Sundance Features

January 16, 2007

Daniel Karslake, For the Bible Tells Me So

"People of faith are getting more and more activist and becoming more and more influential in government, and I had no interest in making a film that mocked that."

Bishop Gene Robinson (second from left), one of the subjects of Daniel Karslake's documentary For the Bible Tells Me So

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

So how are your preparations going for the festival?

It's going really well. We finished the film in December in Los Angeles; we had a few small technical glitches. A New York editor and I worked on it here for about 10 months, and for various reasons we had to online it in Los Angeles. So we took all the drives that we had the built film on here to LA and we had some major problems having our drives talk to their drives, but we finally figured it out. It's done, and it's Sundance, so it's all good.

It's ahead of the curve, in some regards; I've talked to some filmmakers to are still mixing sound. The festival starts in a few days.

That's what I've heard. We knew we had that cushion if we needed, but their deadline was Jan. 5, and we wanted to be back for the holidays, so we said, if its at all possible to finish everything before we go back to New York -- let's make it work.

For the record, tell me a little about For the Bible Tells Me So.

It's a feature doc about how various conservative Christians across the country reconcile scripture and homosexuality, kind of through the lens of five conservative Christian families who have very strong faith and knew exactly what they believed on the issues, and then were faced with a challenge and decision within their own families. The film really talks about their five journeys to kind of a new understanding of their own faith and of the Bible and sort of where they are within their own theology.

Is it true that you discovered the story while working on In the Life at PBS?

Yes. When I got to In the Life, I noticed they were never doing any stores about religion. I talked to the executive producer about that, and I said, "You know, I think religion is a huge issue both for gay and lesbian people themselves but also for straight people who want to understand what it is to be gay and lesbian, but who are really held back from what they hear the Bible says about it. There's so much going on here; why aren't you guys doing this story?" And the executive producer said, "Well, this is PBS, we get a lot of public funding, and that's just too controversial and too scary. We've shied away from it."

So I pitched them this story about this woman at Harvard who I had read about who had this really amazing life story. She was an African-American woman from Brooklyn who, at 6 months, they think, was found in a garbage can; she'd been thrown out in Prospect Park. She was taken to the New York Foundling Hospital and named Irene Monroe because Sister Irene, who ran the hospital, loved Marilyn Monroe. She was brought up by functionally illiterate foster parents, but by the time she was 18, she ended up at Wellesley on a full scholarship, attended Union Theological Seminary and now is at Harvard. And I thought her story was really interesting, and I also read a lot about how well she talked about religion to people who didn’t even know they were being spoken to about religion; she was called a "street theologian," and she's a lesbian. I pitched that story, they allowed me to do it. It included a theologian from Harvard named Peter Gomes who had the number one best-selling book at that point called The Good Book; he's the university minister at Harvard, and he had a really interesting chapter about homosexuality in which he said that the religious right had gotten it all wrong.

The next day I got an e-mail from a gay kid in Iowa who had seen the story the night before. It was something like five lines: "Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday I wrote the note. Last night I happened to see your show, and just knowing that some day, somewhere, I might be able to go back into my church with my head held high, I threw the gun in the river. My mom never has to know." It was the first of many e-mails like that I got over the next three years because I started doing a lot of religion reporting for In the Life. They realized how many gay people -- especially in the middle of the country -- were not even aware that religious people of all types were really starting to understand the Bible differently. So that e-mail for me was really what fueled all of my work.

And as I produced more and more for In the Life, I got frustrated because In the Life is really hard to find on PBS; it's not part of the feed, so it's on at different times in all different markets, and it was also kind of preaching to the choir a little bit. It's really only watched by gay and lesbian people, and I really wanted straight people to at least start to consider this. That's why I decided to make the film. I wanted to make a film that really appealed to a more mainstream audience, that told stories of non-gay people who were struggling with this. This is not a movie about the gay people and gay kids; it's really about the parents, because I really want straight audiences to see themselves onscreen and see what that struggle is -- and also see where these couple have come from, and where they've arrived.

That said, you’ve also said you took a significant influence from Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. What was that influence, especially as a first-time filmmaker?

As I was doing all these stories for In the Life, I started to think about what I could do that could reach a wider audience and be more mainstream. I had thought about documentary, but I had been really perplexed about how you make a film; first of all, it's a very scary subject for a lot of people. Homosexuality makes a lot of people nervous, and religion makes a lot of people nervous, so to put them together seemed both scary and a seemingly boring kind of film. I knew there would be a lot of theologians in the movie, and clergy tend to talk in a very specific language which is almost all of their own. People start hearing it and they remember being in church, and you glaze over and think about the laundry you have to do. I had been thinking about that a lot: how to make this a film that is compelling; that is sort of pop culture-y and, again, something that a mainstream audience would be interested in seeing and getting through it.

That's when I saw Bowling for Columbine. I remember sitting down at the Lincoln Plaza, and in that film for me, he had one or two very clear things he was saying over and over and over again. But he was saying them in a multitude of different ways, all of which were accessible in some way to a part of the audience. ... I knew a lot of conservatives who saw that film, who stayed for that film and engaged in the conversation that Moore wanted to happen. That's what I was really looking for: I was looking to make a movie that would make people want to talk about it. I didn't want to make a movie that told people how to think; I wanted to make a movie that made people talk about it and hear a new perspective. As soon as the movie ended, I stayed and watched it again, because I was so struck by how smart he'd been in presenting his arguments in almost a way... he obviously had a very specific perspective, but it was far more down the middle than his next film.

Considering the subject matter, how did you go about avoiding that divisiveness for the sake of your film's potential crossover appeal?

The reality in this country is that the Bible is taken very seriously; the Bible has a lot of power, even some growing power in the country. People of faith are getting more and more activist and becoming more and more influential in government, and I had no interest in making a film that mocked that. I take faith very seriously and I take the Bible very seriously, and what I'm getting from screenings for exactly the people I've made the film for is that they get that. They are opened up, and they're actually seeming to hear these new perspectives that they’ve never even considered.

I pursued as many conservatives as I did progressives. I had a difficult time getting conservatives to speak to me on camera; this was a documentary about a subject that they have pretty much already won. This is kind of a given in America -- that homosexuality is condemned by the Bible. So they had mostly no interest in having or adding to a conversation on topic for which they'd already defined the given. But I was able to get a couple of very well-spoken conservatives who were lovely enough to give me interviews and be included in the film, and really, every one of my families, with the exception of maybe one, they all started in that conservative tent; they also represent the conservative movement.

But again: They're not mocked, they're not ridiculed. These are really human stories, and I tell them very respectfully. So my hope is that people on both sides of the argument -- and wherever people are in between -- will able to come away form it with some new understanding and some desire to talk about it and consider new perspectives.

Is this your first Sundance?

I went in 2005, which is where I found my editor (Nancy Kennedy). She edited Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight, which won the Grand Jury Prize. That film was such a good example of a mixture of really great archival footage, really great personal stories, a really great centrist argument -- and luckily, a year-and-a-half later, our schedules coincided. And that's who edited it.

But obviously, this is my first film, so it's my first time I've been to a festival that way. It's insane this is happening.

So are you nervous or apprehensive? Any there any specific preparations or expectations you're facing for Park City?

Yes -- just a general blanket "yes." I'm excited and kind of out of my mind with gratitude. Everything right now is about preparing for Sundance for one way or the other; in a very sort of utilitarian way, right now I'm working on everything it takes to get insurance for the film; there are a million people in the movie, and I'm going through about 200 releases trying to figure out who's who and what's what. It's not really for Sundance, but I need to get that out of the way before I go.

We've got tons of plans; I mean, we have six screenings, so many people from the film are coming in and out of Park City at various times. I'm really excited to see them; I haven't seen really any of them in about a year since I started editing, and I've kind of fallen in love with the families in the movie. The Gephardts are coming in for the premiere. Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop from New Hampshire, he's coming in for one of the middle screenings. A lot of people are coming in and out. There's a lot of press stuff going on, and I'm realizing that my life isn't going to be my own. I didn't completely realize until very recently that I'm probably not going to be able to see any other films. I'm hoping I can.

But it's such a stand-alone phenomenon, and it's just sort of slowly dawning on me what the whole "Sundance thing" is. But it's all good. The directors I've talked to who've been there before have given me great advice: just completely enjoy it for what it is; don't plan on having any sleep; do as much as you can. And I'm definitely going to do that.

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Comments (1)

I saw the Mr. Karslake's film on Sundance last evening, and was impressed only with its finer technical aspects: The core message within was one of propaganda and nothing more. Indeed "ultra conservative" James Dobson actually stole the show with his timeless message of truth, hope, and salvation.

You might instead have spent your time during the production of this film by merely informing your target audience to repent. This would've saved you a great deal of time and money and ongoing philosophical frustration on the part of homosexuals.

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