First Time Friday … Fyre: selling paradise at the price of the poor.

First Time Friday is a new, what I hope will be weekly, series where I write about a film I’ve seen for the first time. That won’t, of course, preclude me from watching films on other days …

It feels like there’s not much left to say about the Fyre festival debacle, the people behind, and even the two recent documentary films trying to tell the story. A con job that was enabled and bought down by social media , now the subject of short notice films that gain traction through … you guessed it, social media.

This film – the Netflix production – tells the story through footage shot for the festival organisers from conception through to aftermath. It was, as is explicitly said in the documentary, an attempt not so much to put on a music festival as to sell a dream; an exclusive weekend on an idyllic island with supermodels, stars and social media influencers, staying in luxury accomodation, eating the best food and partying. It fell apart in real time, finally exposed to the world by a viral photo of a cheap cheese sandwich taking the place of the best in catering.

That just about everybody fell under the influence of the charismatic, persuasive Billy McFarland is a matter of public record. Several things become apparent as we watch this film. One is that, to quote Leonard Cohen, the people involved really don’t care for music, do they? As quoted above, they didn’t care about the music festival; they cared about a buzz of exclusivity, exploiting FOMO, making money by selling an ephemeral dream. That one of the staff involved, interviewed for the film, is wearing a Nirvana t-shirt whilst he talks about the vision of an island paradise makes this point eloquently; the icons of grunge, repackaged as a fashion accessory.

fyre picture

Even as it becomes apparent that the whole thing is a disaster, and the people trying to make it happen are telling the story, they are laughing. Of course, this may be a trick of the director’s editing, or it may be the laughter of regret and disbelief; either way, they laugh as they talk about sleeping on soaking mattresses and the disappearance of vast amounts of money. At no point do these people show concern for the real victims – the local islanders, who laboured hard to build and set up for the festival and received no money; the local club owner who tearfully tells us of the extra staff she took on in anticipation and had to pay from her life savings when promised money never materialised. The locals – many of whom are poor – will never be paid back. Billy McFarland has been convicted, and others too; but what use is that when you’ve worked for weeks without pay, or shelled money out of our lifetime savings? The rich mostly escape, relatively free; the poor bear the brunt (and this divide is also expressed largely but not exclusively on skin colour lines also). It was ever thus, and it’s a failing of the film that it never really gives full voice or the last word to those who suffered most. We get to peak behind the curtain of deception, but the human cost is never really examined.

The problem is that this was a disembodied project from the word go. Relying on the myth of the perfect sun-kissed island and celebrity lifestyle, the myth was sold, and turned out to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. We can blame it all on social media hype; and yes, that was the vehicle used for this con. But it’s really a story as old as time; it’s always just out of reach, around the next corner, as intangible as it is expensive. No one looks behind the curtain until it’s too late; those that do visit the site in advance or raise a warning word are ignored or sacked. It’s an attempt to parachute a paradise into the backyard of some real people; and leave them to pick up the pieces afterwards. And when they do pick up the pieces, they find they have even less than they started with; no one to pay them back, no one to sit and weep with them, no one to help them rebuild.

As a Christian, I can criticise this – and I do. But that’s a dangerous road; how many megachurch or rich foreign, usually white-skinned missionaries have parachuted in to poorer places promising revival and renewal, not sticking around after to remake what they have broken – or to use the language of the moment, ‘disrupted’? It seems it’s in our nature, all of us, to keep our poor and our mistakes as equally out of our site as each other. Embodiment, incarnation, long-term rooting in the one place; such is the way to which we are called.

Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Learning To Be Diverse

Desmond Tutu – The Arch(bishop) as he’s affectionately known – was, I think, the person who introduced the idea of South Africa as The Rainbow Nation; a multicoloured country of different cultures, where new ideas are allowed to compete in the market-place along with established thinking. Where different cultures are allowed to flourish and express themselves on an equal footing. This is an attractive and inspiring idea – not least here, in a country where one people group ruled all the others so oppressively and for so long. It’s a concept that many embraced – and it was used explicitly and implicitly to market the country abroad. You can see the idea – if not the words themselves – behind much of the country’s apparent self-image, in advertising and various cultural expressions.

But it’s hard work; so hard, that some have given up. I’ve heard The Arch say that he believes the dream of the Rainbow Nation is dead; every gain requires some loss, and that seems to be too painful for some to persist.  How do we respond to that in Mowbray, a diverse (economically and racially) area of Cape Town? In former days Mowbray was an area which experienced the forced removals of apartheid law, and the incoming of white people, Some members of this church can still remember waiting with toys in hand for the trucks to come and take them to their new ‘home’ … which even on the day of removal they didn’t know the location of. Things have changed now; Mowbray truly is diverse. But how does the church embrace that?

rainbow color patch on area rug

Photo by Sanketh Rao on Pexels.com

Diversity can sound like a vague idea, redolent of the sort of forced ideals which enrage some extreme cultural conservatives. However, if the church is called to be a local expression of the Gospel (to simplify what one of my theological heroes, Lesslie Newbigin, said) then we have to take that seriously. If we’re try to give people a (fallen) foretaste of the New Creation where people of all nations will be worshipping and working and resting with each other at Jesus’ feet, then a church in area like ours needs to seek to be like that.

We’re not a big church, but we do have people from a number of different cultural backgrounds who call this church their spiritual home. We’ve been introducing songs and hymns in some of the different languages represented; for some who were forced as children to learn at school in a language that wasn’t their mother tongue, this has been deeply significant, and at times overwhelmingly emotional. We have a diversity of styles of music (sometimes led by the organ, sometimes the guitar and sometimes the keyboard). We try to make sure people who aren’t white men (like me) are involved in leadership positions at different points. It’s hard for people to unlearn the practice of years of sitting at the back of church because that where they felt they had to sit in years past – even when we rope off the back pews; conversely, white people are having to learn to give up (or at least share) their pews at the front.

It’s not easy, though. Because we’re not a big church, there’s only (for example) a few people musical enough to play in services; there’s only so much diversity we can express with a community of this size. The pool is numerically limited, and we want people to be expressing their gifts in a way that gives them joy – not forced into an ill-fitting yolk whuch will burden them. I read and hear people saying that if we don’t have X% of people who aren’t white males in positions of influence, then we’re failing. I agree with the agenda, but not with that way of expressing it; it fails to account for the factor that we, like every other church, are constantly in a process. We haven’t arrived, and may never do so; church’s are organic beings which need a gentle hand on the tiller; they’re not machines where you can simply replace parts with other ones. People need to be loved into change, not driven. Our vision statement seeks to express this sense of not arriving: “We believe Jesus is good news for this city, so we want to be a community where people experience Jesus, embracing the full diversity of Mowbray and beyond”. (Note: we want to be – not are).

We’ve struggled, for instance, to get people who aren’t white males to preach in Sunday services; there are things I could have done better to speed this along, I’m sure. But we also need to wait (and much of ministry and church life and all of life is waiting for God to do things in the time He wants) for the right people to find their home amongst us – and then to have the courage to accept invitations when they are extended.

We are seeking. Seeking a lot of different things, or rather seeking to be many different things. There are things we could do better; there’s also much we’re waiting for.

Seek and you shall find, says Jesus.

They

Women.

Gays.

Black people.

Trans.

Americans.

Brits.

Young.

Europeans.

Old.

Africans.

Asians.

Football fans.

Hooligans.

‘Out’ voters.

‘In’ voters.

Liberals.

Conservatives.

Lefties.

Perpetrators.

Victims.

Men.

Abusers.

White people.

Muslims.

Fundamentalists.

Migrants.

Christians.

Terrorists.

Atheists.

Image-bearers.

Divinely created.

Sinners.

Died for.

Loved.

Called.

Beckoned.

Invited.

Offered forgiveness.

Grace receivers.

In Christ.

Saved.

Adored.

Sisters.

Brothers.

Yours.

Mine.

You.

Me.

Judge not.

The Revenant: awe-inspiring, brutal and spiritual

I’ve heard tell of children in the urban West who don’t know that milk comes from cows. They’ve never seen a cow; they just can’t see the connection. I don’t know if it’s an (urban) myth, but it makes a point about the increasingly urbanised nature of our lives. We’re cut loose from our roots and rhythms; we have established new ones in the urban contexts, but we’re no longer creatures of the earth and dust.

The Revenant is a counterpoint to this, a film more in touch with the nature of … nature … you could not expect to see. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Oscar winning director of Birdman and staring Leo DiCaprio, it tells the story of an 1820s American frontiersman left for dead by his colleagues as he struggles to recover from a bear mauling. It’s a brutal, visceral tale of survival and, though this only really comes to the fore in the film’s final act, a quest for revenge.

Many have said it’s brutal – and it is. The Revenant’s portrayal of the natural world is of one red in tooth and claw; physical, weighty and oppressive. There are very few concessions to CGI  – apart from in the bear attack itself, which is understandable, but doesn’t detract from the sequence’s extraordinary impact. DiCaprio’s character – and the actor himself, presumably – really suffer here. Bones crack, joints grind; winds sweep and howl; cold seeps into every crevice; food is gleaned from the land and from dead animals. The cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary; the cold colours gleam with a tangible frozen bite; the takes are long and fluid, following the movie’s central character to emphasise that he’s stalked as much by the forces of the land as by his own mortality or people who would do him harm.

There’s a spirituality here. It’s a spirituality of the Native American cultures, one wedded deeply to the earth from which the people draw their life. Tellingly the only reference to Western spirituality is a ruined church being overrun by the elements; the only way DiCaprio’s character is going to survive his trial by snowbound fire is abandoning everything he knows – including any semblance of familiar faith – and embrace a mode of being that’s at once hostile and essential for survival.

Contemporary Christianity has much to learn here. As our planet becomes increasingly urbanised we lose our connection to the rhythms of the pastoral life from which we have drawn our roots. That’s not a bad thing – nor a good thing – in itself. It necessitates a reinvention, though; a rediscovery of theology, spirituality and worship that connects to the way we live and is true to who we are and who we find ourselves to be. Sections of the church are wrestling with this; but some still run, crying about heresy or lost tradition. All the while, people thirst for lack of vision.

Back to the movie. DiCaprio – for me one of the most underrated actors of his generation – is magnificent here. He’s as physical here as he was to very different ends in The Wolf Of Wall Street; long stretches of this film pass wordless, his body and face speaking volumes. He can be a remarkable actor, and his lack of major awards recognition demonstrates how conservative awards judges like to be. They do like their talent to suffer for their art, though, and that alone will probably ensure trophies on this occasion.

It’s a good, remarkable film. It’s not – I suspect – a great one. My sense is that it will not translate so powerfully to the myriad smaller screens on which films are now viewed post cinema release. I may be wrong, but it feels as if the film relies so much for its power on overwhelming you with the beauty and hardness of the environment that the small screen will shrink it in more ways than one. In this era, a great film needs to be great on screens big and small; I suppose we’ll all just have to watch it on our phones to answer that one.

There are other problems with this film – and the director’s work in general. The biggest of these is his treatment of women. Here the women are off-stage, in memory, or a victim of violent rape. They have precious few lines. In the context of a career thus far where his films largely focus on the masculine in different expressions, this gives cause for concern. The director has questions to answer, and they can’t simply be answered by saying that what he produces is very good in its own terms. It is; but in the era he’s working, he needs to do more with half the human race.

The Revenant is remarkable, thrilling, stimulating – and ultimately hard to love. For all that’s impressive and awe-inspiring about it (and I use the word awe in its religious context), it’s not going to lodge in the heart; it fed my soul, but if I tried to live on it I’d be in trouble.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on RottenTomatoes.com