Communing with film

One of the things in life I wish I did more of (of which there are several!), is watch films at the cinema. Going alone, in the middle of the day, preferably to the Curzon Soho [which deserves saving from Crossrail 2], with a sneaky G&T in a can in my handbag, is quite frankly my idea of an excellent afternoon off.

Yet, it’s something I managed just once in 2014 – for the exceptionally wonderful Boyhood. [It was available on the plane on my way home from Texas and I watched all 3 hours of it all over again; wanted tell everyone around me to watch it too; and applaud those I spotted watching it while waiting for the bathroom. It’s awesome – watch it!] Instead, I remain loyal to a steady stream of DVD rentals to my door – old school, but the best way of getting new releases without having to pay through the nose for London cinema tickets.

Being an introvert, solo film watching is the epitome of a re-vitalising activity, but even I have to admit that cinema benefits from being viewed within community. I’m lucky, in that I have a number of cine-literate friends who can be relied upon for a good discussion after the event, or for the odd group trip. For a little while, we even had a monthly film club going. Being a member of the Church of Wittertainment also helps – a weekly dose of film recommendations (or warnings); regular rants; plenty of opportunities for listener contributions; and enough knowledge to make it sound as though I have watched every film released since September 2010 (the day I first entered the church).

Ultimately, cinema works best in community. Everyone reacts differently to films (just like books) and the range of subjects covered by the cinema in a year is huge – but, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s why I was rather pleased to discover an organisation that does the hard work for you – by which I mean they get the discussion going – you still have to watch the actual film!!

Damaris Logo

I discovered the work of the Damaris Trust thanks to a friend offering me her +1 for a screening they had organised for a preview of Unbroken – a film chronicling the real-life WW2 experiences of Olympian Louis Zamperini. I love the Olympics and have a long-standing interest in Japanese POW and intern camps (I’d love to say this was a result of my modern history degree, but it’s actually thanks to Tenko), so I was definitely up for it. Also, free film? No brainer!

Damaris have two elements to their work:
(i) Film Clubs where communities can come together, watch a film, eat food that connects with its theme, then engage in discussion and activities that relate to the film too.
(ii) Providing stand-alone discussion and activity guides for many of the biggest films.

Having watched Unbroken, I had to wait a week or two before the resources came online (it wasn’t released till Boxing Day), and I have to say, I was impressed. Unbroken was a hard watch – as most WW2 films are – featuring Zamperini’s 47 days in a life raft after being shot down over the Pacific, followed by his brutal treatment in POW camps. It took me a while to process what I’d watched – its first 30 minutes is not dissimilar in its intensity to the opening of Saving Private Ryan.

Unbroken-poster_1-1024x557

It’s a story that deserves being committed to film, but as my friend and I reflected as the credits rolled, the film could almost be said to have told the wrong story. Having not been broken by the persecution he received at the hands of a Japanese camp commander [you can see where the title came from], after the war Zamperini’s life was transformed by a Billy Graham rally he attended in 1950. Having dedicated his life to God, he decided to set about forgiving all those who had persecuted him – an embodiment of “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. And that’s the story I would have liked to have seen on film!

Maybe the war could have been the first third, and the rest his transformation and subsequent journey through forgiveness? 2013’s The Railway Man is similar in theme (POW, mistreated, traumatised, goes in search of his persecutors…) but that real-life story went in different direction at the war’s end. It’s a shame that the film about a lack of forgiveness got made, and the one with it did not.

However, the story is there before the credits – albeit in subtitles – and it packs a punch. And this is where the Damaris resources come in. Forgiveness is something that it’s easy to talk about, but hard to enact. We mean well, but ultimately it’s one of the hardest things we mere mortals can do. Therefore, it makes for a great discussion starter. How would you have coped in his position? Who might we need to forgive? Although there is a Christian slant, it’s by no means the primary focus – forgiveness is a concept that’s relevant to everyone. (And if that fails, there’s also a sport section in the resource!)

To be honest, discovering Damaris is something of an answer to prayer. I’m always keen to legitimise fun activities as ‘work’ and in a church context, community film watching and discussion would be a valuable tool! In fact, come the first day back at college after Christmas, I found myself recommending Damaris to a friend, after they’d mentioned a trip to see Exodus. And, having spent a sizeable chunk of the last few months writing a mammoth resource full of activities, I appreciate it when someone else does it for me!

Universal Screening

NB: I was under no obligation to write this post – I got to see a film for free in Universal’s private screening room, with wine and popcorn, but a blogpost wasn’t required in return. As usual, I only write about stuff that I think is worthy of it! 

Women in Waiting

Today is the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the Church of England’s first female priests. Last night, I listened to a debate on whether gender is relevant in the question of church leadership, where many of the same issues and disagreements overcome in the ordination of those women arose again in the questions of women in the episcopacy and women in the Roman Catholic Church.

Prejudice against women is still very much in evidence, despite the progress that has been made. There’s still a long way to go…

The debate was part of the launch of a new book celebrating women in the church. Julia Ogilvy’s Women in Waiting: Prejudice in the heart of the church is a collection of interviews conducted with a collection of women in the church over the last year. It’s a diverse group – lay and ordained; married and single; academics; senior clergy; parish priests… and this diversity helps the book paint a broad picture of where women in the church were at during 2013.

Women in Waiting

The timing is an important factor in the book, coming just a few months after the failure of the women bishops vote in November 2012, but prior to the quick progress that has been made at the November 2013 and February 2014 General Synods. In the years to come it will be important to have a record of how people (especially women in the church) felt at that moment of time and not to lose the memory of it in what we hope will be a yes vote next time around.

Being a collection of interviews, this is not a demanding read, but it is an inspiring one. As a female ordinand, it was fascinating to read of other women’s journeys towards ordination – including the barriers they had to overcome and what encouraged them along the way. It would be a perfect book for anyone exploring a call to ministry, regardless of their gender. It also serves as an important reminder that women do not need to be ordained to have a voice in the church (Elaine Storkey’s story is particularly significant for this reason) and that those outside the Church of England can have a voice in the campaign too. Having read Baroness Helena Kennedy’s interview and heard her speak passionately last night, I am very convinced that this is important.

Personally, I was incredibly affected by Lucy Winkett’s re-telling of what she faced when she became a minor canon and chaplain at St Paul’s Cathedral. Back in 1997, when the press were covering every element of the debate regarding her appointment, I wasn’t terribly aware of what was going on. [In 1997, I was a lot more concerned with the general election; the plot of Friends; my GCSE’s; and whether Keanu was hotter than Alex James – big issues!] But, as a woman facing the fact that in a few short months I’ll be ordained and potentially facing opposition from those who are not in favour of women’s ordination, her stories provided much to think about. It wasn’t doom and gloom though – there was certainly hope, as this story shows:

“There’s another amazing story of one of the servers, Ron, who was incandescent that I was there, and he started this thing of the servers all coming up and then refusing communion… It was absolutely horrible and all done very publicly. But after five years of me being there and getting on quite well personally, something happened. It was communion one Sunday morning, with hundreds of people milling about and everyone there under the dome. And I go along the row and I’m just about to miss out Ron. And I see these little tremulous hands held out like this, so I just…I was completely overwhelmed and so was he… It was just a miracle.”

(Women in Waiting, pp.17-18)

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a collection of interviews will be theologically light though. One of the most helpful interviews was with Sarah Coakley – an ordained academic who is writing some of the most exciting systematic theology of the moment. [‘Exciting systematic theology’?? Those words belong more to my tutors than me…] I heard her speak at Heythrop College last term and struggled through a chapter of Powers and Submissions for an essay on gender – but reading her explanation of how she came to study this area of theology really gave me an insight that encourages me to get stuck into more of her work, which is definitely no bad thing!

While this isn’t a book that theologically lays out the arguments in favour of women leading in the church, [there’s an imminent book that does just this that I will blog about as soon as I’ve got hold of a copy & read it!] it is a book about women. It’s about sharing the experiences, feelings and hopes of those who have sought to overturn prejudice in the church and get on with what God has called them to do.

First Women Priests 1994The Times reports the momentous day 20 years ago. Here’s to another momentous day in the near future. 

*Disclaimer: Bloomsbury Books sent me a review copy of the book – but my views on its contents are entirely my own opinions. 

As Is – A Review

It isn’t often that I find myself following in the cultural footsteps of Stephen Fry, but yesterday morning’s Twitter browsing revealed that Fry had spent the previous evening at the play I had tickets for that evening. A play that officially opened on Thursday, that’s only running for the rest of this month and in a tiny theatre – what were the chances?

As a disclaimer, I will point out that the main reason I had a ticket at all was because an old friend stars in the production. However, all my views are my own and honest at that – he knows that if I don’t like something I’ll say so, even if it’s at his expense!

As Is was first staged in 1985 and is widely regarded as being the first play about AIDS. William Hoffman wrote it in the midst of seeing at first-hand the damage that this mysterious disease was doing to his circle of friends. Set primarily in St Vincent’s Hospital, a hospice for many of New York’s first AIDS victims, the play explores attitudes and reactions to the disease from both within and outside the gay community. Through the story of Rich and Saul – a couple brought back together after the former is diagnosed – and flashbacks of their lives together, the audience is drawn into the world of those first years of the devastating outbreak.

Saul & Rich - As Is, Finborough Theatre Saul (David Poynor) & Rich (Tom Colley).

It’s intense. Finborough Theatre is small – very small – and the audience is close to the action at all times. It runs for 90 minutes with no interval, so the atmosphere is never broken. When I stood up at the end of the performance, I had to unfold myself out of the position I’d been sitting in without moving for the entire duration, so absorbed I barely moved an inch from start to finish. The cast get little time off the stage too, forming a chorus behind the main players until the play’s final scenes. It’s emotional, it couldn’t be a play about the death of so many people without emotion, but it’s genuine. The cast carry that emotion and draw the audience in. You root for Rich and Saul, for their relationship with one another, for Rich’s health, for their friends and family…

And then you remember that this isn’t fiction. Rich and Saul may not be real, but they’re based on real people – many of them. That the fear that Rich has about dying and the fear Saul has of catching the disease were (and are) genuine. In the early 1980’s no one really understood exactly what was going on, just that countless friends were dying, often in horrible ways.

As Is hasn’t been staged in the UK since 1987 – perhaps people felt it was passé, that with Angels in America and Rent, the AIDS thing had kind of been done – but it isn’t passé, far from it. The world has been aware of AIDS for almost exactly the same length of time as I’ve been in existence, and although there have been massive medical advances and huge progress in attitudes to the disease, there’s still no cure. It is still a disease of pandemic proportions. But I wonder if western society forgets that when AIDS first emerged it was healthy white men it struck down first, and instead concentrate on its impact on the African subcontinent – AIDS is now something that happens ‘over there’. Except it happens here too. It’s not sorted.

I was surprised by how much the play seemed to have to say about God in the context of this epidemic. Reading Hoffman’s preface in the programme notes, I noticed a mention of God in the writing of the play:

“I was willing to go to any lengths for my play, except to imagine myself having AIDS. I was not afraid of contracting the disease through casual physical contact with those who had it. I was well aware that AIDS is transmitted only by an exchange of bodily fluids. But on a deeply irrational level, I was terrified of catching it by identifying with those who had it. Consequently, for a long period, my central characters, Rich and Saul, were shadowy and undeveloped, compared with the background figures. But one day I realized the depth of my fear and asked God to protect me as I wrote the play. He did.”

The audience is led through the play’s events by an Irish could-have-been-a-nun hospice worker, whose faith is evident in her regular monologues – something you might expect from someone who was nearly a nun. What is unexpected are the depictions of religious experience that both Rich and Saul (who describes himself as an atheist, from a Jewish family) have. On the last day before the illness that eventually led to his diagnosis, Rich experiences the presence of God and the beauty of creation as he runs past New York’s bridges. Saul seems sceptical of religion until a pivotal moment in the play (I’ll avoid spoilers), when God seems to speak to him in the reflection of a sex-shop sign in a puddle. God moves in very mysterious ways…

What I loved about the play, aside from the excellent performances and intense subject, was that it wasn’t without hope. In 1985 it would have been very easy to write a play that was hopeless and full of death, in the context of a pandemic that was still raging. But that’s not what As Is is about, it’s hopeful. Hopeful that not all will die, that attitudes can and do change, that relationships can be rekindled and that God is amongst all of it.

The play runs at the Finborough Theatre near Earls Court until the end of August and tickets are a veritable bargain for a London production. I could not recommend it more highly! (You don’t need to just take my word for it either, the BBC and Time Out have also had very positive things to say about it.)

Finding escape…in prison

As my July bucket list explained, a key element of this month’s ‘vicar school is over – for now’ rejoicing was the reading of books that are not theological.

I do love my current life, vicar school and everything, but I really, really miss my old life’s space and time for non-educational reading. (I also miss singing. That’s a whole other issue.) Whether that’s commuting time spent engrossed in a good read, or the guilt-free pleasure of reading whatever I wanted, it’s certainly not something I have much space for these days. I commute rarely; my bag usually contains some worthy tome; reading anything not on a module guide induces guilt that my time could be better spent working towards the next essay. For a voracious reader who finds their escape in other worlds, this is a sad state of affairs.

So, in preparation for my summer freedom, I ordered a very large book. It arrived the day before my last essay was due (a Friday), so the parcel was hidden under a cushion until the essay was handed in. Saturday morning was spent on the sofa engrossed. Sunday afternoon saw a couple of hours in the sun with it. By Monday night it was finished – all 750 pages of it. Oh. Happy. Days.

Sunshine ReadingSunday afternoon perfection.

The book in question was a blow-by-blow companion to the making of Tenko – the classic TV drama set in a women’s Japanese internment camp during WW2, shown in the very early 1980’s. I’ve written about it before – most recently on how getting lost in a blackhole of its episodes inevitably results in a ‘Tenko Mentality”. It might not sound like a literary masterpiece (it’s not really) but for a die-hard Tenko fan and historian, it was a joy. All of a sudden, I had escaped a world of ecclesiology and taken refuge in mid-twentieth century history and early 1980’s television making.

In the fortnight leading up to the end of term, I’d re-watched all three seasons of Tenko (and the reunion episode) for possibly the fourth time. I’ve definitely written about the show before, it’s something of an obsession amongst the female Clutterbucks – and an reference point for many every day facts of life. (For example, “it’s so humid, my hair makes me look like an extra in Tenko”.) Watch too many episodes in one go and it’s very difficult to re-adjust to the world around you – we are not in a Japanese internment camp (thank goodness!) It’s utterly addictive too. I’m still both impressed and slightly shocked by my ability, the penultimate Monday of term, that I ran 5km and watched an episode of Tenko before I left for college at 8.30am!

It’s total escapism and it’s only struck me in the last couple of days that it seems to have become comfort viewing in times of stress – the last time I watched it all was the week I started vicar school. Like Chalet School books, the world of Tenko is an alternative universe to escape into when the real world is not all that it should be. [As a result, if you ever see me mentioning that I’m watching it, perhaps check that things are ok…]

Back to the book. It was a joy. If you’re slightly OCD about needing know why things happened the way they did; why plots evolved; how things might have happened; and how it all fits together with reality, then this is perfect. For goodness sake, it’s 750 pages long, and there are photos! It includes possible story-lines that never made it to filming, the experiences of the cast and crew, why cast changes happened the way they did and the real-life experiences of life in the camps that inspired the series. It even includes a bibliography for further reading…

…thus, three days after finishing the book, I returned home to another piece of holiday reading – Women Behind the Wire, a collection of experiences of women who lived through Tenko in reality. It really comes to something that my idea of ‘holiday’ reading now that I’m a theology student is historical stuff! Again, it’s not a literary masterpiece and hasn’t aged particularly well – what counted as ‘popular’ history in the early 80’s doesn’t compare well with that written 30 years later. It’s rather sentimental and its references to the Japanese soldiers verge on the patronising, but it does tell the stories of some incredible men and women.

Tenko was the result of the producer’s earlier job researching those honoured by This Is Your Life, specifically Brigadier Dame Margot Turner, who had been interned by the Japanese. After making the first series of Tenko, Lavinia Warner researched the stories of many of the women interned alongside her, producing a book that chronicles the experiences of one community of women throughout their internment. It’s fascinating, heart-breaking and an example of just how horrific humanity can be. At the same time, it provides an idea of where some of the Tenko storylines came from – though it’s abundantly clear than the women of Tenko had things a lot easier than was really the case!

Now, I feel I have something like closure on this episode of history. True, I still need to get hold of a copy of Paradise Road so I can watch it again (this film depicting a vocal chorus in a camp was also inspired by Women Behind the Wire) and there are one or two other books I’d like to read, but I think it’s enough for now. Next on my summer list is a few more titles from that ever-reliable stalwart of my library: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer…

How to be a woman

You may remember that in the autumn I went on a bit of a feminist rant. Having never used the label, my new life as an ordinand in a church which is still divided over women in leadership, it’s now a word and state of mind I have to inhabit. [That post has also become a major issue of contention between a male friend and I – in fact, we had an argument about it while in Paris. I will take this opportunity to apologise for unintentionally labelling him a misogynist. He is not. He’s just a bit of a patronising git sometimes…]

Prior to returning to the French building site, I’d had a bit of a chat with a friend from last year’s trip who had shared some of my ill-feeling about such behaviour. [At this point I feel I’m having a can open – worms everywhere moment with that aforementioned male friend… Ooops.] We got onto the subject of girl power and feminism, which ended with her own mantra for life as a woman:
“Live and let live and don’t get breast implants”
The conversation also included an enthusiastic recommendation of a book that had been languishing on my wishlist for quite some time – Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman.

Serendipitously, it was on offer at WH Smith the following morning, so I snapped it up as ideal holiday reading. It was begun with glee on the Eurostar to Paris and was immediately engrossing. As described on its back cover, it’s part memoir, part rant and that’s a combination which was always going to go down well with me. In the back of the car en route to the Limousin, it amused me so much that passages had to be read aloud to the female friend I was sharing the back seat with – but in hushed tones, not wanting the men in the front to hear. After all, how would they respond to this explanation of how to work out if you’re a feminist:
“Put your hand in your pants.

(a) Do you have a vagina and
(b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist!”

Holiday perfection, right there.

The following day, another friend arrived bearing a copy and we rejoiced at how much we were learning and how ridiculous parts of it were. I was able to question whether she had been shocked/mystified by some of Moran’s revelations – was I the only woman not to have named parts of her anatomy? [No.] Did she agree with the plentiful use of the C word? [No. And I have written about my views on the subject here.] Had she ever gone commando? [No.] The women gathered and discussed feminism in serious and non-serious measures. A Texan builder picked up a copy, read a chapter, and had his eyes opened considerably.

Most amusingly of all, the book helped me overcome some of my more prudish tendencies. As I mentioned when extolling the virtues of Ackroyd’s London Under, we spent an evening alternating between it and Moran’s book – the latter providing some light relief from deaths via cess pits. I read aloud most of a chapter relating to underwear – which culminated in an excellent passage about the trials and tribulations of bra wearing (a subject that’s very close to my heart…). Moran has a manifesto against society’s passion for tiny pants which includes the following hilarious anecdote, which couldn’t really be left out:
“I was on a crowded tube with a friend of mine, who gradually grew paler and quieter until she finally leaned forward, and admitted that her knickers were so skimpy, her front bottom had eaten them entirely. ‘I’m currently wearing them on my clit – like a little hat,’ she said.”

I wasn’t sure I could read it out loud. I’m a trainee vicar. There were near-strangers in the room. Heck, there was a man in the room! But I took a deep breath and read on as if I said such things on a daily basis. [Interestingly, when any of us happened to get to the other C word, we always referred to it as ‘the C word’. Our sensibilities were not to be undone to that extent.]

I don’t agree with everything Moran writes, but it is written in such a way that you understand why she’s done, said and thought what she has. The chapter on her abortion was painful reading – but it is an admirable thing to have written about it in the first place. It isn’t a feminist manifesto in The Female Enuch sense, but it is a logical, coherent (and hilarious) text that illustrates just how ridiculous society’s attitude towards women – and women’s attitude to themselves – can be.