BELIEVE ME, US, 2014. Starring Alex Russell, Zachary Knighton, Johanna Braddy, Miles Fisher, Sinqua Walls, Max Adler, Nick Offerman, Christopher McDonald. Directed by Will Bakke. 93 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes).
Just as the title, Believe Me, was fading from the screen, there was a momentary after-image of just three letters from Believe: LIE. It was an indication of what was to come, a story that was based on deception – until the end, when all the edifying plot developments emerge.
One of the advantages for this reviewer was that he knew nothing of the film, simply asked to review it in advance of release, sent an Internet connection, so it was all unexpected. Soon into the film, it seemed that this was something of a piece of Christian film-making, even though the behaviour of the central characters was less than edifying. And, by the end, the film was communicating a very strong Christian message – interestingly, not a church-based message, but a social awareness, outreach message.
Ultimately, this is a film for a Christian audience though they might be surprised along the way at the four characters and their behaviour. It is always difficult to tell how a non-Christian audience will respond, some thinking that the material is irrelevant, some thinking that this kind of storytelling is beneath them, others, perhaps, giving some thought to the implications of the storyline. While there is a conversion kind of thrust in the narrative, it would be interesting to have some feedback to know whether the film was an occasion for some kind of conversion experience.
After finishing the film, it seemed important to look up the Internet Movie Database to find out something about the director, Will Bakke. In discovering that he had made two documentaries, with Christian themes, one, One Nation under God, about a group of four young people (including himself, his co-writer for Believe Me, Michael B. Allen, and Alex Russell, the main actor) decide to test their faith and beliefs, whether this relationship with faith was just routine. Part of Michael B. Allen’s plot summary for One Nation under God reads:
Four college Christians look at their faith in Jesus and realize that it's based on routine rather than a genuine relationship. They decide that to fully understand their faith, they need to test it against others' beliefs. Michael B Allen, Will Bakke, Lawson Hopkins, and Austin Meek set out on a journey around the United States beginning in Dallas. They travel west to the Los Angeles, north to Seattle, east to Boston, and finally, South to New Orleans before heading home. Along the way, they meet several different characters including a policeman, a hippie clown, a Scientology ex, a congresswoman, a homeless man, and many more.
For the next film, the four friends went on a trip to Europe to find themselves, their values, their faith, Beware of Christians. The comments on the films range from admiration to condemnatory and hostile.
With this background, Will Bakke decided to create a fiction along the same lines. This time his friends are college students who are looking towards their future, The central character, Sam (Russell) finds that he needs several thousand dollars to pay for his studies. He encounters some people who raise money for development and missionary work in Africa, surprised at how much they make, and decides that he and his friends should set up a system whereby they preach development, rake in the money and skim off amounts from the top. Not exactly edifying. Eventually, Sam is very good at it, his other friends serving as MC’s, as accountants, as backup.
Amongst the people they encounter is Callie, a sincere young woman who has spent time in Lesotho, Gabriel a musician who performs at the rallies and Ken, an American-style organiser and entrepreneur. They go on the road, do the skimming of the money, but different ones at different times have twinges of conscience about what they are doing.
Eventually, they have to face the reality of themselves, their lack of belief, their exploiting people, and some repercussions for their futures.
Clearly, this is a very earnest film, but after the earlier documentaries, the team have decided that a way of communicating best to the wider audience is to create a fictional story. Which is what they have done.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Heritage Films Released November 4th