Flashback Friday: Faith Like Potatoes

It’s movie night with Mom; so I’m at the video store browsing the new releases and I come across Faith Like Potatoes. I’m not sure I would have picked it up if I were looking just for myself, but I saw the words, “Based on an inspiring true story,” and thought, Mom will like this. She did. But much to my surprise, so did I. Oh, I thought I’d enjoy it tolerably, but I didn’t expect to be, yes, actually inspired.

Faith Like Potatoes centers around a young, white African farmer who is forced to move his family to South Africa and start all over. As he does, he must overcome drought, tension in his family and his own deep-seated anger, as well as the tension and violence between white and black South African farmers. It’s a story of pain, truth, beauty, and redemption.

Even though I was able to read all this on the back cover, I wasn’t expecting to be very impressed. To be entirely truthful, I’ve come to expect a fair amount of cheesy dialogue and frankly, poor artistry (cinematography, plot nuance, imagery, symbolism, subtlety, etc.) from Christian film, with a few notable exceptions. To be fair, I like those “weird artsy films” that make you think, and I understand that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But that also means I’ve seen a good amount of high-quality, low-budget film. And while I think we still have lots of ground to recover as we relearn how to engage the arts, I’m also aware that we have and are making progress.

Affirm Film’s Faith Like Potatoes is evidence of this progress. The producers, editors, directors, and composers are highly experienced, award-winning experts both within and without faith-based film-making, and it shows. Often, faith-based films come across as unrealistic because they lack engaging, believable characters and dialogue and they over-simplify characters and their issues. These movies often provide one-size-fits-all answers and end up resolving problems and characters so pristinely that there are no complications, no loose ends, no lingering struggles or doubts, no ambiguities, no room for interpretation… no depth. Real people in real circumstances aren’t like that. People are complicated; what’s right and what’s wrong is sometimes unclear; accepting Jesus doesn’t make everything rosy and happily-ever-after all at once.

As Christians we ought to know better than anyone that complete resolution will never take place until Christ returns at long last to bring Justice and Peace to a hurting world. If we want our productions to speak to real people in real ways, we need to get real. We need to stop avoiding the wonderfully complex simplicities of the paradoxical life God designed (the last is first, die to live, etc.). Potatoes’ Regardt Van Den Bergh understands this. The well-known South African actor and director writes this of his work (of which The Visual Bible’s Matthew is his best known): “I, as a director, love telling true stories. To tell stories of how God impacts the lives of people is the best, but with it comes an awesome responsibility: the responsibility of being truthful and also representing the way of God in the person’s life accurately.” (www.sonypictures.com/homevideo/faithlikepotatoes/about/production-bios.html).

Overall, I think the film is successful in doing this. It doesn’t shy away from the tragedy that happens in Buchan’s life. (Faith Like Potatoes is based on the life of Angus Buchan, and is also the title of Buchan’s autobiography.) I did, however, feel that the aftermath of the death of his nephew was covered a bit speedily. I understand there are limits on film as a medium, and time is almost always a factor—Faith Like Potatoes is almost an even two hours long as it is—however, I still feel it was an important part of the whole of this man’s experience that shouldn’t have been rushed. We only glimpse rather than truly encounter the shame and guilt and anger Buchan struggled with. The film brings us face-to-face with Buchan’s immense sadness, but his other, darker feelings and struggles are only hinted at. Nonetheless, this dose of realism which portrays both the triumphs and tragedies of life is a good step in the right direction.

You’ve heard the old adage: It’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters most. We all have experience with this. We know that how we say what we’re saying affects how people receive it, and often whether they receive it at all. This being the case, we can see how bad art is an impediment to a good message; we begin to understand how it is nearly impossible to communicate a good message through a movie that just isn’t good. This is why I want to highlight Regardt’s Faith Like Potatoes. It’s good art. Not exceedingly great perhaps, but good. This film has quality acting, dialogue, cinematography—all believable, which allows its message to be believable too. And that is inspiring.

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