a surge of forces vying for our attention in a culture of accelerating change, we can behold, be contemplative. Be deliberate. As such, for me, Full Frame feels like a shining gift - a gathering of those who share this desire to reflect. The alchemy forged so brilliantly by the Full Frame staff makes each filmmaker, story, and audience member important - and each space in which we consider a new story, sacred.


In offering us these moments to listen, to slow down, independent documentarians serve as vital public servants, inviting participation in an important public commons for small-d democratic dialogue.


There is an ebb and flow of nationalist politics in the United States, and lately we've been encountering the flow. There are some who insist that immigrants must learn to live like "Americans." That there must be one nation, one language, one uniform way of being. They would ask us to believe that difference is dangerous, and that we must practice exclusion, a mindset that runs counter to even the briefest consideration of our own experiences. As documentary so clearly reveals, we benefit when we acknowledge the value and validity of the diverse inheritances that each of us embody. For of course none of us possess and maintain a singular identity over a lifetime. We all inherit and inhabit a variety of selves whose definitions are in constant flux. Documentary allows a space for our multi-vocal, fluid selves to emerge.


And so I invite you to immerse yourself in a collection of diverse inheritances this weekend. As Henry David Thoreau noted long ago, only that day dawns to which we are awake. In Durham, at Full Frame, as the theater doors open and beckon, each person we get to know, each subject we explore, each conversation we have, and each film we watch calls forth another story brought in from the shadows and lets us behold the marvelous complexity of our lives.


Thank you for enlivening the festival with your vitality and wakefulness.

So: In a media-saturated world, where a daily deluge of stories paralyzes the individual from taking action, the documentary storyteller must emotionally re-engage viewers; illuminate the humanity of stories lost in the darkness of a statistical black box; and in doing so, "give us fresh eyes" to "consider a new story, sacred." Helping each other to see a fuller frame - that's worth celebrating. #FullFrameFest


A Happy Medium

I took an inadvertent break from online thought-life during my last six weeks in Madison. Between blogging, uploading photos, and interacting on Facebook and Instagram, I was just exhausted by the pace I had set for myself to continually process my offline life through online conversation. Yet in this hiatus, I've had time to examine my heart posture in artistic creation, especially social media. And God, doing what he does best, made a beautiful thing out of a broken thing and renewed my desire to build up community and point to Him with my story.

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Stories from the He(art)

I can’t believe two weeks have already passed since I attended the Pulse Arts Conference at Blackhawk Church! While my takeaways are still crystallizing, I’ve gained a clearer view of the connection between the art of storytelling and God’s heart. Ever since I participated in DukeEngage Colombia, I've spoken about the power of stories to connect people across borders. What exactly do I mean by that? Well, when you hear someone else’s story, I think that experience exposes your assumptions, invites you to reevaluate how you relate to them, and changes your attitude towards them going forward. In this manner, stories can be a medium for deeper reflection and, ultimately, reconciliation. I’m definitely still learning how to articulate this idea, so I find it ridiculously cool that, between Pulse and several miscellaneous sources these past few days, I’ve begun to hear a diverse ensemble of voices that all seem to affirm the same message: Stories matter. They deepen and sensitize your vision of yourself and those around you. In whatever form, art nurtures in you the creativity and language to navigate pain and build bridges of love.

Paul LeFeber, the Creative Director at Blackhawk, quotes scholar N.T. Wright to explain why the arts matter.

The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions.

A bit abstract, but I hear him saying this: Art helps us deal with the pieces of life that don’t make sense, enabling us to better see a purpose to all the purposeless moments. Through creative self-expression (sharing your story) and history (examining other stories), we can develop an expectant posture of unshakable hope for beauty to come from brokenness. Indeed, this hope for redemption is the paradoxical crux of the Gospel, a story of how love outlives death.

Pastor Tim Mackie put it this way at Pulse: Stories train our minds to expect meaning out of our lives and the lives of others. To illustrate his point, he walked us through the provoking “Shadow Sculptures” exhibition by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, who use trash from the streets of London to challenge our conceptions of city streets and the people who live there. On first glance, the carefully arranged trash looks pointless - after all, it is the worthless stuff we discard. But once a spotlight illuminates the trash's shadow, a story unfolds. Suddenly, the trash gains incredible significance - and chances are, we would expectantly approach the remaining displays with a newfound keenness to discern their message. In this manner, art - especially stories - trains us to view moments in our life as vehicles of meaning and purpose.

Now if the above is true about stories, then how does the Bible - one epic unified story that points to Jesus - help us deal with life? Sparknotes-style, it’s this redemption story about people who are meant to partner with God but instead rebel and wreck the relationship (that’s us). Because he loves us, God responds with blessing and never abandons his promises to us in our darkest moments, as exemplified through the lives of the Bible’s many characters. Ultimately, God immerses himself in our story by participating in our suffering through the Crucifixion of Jesus. Although Jesus cried out in anguish and implored God to find an alternate route to redemption, he trusted God to use the Resurrection to bring life out of death, good out of evil, hope out of despair…and sure enough, God did. Sounds to me like a promising posture to emulate, as I face paradoxical states of hope and despair in my own life every day (which the new release Inside Out explores through Joy and Sadness!). By immersing ourselves in the stories of the Bible, we are thus being taught to navigate our own stories, and to let the life in the Scriptures - not our dark moments - define meaning in our lives.

Why don’t all believers connect their lives with the Bible in this way? Often, Scripture is taught to youth in a sugarcoated or dissociated way that either blunts the uncomfortable brokenness in the Bible or fails to show the connection of each book to the larger story leading to Jesus. As a result, we find ourselves uncertain of how to deal with pain. It seems easier to discard our darkest moments and veil them with the virtual veneer of social media. The Bible Project is Tim Mackie’s response to this problem. His nonprofit creative art studio animates the books and themes of the Bible to show how it is a unified story that points to Jesus and addresses the real-life brokenness in our own lives. By communicating the Bible in this way, Mackie artistically invites us to make sense of our personal stories through the lens of biblical history.

The creative speakers at Pulse aren't alone in this conviction. As I ponder intersections between art and neuroscience (my undergraduate major), I am continually reminded that both offer important lenses to understand the human condition. Check out the second hit I got on a Google search for “neuroscience and art”:

In his commencement speech to the Stanford class of '07, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia said "Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world - equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being - simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, imagination, memory, and physical senses.” ...What if instead of viewing art as a dispensable luxury, we could see it as a key ingredient in unlocking the great mysteries of neuroscience? University of California-San Francisco surgeon, art enthusiast, and author Leonard Shlain writes that just as combining information from our two eyes enhances the third dimension of depth, by “seeing the world through different lenses of art and science and, by integrating these perspectives, [we] arrive at a deeper understanding of reality." (The Neuroscience of Art, Mengfei Huang, Stanford Journal of Neuroscience)

Sound familiar? Between these remarkable sources, here’s the message I’m hearing: Art helps us make sense of reality. In particular, stories like the Bible educate us to see meaning in our own lives.

How did the art and stories about God's heart at Pulse influence my perception of my own art and story? These are the realizations I’ve come to, so far:

  • My art is nothing without love, per 1 Corinthians 13. I want to think about how I can use visual storytelling in service of others.
  • My art is an agent of worship, for better or for worse. Between self-promotion and planning shoots, it can easily become about me. However, I want my storytelling to be about God: “He set up this moment. I just happened to be there!”
  • My art has purpose, even if I can’t see its trajectory right now. At Pulse, I told God how tired I am of saying “I don’t know,” and he immediately said, “Well, then how about "I trust"?” Those two words felt so right, and peace like a river continues to wash over me when I declare them.

I’ll end with a beautiful definition of worship that the music director of my home church shared with me last week. If worship is all these things, then art approached as adoration will nurture my ethics, intellect, creativity, heart, and peace of mind. Sounds life-giving to me.

Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, Nourishment of mind by His truth, Purifying of imagination by His beauty, Opening of the heart to His love, And submission of will to His purpose, And all this is gathered up in that emotion which most cleanses us from selfishness because it is the most selfless of all emotions: Adoration.

More artists at Pulse who live out their art as adoration.