Meet the team breaking new ground in filmmaking (and fundraising) to bring Jesus’ beatitudes to life
You’ve heard of the beatitudes: the blessings enumerated by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount—teachings that extol the meek, poor, pure of heart and the like as inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. But you probably haven’t seen them before.
“8beats” is trying to change that with an ambitious new project: a cinematic anthology on the beatitudes.
The project was inspired by Krzysztof Kieślowski’s television series “Dekalog” (1989), a dramatic adaptation of the 10 Commandments as they play out in an apartment block in late-Communist Poland. Different cinematographers are used for nearly every installment of “Dekalog.” “8beats” takes that collaborative tradition a step further with eight regional teams independently developing a short film on one of the beatitudes. While the protagonists of these films range from pioneers of the Midwest to struggling sculptors in Midtown, all are meant to highlight the ongoing relevance of the beatitudes to a diverse audience.
“8beats” is the brainchild of the Catholic Creatives, described by one of its founders, Anthony D’Ambrosio, as a “community of entrepreneurs, artists, creative thinkers and ministers; people who all share the desire to see the church become beautiful again, to see a new renaissance happen in our time.” The community’s primary platform is Facebook, where thousands of Catholic professionals discuss artistic and business practices, sharing ideas on how to create a church that speaks to their needs, both aesthetic and spiritual.
The anthology is a response to what the Creatives see as a diminution of the role and efficacy of Christian films in conveying the fullness of human experience.
While there are several examples of Oscar-worthy films that prominently feature religion, explicitly Christian movies often offer one-dimensional depictions of the faith and its detractors. “God’s Not Dead,” which grossed over $60 million on a budget of $2 million, features more strawmen than it can burn up over the course of its 113 minutes. It is part of a burgeoning industry of cinematic Christian apologetics, which includes films like “Heaven is For Real,” “Left Behind,” “Believe Me” and “The Shack.”
For Deniz Demirer, writer and director of “Simon’s Agony,” the film dealing with the first beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”), “8beats” is a project that seeks to fulfill a desire for spiritually satisfying cinema. “There’s been a craving all my life to address the spiritual dimensions of my experience as a Christian that have never been met by anything in the Christian realm of filmmaking,” Demirer explains. “I’d see a movie and think, ‘No, that’s not my experience.’ There’s nothing that is touching upon the complexity of what I understand the world to be.”
“God’s Not Dead” and other films like it, have noble qualities, D’Ambrosio says, but “the whole movie is about who’s right and who’s wrong. The way to win in that film is convincing the other person that God exists and that Christianity is the one true path. That paradigm leads to bad art because it lacks an understanding of how true conversion happens.”
“8beats”is trying to do something else. “True conversion takes root when faith is shown through someone’s kindness or through a moment of beauty,” says D’Ambrosio. “Those experiences usually come in the face of great suffering. The beatitudes themselves speak to suffering; they are an honest place to start when talking about why we need God.”
“8beats” has not been a seamless undertaking, Sam Sorich, the director of Glass Darkly Films and a progenitor of the project, admits: “One of the most difficult things about ‘8beats’ is having an anxiety about the state of the American church, the state of Catholic media and over whether or not we’re going to make fools of ourselves.”
Demirer also stressed the financial strain placed on the project’s participants. “Catholic Creatives gave our team $10,000 of seed money to start,” he notes. “You can only do so much with $10,000 when you’re trying to present a film in the way that people are used to seeing films presented.”
“If you want to be taken seriously, you have to meet a certain standard aesthetically,” Demirer adds. “And to achieve that for next to nothing is an unglamorous thing. Every movie becomes an insane labor of love because you’ve chosen this expensive medium.”
Fundraising is rarely easy, but the model of moviemaking “8beats” follows has attracted interest from distributors and festivals. “The crowdsourcing method itself is an interesting way to make a movie,” D’Ambrosio explained. “We’ve had a lot of interest in it from secular audiences. Not many people have seen a crowdsourced movie that’s been done completely from the bottom-up before. It’s an interesting way of breaking the normal industry standard for how to make a movie.”
While “8beats” endeavors to tap into the truth of the beatitudes—what Thomas Merton calls the “profound existential understanding of the Kingdom of God”—the project is as much about building community as it is about creating a compelling film. “The best part about this work,” Sorich says, “is that we were strangers to each other but we’re working on this together. Some of the people we’ve never met face to face, and we’re almost done with production. That’s really exciting.”
Whether “8beats”will have the impact and reach its creators hope for remains to be seen. The anthology is scheduled for completion this month, when it will be screened at the annual Catholic Creatives Summit in Dallas. One film in the anthology, “Claire McKenna,” has been accepted to the Pittsburgh Independent Film Festival, The Breckenridge Film Festival and the Golden Door Film Festival. Those interested in pre-ordering the completed film can do so on the project’s Indiegogo page. What is clear is that “8beats”and the Catholic Creatives have gathered together artists driven to find beauty in new spaces, be they films or Facebook groups.