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Elizabeth Kwant: “Across the UK there’s an amnesia about this time in history.”

Thanks to our Sputnik Patrons, we’ve given a grant to visual artist Elizabeth Kwant. Elizabeth is a Manchester based artist, researcher and curator, who focuses her work on highly raw social issues such as colonialism, immigration detention, and modern slavery.

Her new film, ‘Volta do Mar’, continues that journey closer to home; a meditative performance focused on the interwoven histories of peoples and places in the UK, and the trauma that we find there. We asked our good friend Ally Gordon, from Morphe Arts, to find out more. We were really struck by Elizabeth’s work, and really happy that we could help bring this next piece to the finish line.

Making collaborative work, retelling important stories, and facing up to the demands of social justice are priceless processes. Why not join Patrons scheme for as little as £5/month, and we can give out more micro-grants to artists like Beth, who are taking risks to make difficult work.

Can you tell us a little about your new project, ‘Volta do Mar’?

I’ve been working on this project for a few years now, in an ongoing way. Let me backtrack a little bit to explain where I came from! Back in 2018, I spent a year in the archives of the international slavery museum in Liverpool. I spent time looking into the legacies of transatlantic slavery in the North-West of England.

So looking at the compensation which followed abolition – those plantation owners who received money for slaves; and where did that money go, basically?

That project culminated in a moving image installation, in the museum, in the transatlantic gallery, which was co-created with female survivors of modern day slavery. Through the process I had been looking at trauma, and how we hold it in our bodies; I really wanted women who had experienced a similar trauma to be able to respond to that history through their own stories.

During that time I did all that research, and in some ways it was behind the film but didn’t translate into the film itself. I wanted those women’s voices to be heard, so I didn’t go too deeply into the history around it. So I came away with all these ideas brewing! Volta do Mar comes from that period of time, where I had been researching into Cumbria, where I’m from originally – I was born in a small town called Whitehaven. 

As I began to look into the history of colonialism in Cumbria, I realised that Whitehaven was one of the most important port cities in the 18th Century, in the UK, for the trade in tobacco, and later sugar.

Often when one thinks about slavery in the UK we think about Glasgow or Bristol – so that’s an interesting part of the history in Britain.

I think with Cumbria you think of holidays, lakes, the National Trust, the picture perfect postcards! Interestingly I’ve come up against a reluctance to even look into this history, from institutions, tourist sites, even locals in some ways. Across the UK there’s an amnesia about that time in history. It’s generally not taught in schools. So I felt I wanted to somehow perform in some of these locations and places, and bring a kind of embodied presence into those spaces – particularly focused on Whitehaven.

How do you hope this project will help to highlight this part of history?

I think things work on multiple levels with art; often we’re told things in books or in a lecture style, quite a didactic way. I think artwork creates a space to engage with ideas on a heart level, an emotional level.

I really hope that my work does that, the moving image installations that I make do create a physical space as well; I like people to go in and experience the work, I particularly don’t like  showing work on a cinema screen, that sit-down, flat, passive experience. 

The last piece I made was in a circular room, and people walked in and were surrounded by women who were survivors of slavery, but who were on eye level, so they were engaging with them on an equal par.

It makes me think how art can open a space to discuss things that otherwise we can’t talk about; or to exist in a liminal space where we’re being intuitive over ideas that are difficult to comprehend.

There’s the personal aspect where I’ve been grappling with this as a white Brit; how do I authentically look at these histories in my work? Do I even have a right to? Some would say I don’t, and these issues are really complex. That’s why in the past I’ve chosen to work more collaboratively.

It’s wonderful to hear that Ruth Naomi Floyd is involved in the project, and of course Ruth often sings about her personal family story and her great great grandmother, who was treated truly awfully. Her music brings me to tears! Can you say a little more about that involvement?

I heard Ruth play the jazz flute recently! I’d been up in Cumbria filming, and thinking about the sound; I knew that I wanted to layer sounds. I really love working with found sounds; I wanted the sound of the mining machinery, because it was the coal mines in Whitehaven that exported coal to Ireland, and collected slaves from Africa afterwards. And the sound of the Solway Firth which is the sea there, next to the town.

So I have these layers of sounds that provide a base. When I heard Ruth play, it was just very evocative and emotive, and I thought that’s it

I really love to be able to collaborate with an artist of Black American heritage, whose family history is linked into the history of slavery; and also somebody who is such a wonderful advocate for racial justice. I can’t think of anybody better to put sound with the film.

So Ruth is going to be composing jazz flute. It won’t necessarily be vocals. She’ll be responding to my performances in the sites. The film is, I suppose, about lament, and in places quite ritualistic. Ruth will be responding to the history of the sites, and also the visuals of the film. And we hope that later in the year she’ll be able to actually visit the sites and respond more emotively to the history of the places.

It strikes me that a work of art of this nature, a performance of film with music, is less didactic, less instructive, but speaks to true events and can be a way to talk about things which are true, in an emotive way. Would that we had more lament in the world!

To find out more about Elizabeth and her work, follow her on Instagram, or see her website.

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Shelley Ruddock (View35 Films): “We think of ourselves as a dream team”

Thanks to our patrons community, we’ve given a grant towards View35 Film’s new original project, ‘The Draw’. The Edinburgh-based “dream team” led by Shelley and Tom Ruddock are writing, directing and producing their own dystopian drama—and our self-confessed film nerd Jonny Mellor spoke to Shelley to find out more.

Art doesn’t grow on trees! It costs money to make, especially for those with big ambitions. Even micro-grants make a difference to projects like these, as well as being an irreplaceable encouragement to those making them. Join our Patrons scheme for as little as £5 / month – and we can help companies like View35 to keep challenging themselves, drawing stories out of the Christian imagination.

Answers have been edited for brevity, watch the whole interview above:

Can you introduce yourself?

I’m Shelley Ruddock – I’m a film producer, and also the co-founder of View35 Films, which is based in Edinburgh and London.

And you work in partnership with your husband Tom? What roles do you both take?

We see ourselves really as a dream team! We are a real partnership as you say – he is a writer/director, I specialise as a producer; but we also both have a lot of experience across different roles. We really do see it as “us” when we make a project, and we love working together on the stories that Tom’s created.

What are some of the different projects you’ve worked on, that you’re proud of?

What I love about our job is that we have so much variety. We had a cool job with Lego recently—we got to go into Warner Brothers studios, on a night shoot, and walk around the place.

You contacted us about your first feature film—can you fill us in on that?

We’re so grateful for the help – it’s our first feature film, a sci-fi drama set in an alternate present, called The Draw. There’s a lot of twists and turns along the way, but essentially it’s a story about human connection.

One of our crew members put it perfectly as a merge between Black Mirror and 1984! We’ve filmed principal photography—we did a three-week shoot in Edinburgh already, and we’ll be doing a pick-up shoot in London, and we’re in the midst of post-production.

We’re aiming to have it finished by September/October in time for the Sundance deadline, to give us a good goal to work towards. We’d love to release it early next year, but it all depends how it does on film festivals, and pushing to streaming platforms after that. Next year, hopefully, will be the release.

For anyone reading, how can they help bring this vision to life?

We are still raising money for the London side of the shoot and for the post-production, to help us make the best film we can possible make. Anybody can support Tom and me through the Buy Me a Coffee website — or they can get in touch with us, if somebody would like to be more involved in the journey, to be a partner in it.

Find View35’s website here, or follow them on Instagram.

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Curation, culture and community-building with Pip Piper

A film producer, documentary director and more, with his roots in youth work, Pip Piper is one of those people who helps community-building to happen. Thanks to our community of Patrons, we’re giving funding towards Pip’s new local film festival in his new hometown of Exmouth.

A healthy arts culture is a common good, allowing the emotional and spiritual life of a community to flourish. It’s part of how we connect, dream, and aspire, together. Why not support work like Pip’s, by joining our Patrons scheme for as little as £5 / month? Find out more here:

Hi Pip. For those who haven’t come across you yet, can you introduce yourself?

Hi, yes! I am Pip Piper, an indie film maker with about 25 years of filming experience across commercial, feature drama and feature documentary. I produce and direct.

I also helped set up (mid 1990s) and still run OSBD media charity that helps develop young emerging filmmaking talent and creates films that matter. For 15 years I also co-directed Blue Hippo Media Ltd with Rob Taylor. I was based in Birmingham for 30+ years, and now am based in Exmouth, Devon. I am married to Debbie, who also helps run OSBD and we have 3 grown up boys.

You are setting up a film festival in your community in Exmouth. It’s a great pleasure to be able to support this great project through our patrons scheme. Can you fill us in on the plan?

Thank you for the support—it’s not just the finances, but more importantly the support and belief that comes with it that really counts. Debbie and I plan to develop a film festival in the town that brings together people who want to be involved, ultimately aimed at local residents (Exmouth is a town of over 40,000).

We are going to start small, and build over the next few years. It will be a cultural and curated festival, not so much about competition but more about bringing really interesting films to the town, with Q&As and events aimed at enabling wider engagement. The ethos will be about community development and cohesion through the artform of film. We also want to have a short film challenge for young filmmakers built-in too. We aim to run our first pilot one in November 2022.

Why do you think that this is important? Why do you think that Exmouth needs a film festival?

Well, it doesn’t have one and we don’t think ever has! Seriously though, as mentioned above, we believe that art can bring people together, break down barriers, help build cohesion and has the possibility to inspire and inform. Film really can do this—help us laugh, feel, be inspired, get angry. A festival of films both short and feature, fiction and documentary, peppered with guest Q&As and events could bring something very special to Exmouth and its community and beyond.

You have a long track record of bringing ambitious projects like this to life. What advice would you give others who would like to set up large scale community arts projects like this one?

I think take your time, talk to lots of people, do the groundwork. Who are the people already doing things that you can collaborate with, or learn from? Run your SWOT analysis. Then start slowly and begin, ready to adapt as you evaluate.

Ultimately though, you will need to own what you want to achieve, and look to make a way. Have a trusted team you can bounce ideas off and listen to when it gets tough. Share the load—no need to be the hero. For us who are followers of Jesus, this is all Kingdom building; so pray, listen, discern, be wise and trust Him.

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Pip Piper’s new documentary celebrates the people keeping small venues alive

Filmmaker Pip Piper’s most recent documentary, ‘Long and Winding Road’, had its premiere last week at London’s Bush Hall. We were able to invite some of our Patrons and Hub members along; London Hub leader Alex Dickens was won over by its immersive, humble portrayal of the industry…

Q&A at the Long and Winding Road Premiere. L-R: Adrian Utley (Portishead), Sybil Bell (Founder, IVW), Philip Selway (Radiohead), Nadine Shah, Pip Piper, Dom Frazer (Owner, The Boileroom), Steve Lamacq (Radio 6)

There’s a humming and persistent bed of sound running through Long and Winding Road – Pip Piper’s documentary about venues at the heart of local, live music – that will be instantly evocative to any gigging musician.

The twanging impatience of tuning up, the clatter and squeaks of setting up cymbals, the pops and buzzes and the ‘one two one twos’. All the preparation, the nervous excitement; each moment of practice comes to this point. It’s immersive, and apt that we were listening to it through the towering speakers of independent venue Bush Hall, where Amy Winehouse, Adele, REM, and Paul Weller have all passed through on their way to bigger and grander arenas.

However, much like Piper’s first film about the cycle of ruin and renaissance in a the music industry, his second (made in association with Independent Venue Week) is less focused on journeys to stardom, and more interested in those volunteers and professionals who, day in day out, exist on the precipice of survival – both in the spotlight and behind the scenes.

As many of us know, creative arts at the grassroots level is a risky endeavour, and LAWR introduces us to a host of characters, often colourful, whose livelihood or community is entwined inextricably with these small and often beaten-up music venues. Some days the room is bouncing; on others it’s three men and a dog in the corner. Some days you find the next big thing, on others you’re staring down closure because of new developments and noise complaints. It is a lifestyle of ‘smoke and blurred visions’, as it’s poetically described by one venue owner.

The film’s heart and its narrator is Philip Selway. Selway is most commonly found behind the drumkit for Radiohead, but his charming demeanour and talk of family and home comforts belies his pioneering rockstar accomplishments.

In LAWR, he is simply a gig goer, a fan, and is thrust back into the beginnings of a band’s journey as he takes in seven gigs at seven venues in seven days – touring the country with Pip and his team in the back of his van. Though nowadays Radiohead would be rarely found away from the biggest stages, it is immediately clear that Selway has a deep affection for the small and the intimate, as well as acknowledging its place in the ecosystem of new music and new bands.

The Leadmill, Sheffield. (Image

From iconic and established independent venues like The Leadmill in Sheffield or The Adelphi in Hull (with its curmudgeonly but adored longstanding owner Paul Jackson), to newer projects focussed on training and support like The Warren or The Brudenell Social Club, the film’s scale and scope is impressive as it anchors the stories of these halls and back rooms not in their successes, but in the everyday people who give their time and money to serve and champion artists and creatives.

Their greatest accomplishments are often staying open for another month, or creating community where there was none, or seeing the kid that hung around outside train and take on responsibility as a technician.

Yet each story and individual seems to see the spectre of challenge on the horizon; the fact pubs and clubs are closing at record levels, ravaged by developers and legislation and simply dwindling audiences content with consuming music and entertainment on the few square inches of our phone screens. Undeterred, the bands still get onstage, still the ritual of tune-ups starts again, the doors open once more. There is something special inside these spaces, something that cannot be bottled or bought.

What is starkly clear about both Selway, Piper, and the film is that there is a humility and a sincerity in their message. It isn’t overly emotive like a charity appeal, in fact in the post film Q&A hosted by Steve Lamacq, Piper mentions the deliberate decision to leave some of the more emotional elements out of the film. Instead, it gives the majority of its time and its spotlight to those not usually accustomed to it, which in a film with contributions from members of Radiohead, Portishead, Pink Floyd, and artists like Nadine Shah and Richard Hawley, is a noticeable and notable choice. In Piper’s interview with Sputnik he remarks:

“I am not a Christian filmmaker, nor am I a secular one.

“I am a filmmaker, period. I am also a follower of Jesus and that creates a life defining, distinct and deep DNA in who I am and how that outworks in what I do and say and engage with.”

In the film’s championing of community, of mutual support and encouragement, of daring to follow creativity and the ability to try and to fail and then try again, his ‘deep DNA’ is evident, and is evidently displayed through both his technical and storytelling craft.

The passion, drive, energy, and wholehearted belief in the individuals on film leaves you far more uplifted than defeated, and I believe that’s exactly where Piper would want you to be.

At another point in the post-film interview, Pip said the one thing he would want you to feel as the credits roll is ‘Where is my nearest gig venue and when can I go there?’. As I jumped off my bus home through sprawling London streets and walked past a band just taking the stage at my local pub, these words rang in my mind. Why not, I thought, and I entered the cacophony of tune-ups, mic checks, smoke and blurred visions once more.

Independent Venue Week 2020 begins on Monday 27th Jan, with gigs across the country. Pip Piper is a filmmaker and founder of Blue Hippo Media and One Small Barking Dog.

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What did Sputnik fund in 2019?

Artists need funding. In most jobs, you get remunerated directly for the work you produce, by the people who you do that work for. This is just not how it works for many artists. We work multiple jobs; we dilute our work to make it more marketable; we get by on very little; or perhaps we give up.

Even artists who are well-established, well-respected, and living off their craft, often have to find alternative methods to fund the more interesting areas of their practice.

This often means relying on patronage in some form. Nowadays, in the UK, the government are the chief patrons of the arts, through different funding bodies like the Arts Council.

But in years gone by, the church played this role too. They don’t anymore, and we’d like to change that. So in 2017 we started our Sputnik Patrons Scheme, and 2019 was the year when the scheme started to really kick into gear.

Through the support of our patrons, last year we funded 11 projects to the tune of over £5,000. Here’s a very brief overview of where that money went.

A Rap Album Launch Party

You can read more about Mantis’ triumphant album launch in Jonny Mellor’s highlights of 2019, but in short, it was a masterclass in hip-hop, and an absolute pleasure to be able to provide funding and manpower to make it happen.

Here’s Joel Wilson’s review of the album itself, with a few more links to Mantis’ work.

Training a storyteller to serve families and children through Theraplay

Anna O’Brien is a Birmingham-based storyteller, and last year she was looking into developing a therapeutic storytelling course for Parents and Carers.

Sputnik funded her to get trained in an approach called Theraplay, which has already helped her to further serve members of her community. This interview will tell you more.

Still from ‘Victoria’ by Juan Pablo Daza Pulido

A documentary about a Columbian refugee

Juan Daza is a Columbian film maker and photographer, based in Edinburgh. Since September 2018, Juan and his wife Maria have been working on a documentary, Victoria, which tells the story of a Colombian woman who has been living in exile in London for more than 20 years. After being kidnapped and abused by an armed group in 1992, she fled to the UK in 1997 where she now works actively as a peace builder helping other Colombian women who lived through similar situations.

Through the Patronage Scheme, we helped push this project over the line, so that it premiered at the end of November.

We’ll have more information about this project soon, including ways that you can see the film for yourself.

A Christian arts charity who support local musicians

Impact was formed by Oasis Church in Birmingham a few years ago, to show the love of Jesus to local musicians. The original intention was simply to give local acts well-promoted, well-organised, well-paid gigs and honour them more than other promoters would often do.

This has grown into a residency scheme, through which the Impact team take on young Birmingham bands, record an EP and organise a launch night for them. Although some of the artists involved have been Christians, the focus is on those outside the church, and it is one of the best examples we’ve seen of a church looking to show love to, and serve, their local artistic community.

Money from our patronage scheme went towards funding an extra part-time member of staff, to help them develop the residency programme further.

A pop punk album

Mike Lawetto is a musical chameleon, known to constantly switch genres from pop, to dance, to worship, to Christmas carols!

However, last year, on the back of extensive coverage on Alex Baker’s Kerrang Radio show, he released an album with his rock band, Well Done You, which has already led the band to some excellent support slots for some giants in the pop punk genre.

Sputnik were delighted to help him complete this project. Find out more here.

This is England exhibition by Benjamin Harris

An Exhibition exploring nationalism and the concept of Englishness

As one of our first patronage projects, we commissioned Benjamin Harris to make work for a fine art exhibition. In April, at The Holy Biscuit in Newcastle, this plan came to fruition with This is England, a collection of work exploring nationalism, Englishness and the cross.

As a young man who grew up and still lives in the Black Country, Benjamin is no outsider to such discussions and his perspective on these vitally important social issues, as well as his formidable skill as an artist and deep rooted Christian faith, made for a fantastic exhibition.e

Hannah Rose Thomas Yezidi Women: ISIS Survivors Art Sputnik Faith
Panels from ‘Yezidi Women: ISIS Survivors’ – Hannah Rose Thomas

An art book for an artist/activist

The majority of our patronage-related work at Sputnik HQ this year has been spent on a project that is still brewing.

Sputnik is overseeing and funding the creation of an art book by London-based painter and activist, Hannah Rose Thomas. Her portraits of oppressed women in some of the most dangerous parts of the world have got her on to Sky News and recently she was named in the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Her last four exhibitions have been at Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Palace and the European Parliament HQ.

While this project has been slow to see the light of day, our work with the artist has opened up all sorts of exciting possibilities that we hope to tell you much more about in 2020, when the book is published.

Mr Ekow Sputnik Collective Faith Art

A hip hop music video

Chris Gaisie, AKA Mr Ekow, is a rapper from South London. Chris applied for a grant to help him create a video for his excellent single ‘I Am Hip-Hop’. The video is nearing completion and he’ll be releasing it in the New Year. Once again, we are delighted to be able to help build a platform for an excellent piece of music, and support one of our favourite artists get their music out to a wider audience.

Sound equipment for an installation based on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Matthew Tuckey is a sound designer and sound artist, living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He is presently creating an abstract soundscape inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

In the development of this intriguing project, we have helped Matt purchase a microphone that is so specialised it can record sounds inside a cow pat! Another one to look forward to for 2020.

A Passion Play in Edinburgh

Our home city of Birmingham was so blessed by Saltmine’s public Passion Play this year, and Sputnik are delighted to be able to help fund Cutting Edge Theatre to do a similar event in Edinburgh next Easter.

The theatre company are involving a number of community groups to retell the Easter story in an accessible manner for a modern day audience, and it’s a brilliant opportunity to engage the Scottish capital with the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

You can find out more information about Cutting Edge here.

Joel Wilson Birmingham Film Maker Sputnik Faith Art

An Album of Alternative Rap Lamentation

Just before Christmas, we were able to offer funding to one more project that will again come to life in 2020. Joel Wilson is a rapper and film director, and next year he is releasing his first album since 2008. Details at present are sparse, but it would be fair to say that it is not likely to be a happy album, presenting a no-holds-barred response to these strange and concerning times in which we find ourselves. In the artist’s own words:

I’ve heard a lot of people recently saying that they wish there was more space within community life to lament. My sincere hope is that this recording will also help people grieve, lament and process some of the unprecedented stress, sorrow, confusion and pain of everyday life.’

The early demos sound fantastic and we’re so grateful to be able to help bring this project to life.

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Watch a new posthumous film of uncut Huw Evans wisdom

Back in 2017, when we first launched our Sputnik Patrons scheme, we commissioned a small handful of projects by Sputnik friends. One of these was a book of poetry by long-time Sputnik legend Huw Evans, our resident writing and poetry mentor.

At that time, Birmingham filmmaker Joel Wilson headed out to talk with Huw about the poetry project. It turned into a wide-reaching conversation about Huw’s practice, his influences, and the artistic process at large.

Huw had already received a terminal cancer diagnosis at this point, and sadly, he passed away in 2019. We already shared our tribute to him, here – but a year on from his death, with this footage dormant in the cupboard, Joel took it on himself to finish a cut of the interview and share the various gems within.

We’re hugely grateful to Joel for his work – and whether you’re a writer, poet, or another kind of artist entirely – you’ll find plenty to relate to and dwell on in Huw’s thoughts.

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Christmas Art 2018: A Christmas video from Jen Rawson and Kings Church Edinburgh

Kings Church, Edinburgh certainly know how to mobilise their artists for the Yuletide festivities!

They started with Threadbare in 2016, continued with He Draws Near the following year and now have made it three exceptional Christmas videos in 3 years, with Translation.

Each project has revolved around the creative partnership of poet Jen Rawson, and director George Gibson, and for Translation, they pulled in a further 20 or so people from their church to pull together their most ambitious and visually arresting project yet. We spoke to Jen to find out more about the project.

How did you come up with the theme for the video?

JR: Last Christmas, I began thinking about how God translated himself into human form. I can’t remember what sparked the idea — a sermon I heard or a passage I’d read — but the analogy of the invisible God translating himself into a form we could better know and understand at Christmas resonated with me. At the time, our church had also become increasingly diverse. There were people representing dozens of different nationalities in our congregation, and I loved the idea of using their voices and languages in a project. With these two ideas in mind, the title “Translation” was born. The text of the poem came much later.

What were the challenges of executing such a project?

JR: The audio was much more complicated this year because of my idea to layer several different voices together. This meant coordinating 9 or 10 different people to record, finding times that worked for them, finding equipment that could record to a high enough standard, and then much more technical editing to put their voices together. Our usual audio guy was also having surgery on his ears a few weeks before the project deadline so he wasn’t as available. (Despite this, he still composed the stunning music you hear in the video.) All of these factors meant collaborating with more people, which meant more organisational and admin work and also meant a greater need to communicate ideas very clearly.

Some artists struggle to work to briefs set by their churches for specific events and projects. What advice would you give to church leaders and artists to help more churches produce such high quality creative projects?

JR: Our church leaders have been great at allowing us the freedom to be creative. Aside from asking us for an artistic piece for the Carol Service, they never gave us a specific idea or theme we needed to stick to. They also recognised that what we were creating was an artistic work rather than a preach, and there was never any pressure to put in a blatant Gospel appeal or message. The video was always considered an element of the overall service so it was okay to use it to ask an unanswered question, for example. Because other elements in the service would provide the more overt message.

That said, we involved our church leaders in the process. They read over the poem, made minor suggestions, and gave their approval before we continued with the project. They also previewed the final video. At the end of the day, this artistic work was commissioned by the church, and it will reflect on the church’s reputation and beliefs. So it was only right that the church’s overseers were able to have input on the final product. For the artist, humility is key. For the church leader, trust the other parts of the body that God has placed in your church and encourage their God-given gifts. I’ve been immensely blessed by the leaders at King’s Church Edinburgh who do this so well, and hopefully, others will be blessed by the art that’s created as a result.

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‘A Wrinkle in Time’ gets an early drubbing from the critics

Wrinkle in Time Film Sputnik Faith Art

In certain circles, it’s been hard to avoid the hype for ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation of a beloved children’s novel by Madeleine L’Engle; not just because of the popular source material, but because it’s the first big-budget action film to be directed by a woman of colour, its protagonist is a young mixed-race girl, and its cast features some absurdly big names. (Oprah).

L’Engle described herself as a writer first – ‘Christian is secondary’ – but the ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ novel is relatably Christian, in a very C.S. Lewis way (church-goers and publishers in the 60s, predictably, bristled against the witches and dark forces in the book). So the film is an interesting case: because despite its philosophical core, the script and the film itself have been held up as totems of liberal, post-Christian values.

We could be thankful that the project has bypassed America’s ‘Christian’ film-making machine, but it looks as though the weight of expectation may become a bit of a curse for the film instead, as many early reviews have been doling out ‘hard truths’. And interestingly, there’s an undercurrent of conversation about ironing out L’Engle’s Christian faith into weak platitudes:

The film has the feel of an iPad video pawned off on a toddler so Dad can make comforting mac and cheese – here’s a bite-sized lesson about loving yourself and a jumble of pretty colors.  -The Guardian

Considering the changes that were made to the story and the schmaltzy platitudes liberally spooned out by screenwriter Jennifer Lee, one gets the feeling that she and the director either didn’t fully grasp the material or didn’t think the audience could. -Dark Horizons

It’s especially awkward around the good / evil, light / dark dichotomy, which is never really put into more relatable terms. [The book] is open about its religious imagery… [but] L’Engle never had her Mr. Murry standing in his lab shouting “Love is the frequency!”  -The Verge

Screenwriter Jennifer Lee had this to say:

[L’Engle’s] intention was looking at the ordinary real hero in an extraordinary situation. The power of love in this world, and we stayed very true to that. And her lens through it was Christianity and everyone has a different lens in.

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Support Geoff Hall’s new film project ‘Seeing Rachel’, addressing modern human trafficking

Geoff Hall Seeing Rachel Film Sputnik Art

Geoff Hall is a novelist, a film maker, an arts mentor and a Christian and he is working on a new film project that you could help bring to life. We caught up with him to find out more.

Hi Geoff. Please introduce yourself…

For 15 years I was an arts mentor in Bristol with a thing we called The Group. It started when I was approached to help a student at the local arts university, when she was told that her faith was “inappropriate for a student at the college!” From one to many as it turned out, as it was the experience of quite a few art students.

We held monthly meetings to discuss spirituality and art. We’d have an artist present their work and we looked at artistic practice and discussed any problems they were having. This developed into something we called ‘The Tree House’. We started meeting in a café, eating free tapas, listening to bands, hear artists of diverse media talk about their work.

At this time I met Chris Lorensson of Upptacka Press, who decided he’d like to publish me if I’d write about mentoring work. This became a series called Spiritual Direction in a Postmodern Landscape and included juicy titles like ‘The Wilderness and the Desert of the Real’ and ‘Translating the Invisible Wind’. In future we’ll publish my new novel – a supernatural political horror story called Owl:Believe about a group of artists and hackers who take on the Corporate State.

You have a new project in development. Could you talk us through it?

Seeing Rachel came out of a dream I had. I’m told you can’t mention this to investors as they freak out about it… allegedly! I then started to develop a story about human trafficking. It took a year to write and research and the research was pretty disturbing.

Now when most people think about this genre of film, they see sensationalised violence or a kind of linear docu-drama narrative, so I decided to buck expectations and look at the psychology of the characters and their inner world. The lead roles are two female characters, by the way.

It will be shot in Bristol, a city with historical roots in slavery, but also sadly nowadays it’s a distribution hub for trafficking. People like to think it’s someone else’s problem; in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or Thailand and Cambodia, but what I want to bring to people’s hearts is that it’s our problem. It happens in our cities. With Seeing Rachel the world of trafficking is squeezed into one location, to reveal what lies beneath the surface of even a beautiful city like Bristol.

What are your hopes and goals for the project?

We always start with raising awareness and then hope that people will become activists with the aim of eradicating modern slavery. With this in mind we’re looking for an international theatrical and digital release.

What I want to bring to people’s hearts is that trafficking isn’t someone else’s problem; it’s our problem.

We’re planning a campaign to work with NGO’s and charities, devoted to the abolition of slavery in all its forms: sexual, narcotic, indentured slavery and domestic servitude. There are great networks out there, like the worldwide community of Freedom Collaborative and the Jam Network based in London, who we’ll be looking to work with as the film moves in to production. We’re also planning on supporting a local charity in their work amongst the victims of sex trafficking.

How can people help in bringing Seeing Rachel to life?

At the moment we’re seeking development finance, so that we can start ‘packaging’ the film with a name in front of the camera. This will help attract the interests of a distribution company. Our target is £30k for this phase.

We need patrons/investors and also partners who’ll help spread the word, as we move into more interesting phases of production. We wish to find people who’ve a passion for social justice and understand that investing in a film is part of this battle and not just a bit of cultural tinsel-making.

A writer works in a lonely place. As artists we’re used to this isolation, but making the film can only be achieved through a community. Then some of the things I carry can be offloaded and shared with others. I’m looking forward to that day!

It’s been a spiritual and physical battle so far, a quite bruising affair, but you’ve got to be persistent, you have to complete the course otherwise all you’re left with is debt and you’re stuck with no place left to go! Perseverance is the key to any artistic endeavour and in particular I think with film, because it takes a lot of people to get the thing off the ground.

To find out more about Seeing Rachel, visit the film’s website. If you’d like to support the project, contact Geoff directly through the facebook page.

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Common, Sufjan Stevens grace the Oscars with some under-appreciated class

Common Sufjan Stevens Oscars Sputnik Faith

US hip-hop artist Common and indie maestro Sufjan Stevens both turned in notable performances at the Oscars on Sunday night, despite both being ultimately snubbed for the ‘Best Original Song’ category.

It’s probably fair to say that the 90th Oscars ceremony was a bag of contradictions: its self-congratulatory nature and lack of diversity has seen the Oscars come under increasing scrutiny lately, with the #MeToo movement hanging noticeably over proceedings. Along with Jordan Peele’s win and Frances McDormand’s speech, the presence of Stevens and Common felt like small (but welcome) breaks in ‘business as usual’.

Of course, they were given a typically restrained spotlight. Stevens’s appearance was the more baffling, being given a scant two minutes to play ‘Mystery of Love’ with a barely-visible backup band of preposterous talent in St Vincent, Chris Thile, and Moses Sumney. But offstage Stevens has been increasingly outspoken about his faith, injustice in the States, and the evangelical support for the President.

Meanwhile, Common performed ‘Stand Up for Something’ from Marshall alongside Andra Day. He took the opportunity of an uncensored microphone to ad-lib over the fairly straightforward song, referring obliquely to 45 as “a president that trolls with hate,” calling on the audience to “stand up” for immigrants and ‘dreamers’ (a reference to undocumented child migrants).

Watch both performances, below.

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Black Panther actors Sope Aluko and Letitia Wright keep their faith in the spotlight

Black Panther Sputnik Faith Letitia Wright

Black Panther is an indisputable phenomenon. The Ryan Coogler-helmed adaptation of the Marvel comic has one of the highest-grossing box office openings of all time, critical acclaim across the board, and a phenomenal word-of-mouth reputation.

That’s before you touch on its cultural significance as the biggest cinematic event by a black director and primarily black cast. The ‘Black Panther Challenge’, a fundraiser to make sure children of ethnic minority get to see the film, has a wild life of its own. Its afrofuturist design, Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack and a barbed script that tackles institutional bias, colonialism and more, catapult it into a whole other stratosphere of cultural conversation. It’s a film that made a South African audience so ecstatic at its celebration of black pride and culture that they danced outside the theatre.

And there’s another story alongside all of this: many of the cast are outspoken Christians. Actress Sope Aluko already alluded to actors sharing their testimonies and supporting each other on set. British star Letitia Wright spoke on This Morning about her faith. It may lie outside the scope of the film, but it’s simply great to hear Wright share her journey openly and eloquently; and in particular, how her faith affects her approach to the creative industry in which she works.

See Wright’s interview below (comments on faith at the 2:55 mark).

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A Sputnik Review of 2017

The end of year, for me, is a vital boundary marker that enables reflection on what’s gone before, and planning for what’s to come. As 2017 comes to a close, it’s a delight to look back on a year of creative productivity and inspiration from in and around the Sputnik network.

Fine Art

It’s been a relatively quiet year regarding fine art generally, but that has been more than made up for by the endeavours of Ally Gordon, who seems to be quietly taking over the world. With exhibitions in London, LA and New York under his belt this year, as well as the release of his book, God Art, about the place of belief in contemporary art, Ally continues to be a massive blessing and inspiration and we’re so stoked to have him at the Catalyst Festival in 2018.


In the world of fashion, Daniel Blake and Ruth Chipperfield have been making some serious moves at the very heart of UK society. Ruth is part of Jubilee Church, Coventry and her strong Twitter game has allowed us to witness the steady and impressive development of Ruth Mary Jewellery over the last 12 months. Having been highlighted as one of the top 100 UK small businesses by the Small Business Saturday Team, she got an invite to 10 Downing St for a celebratory event in late November. The PM was not present, but as things have gone, it’s not impossible that she was having a fitting for City Hope Church leader, Daniel Poulson AKA fashion designer Daniel Blake! Since 2016’s trousergate palaver, Daniel has become Mrs May’s designer of choice. This has led to him being featured in Vogue and an interview in the Telegraph before he unleashed his Autumn/Winter collection on the world in November.


In film, Pip Piper, from Oasis Church, Birmingham, resurrected his media and film company One Small Barking Dog this year and OSBD closed out the year by releasing a series of short films for the global NINE BEATS Collective, exploring the Beatitudes and looking to connect people who wouldn’t naturally be picking up a Bible with Jesus’ timeless wisdom.


As regards writing, Huw Evans, from City Church Newcastle generously opened his vault to us this year and in case that was too much treasure for many of us to get our heads round, he has begun work on his first poetry collection, which is already cued up as one of next year’s highlights. Speaking of poetry, Jennifer Rawson from Kings Church Edinburgh spent the year tantalising us with the odd poem on her blog until delivering good and proper with THAT Christmas video (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to catch up!)


However, the most prolific discipline in SputnikLand in 2017 has been music. This year saw a flurry of debut EPs from Strange Ghost, The Blood Magnetic and Kapes, all from Brum, and also two fantastic singles from Dutchkid whose members hail from Kings Arms, Bedford and New Community Church, Sidcup. Sputnik ally, Mr Ekow, was shortlisted for the pioneering new music competition Salute Music and Mike Lawetto, from Christ Church Manchester, has been a regular on Alex Baker’s Kerrang show for most of the year, having released at least 3 singles (I’m sorry Mike, I lose count). Two of my favourite albums of the year have also been from Sputnik friends. Midsummer’s ‘Stories You Tell’ and David Benjamin Blower’s ‘The Book of Jonah’ were both on regular rotation in the Mellor household, and Dave’s performance at the Brum Sputnik hub in November has to go down as one of my favourite ever Sputnik moments. Spell binding.

A special mention must also go to Oasis Church’s Andy Gordon, who has set up shop in the new Sputnik recording studio and has been serving Birmingham based musicians through Oasis’ fantastic Impact Residency Programme. His production skills just keep getting sharper and sharper and his prodigious production output in 2017 is only going to increase next year.

So, why do I share all of this? Three main reasons.

Firstly, if you’ve missed out on any of these guys this year, I want to give you the chance to get in on the action. I hugely believe in what all of these artists are doing and it’s been a great privilege to be directly blessed by many of their work.

Secondly, at Sputnik we are passionate about seeing artists who are faithful to Jesus and committed to their local churches making the best art that they can. Surveying just the work in or around our network should give us great hope that God is stirring something new and exciting in the arts. I think we should see Ruth and Daniel’s escapades in the corridors of power as a prophetic taster of the doorways that God is wanting to open for us as we remain faithful to him in following through our creative giftings wisely.

And finally, I am sharing this so that you can pray for all of these guys and girls. Christians pray for church leaders. We pray for evangelists. We pray for missionaries. We need to pray for artists. Pray that they would stand firm in their faith. Pray for continued integrity and wisdom. Pray for a deeper love for Jesus for all of them. And pray for continued excellence in their practice.

That just leaves one last question- What are you going to create in 2018?

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Remember when Churches made Great Art? This!

People often hark back to bygone ages when churches were the driving force behind the highest calibre of art. Art that affected you after you thought you’d left it behind. Art that perfectly complemented its content to warm your heart to Jesus and the Good News that he entrusted to us.

This year, King’s Church, Edinburgh have crafted a Christmas video that can give us confidence that those days are not entirely behind us. Following on from their excellent 2016 piece Threadbare, this year’s video is a collaboration between poet Jennifer Rawson,  composer Stu Kennedy and video maker and graphic designer George Gibson and features a load of peeps from the church. The visuals, sonics and lyricism are all exceptional, but the fact that they interplay so harmoniously is deeply impressive and creates a profound and powerful piece of art.

The poem is certainly the centrepiece though, and while it was written to be performed, it stands up as a very effective written piece too. Therefore here it is (reproduced with permission):

He Draws Near

A hymnal wind.

The quiet oratorio
sung by our common existence.

Earth’s heaving,
churning pulse
drew its breath
when Jesus came.

He is music.

He is the long silence
between stars
draped across the night
like fairy lights
like the heavens shout —

He is infinite.

He is galaxy upon galaxy,
a tapestry, the spark
that lit the sun.

Open your eyes and see—

The ridges of his fingertips
in every heather-dusted hill.

His voice in the roaring ocean—
constant and deep.

His reflection in the faces
we pass — His image

The very stones cry out
“He is with us.”

He draws near
to our daily rituals —
the baptism of cutlery
in soapy, sink water;
the crackle of oil
anointing kitchen surfaces;
fire smoke in winter
like incense offerings;
our commuter engine chorus
singing with angels.

All the while,
the carpenter King
knocks at the door
and waits.

His birth was just the beginning.


Jennifer Rawson


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See The Liturgists’ series of visual meditations on the Joyous Mysteries

For those unaware, The Liturgists is a mainly-online community led by writer “Science Mike” McHargue and musician Michael Gungor, which has grown out of their Liturgists Podcast. The Liturgists’ discussions often revolve around faith, art and science, particularly trying to gain an appreciation for the breadth of Christian faith and thought outside of one’s upbringing and culture.

As such, the podcast has a huge listenership among ex-Christians, non-Christians, struggling believers and everyone in between. Their new Christmas series of videos, ‘The Joyous Mysteries’, is arguably the Liturgists at their best: an inclusive, poetic and surprisingly Catholic invitation to Advent-related meditation.

Four visual artists created pieces based around ‘The Joyous Mysteries’, a Catholic term for a series of events before and during Christ’s life; the videos document their process, while outlining the “imago divina” methodology of meditation through art, before leaving it up to the viewer. In all, it’s an intriguing and thoughtfully curated series that gently suggests the deep truth behind some joy-filled mysteries.

See the introductory video, below:

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St. Paul’s Auckland Keep Up Their High Standard of Christmas Films

There are different elements of our Christmas celebrations that we particularly look forward to each year: mince pies; mulled wine; family board games; the Queen’s speech. One addition to our list over the last few years has been the St. Paul’s Auckland Christmas film.

After the Spike Jonze-esque ‘Good News of Great Joy’, the Michel Gondry channelling ‘An Unexpected Christmas’, and the subtle profundity of last year’s ‘Star of Wonder’, their 2017 offering, ‘Gold Frankincense Myrrh’ is now upon us:

Featuring spoken word-poet Dietrich Soakai, stage prodigy Antonia Robinson, and TV villain Aaron Jackson (Pete’s Dragon, Shortland Street), James Bowman and the team have crafted a simple, sweeping encapsulation of all that Jesus came to do.

James, who wrote the piece says:

“Our film aims to connect modern audiences with ancient Christian spirituality. And to present a fresh take on a familiar story and celebration. It doesn’t draw any conclusions, instead leaving audiences to make their own minds up.”

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Broadcast From The Clubhouse

It’s February 2017 and my friend asks me if I want to go and see Hacksaw Ridge. I’m not sure. The film has been getting some rave reviews amongst my Christian friends – a friend-of-a-friend has claimed it’s one of the best films they’ve ever seen, but I can take a guess as to why.

I suspect a key reason for its popularity is that the protagonist might be a Christian. Which is to say, those who love Hacksaw Ridge are pretty certain he is, but when the topic is raised in a group there are usually others who aren’t so sure. These people are often less enthused about the film.

So I ask Google. Turns out that Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a medic who served in World War II and received the Medal of Honour, despite being a pacifist. His non-violent stance, manifested in a refusal to even carry a firearm, was inspired by his Seventh-day Adventist faith. Ah…

I look up Seventh Day Adventism on Wikipedia. They’re annihilationists. Is this a problem? As Desmond Doss watched the unsaved masses perish on the field of battle, he did not imagine that their souls would endure conscious, eternal torment in hell. Is that a deal breaker? Basically, I’m trying to establish whether Desmond Doss is a ‘real’ Christian. And this is very important. Because if he was, then the film is a triumph, validating the wonderful propensity of God to glorify Himself through the sanctification of His children, allowing them to live in a radically Christ-like manner. For the same reason, this movie should also be earmarked as a crucial tool for witnessing to non-believers. However, if Desmond Doss is not a ‘real’ Christian, this film is the story of a nice man, whose stirring and heroic actions nonetheless represent a futile attempt to buy his own salvation through good works. To elevate it any higher than that would be to suggest that Christ-like actions may genuinely arise from sources other than theologically-sound Christian beliefs, something tantamount to anti-evangelism.

For right or wrong, as Christians we tend to judge on the level of the individual, rather than the action. It’s a little silly to create theoretical scenarios based on the lives and actions of real individuals, but permit me this indulgence – if Desmond Doss was an atheist (or professed another religious belief) would Hacksaw Ridge have garnered the amount of acclaim that it did amongst the Christian circle. Given the significant numbers of American movie-goers who identify themselves as Christians, would it have grossed as much at the box office? And if not, is this justified?

Sometimes it’s tempting to view Christianity like a clubhouse. We love established figures who operate within the clubhouse (Tolkien, Lewis etc.). We also love it when established figures poke their heads into the clubhouse from outside. These are the people like Kanye West, when he asked Jesus to follow him around, or Chance the Rapper and his cheery prosperity gospel. Sure, they may curse occasionally and their theology may be a little ropey, but we’re a welcoming bunch and, more excitingly, we get to lay claim to these people who we previously had no idea were one of ours. That’s why it’s now cool to like Justin Bieber. It’s also the reason a large number of Christians suddenly developed a keen interest in boxing before the 2015 Pacquiao vs Mayweather fight. [Footnote 1]

What we’re less keen on, however, is people bridging the gap between ‘church’ and ‘world’ by poking their head out of the clubhouse. That’s why it’s disquieting to hear Sufjan Stevens [Footnote 2] sing about masturbating, or say the f-word, or to question the degree to which faith really provides any comfort in the wake of bereavement. After all, he should know better. Besides which, Sufjan is one of our hottest properties, and the last thing we need is him leaving the clubhouse to stretch his legs and never coming back.

Anyway, I digress. None of this is answering the question as to whether I should take up my friend’s offer to see Hacksaw Ridge. I return to Google to seek more answers, but am distracted by today’s Google Doodle. It’s in celebration of Abdul Sattar Edhi. I have no idea who he is and I silently chastise myself for my Western-centric knowledge of influential figures. Clicking through to his Wikipedia page, I discover that Edhi was a Pakistani philanthropist whose prolific humanitarian career involved the nationwide establishment of hospitals, homeless shelters and a highly-efficient volunteer ambulance service. ‘Now here’s an inspiring individual’ I think. ‘Given my ignorance, I wouldn’t mind seeing a biopic of this guy’. But my interest is short-lived – I scroll down further and discover that Edhi was ‘often critical of the clergy’ and ‘had never been a religious person’.

Ah well, nevermind. Not one of ours.

Footnote 1: In case you missed the result, God didn’t let the inferior sportsman win just by virtue of being an evangelical Christian.

Footnote 2: For the uninitiated, check out Sufjan’s album Seven Swans. A lovely collection of gospel-infused folk ballards, Seven Swans cemented Sufjan’s place in the tiny slither of the Venn Diagram where ‘traditional Christian beliefs’ and ‘hipster-approved’ overlap. Hipsters much prefer a more poignant, subtle narrative of someone struggling with and eventually losing their religious faith, because faith, although comforting, is ultimately childish and a bit silly.


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Heard: A Short Film From NewCom Studio

What a nice surprise! Trawling through my inbox after a couple of weeks of email neglect, what should I find, but a new short film from my good friend Chris Smyth.

Chris is the founder of Creative Arts Network, and he helped us get this very website up and running about a year ago. He now also runs the South East London based film and design studio, NewCom (based out of New Community Church, Sidcup)

Their new film ‘Heard’ explores the subject of prayer in a subtle and moving manner. This is how they describe it:

NewCom studio’s latest film ‘Heard’ uses the stunning Scottish Highlands and a unique method of visual storytelling to express a range of spiritual themes. Depicted through the lens of three characters; Fear, Loss and Anxiety, desperation leads them to cry out to the unknown. While they may not have seen or heard a response, something has changed in the world behind.

NewCom studio was created by a London church with the intention of using film and design to express spiritual experiences common to all. Describing ‘Heard’, Writer and Director Chris Smyth said “In every human is a cry that reaches out to something or someone in the hardest parts of life. We may not know why or who we are asking, and yet we still find ourselves asking.”

The team considered a range of locations including a disused tube station and a burnt out church before deciding on Torridon, Scotland. “Shooting in the Scottish Highlands was a challenging undertaking” explained Director of Photography, Pete Coggan “The snowy peaks, wind and rain created the perfect backdrop for this emotionally charged story of hope.”

Great work guys. If you want to see what else Chris and the gang have got up their sleeves, check out their website. And of course, check out the video below…

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Pip Piper: The Dog & The Hippo

If you’ve been checking out the blog over the last week or so, you’ll be up to date with Pip Piper’s past– the journeys he’s been on and some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way. To finish our interview, I wanted to find out a bit more about the present and future for Pip.

You head up two companies: Blue Hippo Media and One Small Barking Dog. What do the Hippo and the Dog have in common and how are they different? 

Sounds like we are running a small zoo!

Ok. So OSBD began out of the youth work I was doing at Riverside church, Birmingham back in the 1990’s. At the time I felt there was very little around media wise that helped youth workers communicate with both young people inside and more importantly outside of the church. After finishing work with the church in 1997, OSBD really began to take root.

It was just on the cusp of the digital revolution and we were making short films around issues that spoke into contemporary culture. We were also creating moving image “visuals” to enhance events and worship experiences. I once overheard a nun who was watching one of our “visuals” films describe what she was seeing up on a video screen “Oh yes, its like a stained glass window, only it moves“!

The “Images for Worship” video series was one of the things that helped OSBD become well known. Over time we made many, many video resources and short documentaries both for ourselves and other organizations and helped many young people to find an outlet for their creativity. The journey took us as far afield as Peru and Ukraine.

After several years I found myself being asked to look at feature film scripts and ideas for larger film projects. Rob Taylor (who was chair of the charity at the time) and myself decided to establish a new company that could be more focused on bigger commercial projects that told bigger stories on bigger screens.

Blue Hippo Media came into being in 2008 and since then we have made 6 feature length films, many of which have won awards and been distributed into cinemas and on TV around the world. As an indie film production company we have had some hard lessons to learn around just how tough it is to compete in that market as well as secure ways to earn a living! It’s a roller coaster ride for sure.

One Small Barking Dog is both the older of the two and, in a way, the newer, in that it took a hiatus, but is now back. Why did you bring ‘The Dog’ back from the dead, and what are your immediate plans?

It has been a long while thinking, exploring and praying about whether “The Dog”, as OSBD became affectionately known, should live or die.

However, over the past 18 months, others and I have felt increasingly that it should be engaged again in creating meaningful media and content that can speak into contemporary culture as it works with and for young people. Media that has the DNA of the kingdom embedded in it but isn’t pushy or trite but has real meaning.

We also believe that the newly revived OSBD can gain wider traction and impact based on the great strides Blue Hippo Media has made.

Our core areas are:

  1. Engage young people through training and development in film-making.
  2. Create innovative media to explore and communicate.
  3. Connect disparate groups and individuals interested in creativity and contemporary culture.

The specific projects we want to develop include;

  1. A feature documentary about what it means to be a young person in 21st century Britain. An ambitious film that we hope will have a really big impact on society.
  2. A series of FREE on line/downloadable visual meditations, that help those within and outside of Church explore and engage with spirituality.
  3. A series of FREE provocative and thought provoking short viral films aimed at on-line sharing. Issues around contemporary and spiritual themes that help us all explore what it means to be connected and engaged with our world.
  4. A pilot scheme to run a film school for young people who want to be filmmakers and make a difference in their world. This will become an on-line virtual school that aims to enable young people both here in the UK but also from countries facing real challenges through war and conflict and natural disaster.

So, how can we get involved?

To do all of this and max out our potential impact we need support.

We are hoping to build a bedrock of monthly givers who believe in what we are doing and can stand with us for the next 12 months. We are also hoping that we will get some one off gifts and find some partners who want to work alongside us on some specific projects.

This support will give us the “oxygen” to develop and create the key areas of work, pay some part time salaries and very small overheads ( we have no office base and very little outgoings that detract from the core work ). The difference it will make will be in enabling media to be made that really does have an impact both in and outside of the Church, helping young people to engage in those processes and learn skills to become filmmakers themselves.

If you can help that would be awesome.


For a third time, then, thanks a lot Pip. If you’d like more information about Blue Hippo Media or One Small Barking Dog, those words aren’t underlined for nothing. To support what Pip is doing and give to the work of OSBD, click here


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Pip Piper on Art, Faith & Church

Following on from last week’s introduction to Pip Piper, today we continue our interview with the Birmingham based film maker, focusing on art, faith and church and how the three can combine.

What lessons have you learnt about living out the duality of being a Christian and being an artist?

The simple answer is, there is no duality.

I am not a Christian filmmaker nor am I a secular one.

I am a filmmaker period. I am also a follower of Jesus and that creates a life defining, distinct and deep DNA in who I am and how that outworks in what I do and say and engage with. Those two dynamics are intertwined and co-existent. There may at times be inner conflict but that is more the reality of the spiritual walk in this world rather than defined by being a creative, it’s just a reality in my opinion!

In many ways I think artists and creatives have been misunderstood at best and largely ignored and even ostracized by the church, particularly the evangelical segment. The focus on the rational and mechanics of faith have over time in certain quarters pushed creativity away from the mainstream Christian experience.

You also see creative people who have faith being “boxed” and defined by having to create within the context of a narrow world view on what is relevant “Christian” art and that is very damaging.

I believe that at His core, God is super creative, dynamic and diverse. Simply look at the world around you. In this created diversity is a multiplex of paradoxes and dynamics at work that can make us struggle, question and even doubt but ultimately if we commit to the quest, it is beautiful and life giving.

Our creativity should be no less.

Your relationship with church has been interesting through the last few years. Can you talk us through the journey you’re on with the local church?

Well, like many I began to question the reality of just what is core to faith and what is a manufactured and a culture based interpretation.

This was borne out of hurt, which I think is often the case and at the time can be very destructive. Yet in many ways I am very grateful for it, how it has shaped me and also looking back aware of my culpability in the reality of just what was happening. As a passionate and dare-to-take-risks youth pastor I was probably a little difficult to manage!

One of the areas I was struggling with was the focus on the church as a “machine” which I often feel it ends up being rather than the upside down world changing kingdom Jesus was ushering in.

The “machine” consumes all around into its shape and making rather than releasing and empowering its “people” to be partakers of the revolution that is Jesus.

I guess in that questioning I ended up on the margins and at times way outside of the mainstream Church. At times it was a very lonely and painful place. To be honest having to fend for myself outside of regular church attendance meant I had to find ways to journey with my faith and in that I found some very positive ways to connect with God and have an honest and open journey with Him.

I certainly went on a journey! And it continues, but in many ways I have come to a place of peace and self-awareness of what matters most in my faith walk. My wife and I currently attend Oasis church in Birmingham. I still struggle, but in Oasis I have found a very honest and transparent space. A church full of people, all aware of their own struggles, and helping one another to find the most positive way forward.


Thanks again Pip. Next time, we’ll find out what Pip is up to at the moment and how we can get involved, but for now, check out the trailer for Blue Hippo Media’s ‘Last Shop Standing’, which Pip directed (and which you can purchase here)



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Pip Piper on ‘The Insatiable Moon’ and becoming a filmmaker

Pip Piper Insatiable Moon Film Sputnik Faith Art

One of my favourite mornings of 2017 so far was spent having brunch with Pip Piper. Pip is a Brum based film maker (with an IMDB profile and everything), and I knew a bit of his story already. However, I’d never properly picked his brains before – and what brains they were to pick! I was hugely impressed by both his wisdom and integrity and as soon as the opportunity to interview him for the blog came up, I was delighted to take it so as to share the wealth a little wider. So without further ado…

Jonny Mellor: Hi Pip, could you introduce yourself to the Sputnik readers?

Pip Piper: I am a film producer, a charity director, a film company co-director, a documentary director and involved in several initiatives including being CEO of the Producers Forum and part time lecturer on an MA in film distribution and marketing that I helped set up. I have been married 27 years and have 3 grown up sons.

Originally, I was a full time youth worker and did that for many years in different guises. From 1997 I began developing the emerging work around OSBD (One Small Barking Dog), a media outfit that had grown out of the youth work and would become a formal charity in 2001. Alongside my wife Debbie and whilst raising our kids we also set up many initiatives to support young people and youth workers across the city and nationally. The first few years we just relied on God providing what we needed which was very exciting but terrifying at times to be honest! But I have often said that over 20+ years of not having a salary we have never missed a mortgage payment or a meal for the kids! God is good. TBH we all rely on the Father’s goodness no matter what our fragile circumstances!

In many ways since really pushing OSBD, making films has been the main passion and focus. So: 20 years+ of making and creating, enabling others, communicating and engaging.

JM: You made the strange journey from church youth worker to internationally acclaimed film director. How did this work out?

PP: Ha ha acclaimed! That’s nice…well yep I’m very appreciative- we have won some awards along the way, that is always great to get some recognition for what most of the time is very hard work by everyone involved.

As mentioned above in many ways it was a very natural journey that simply embraced the direction we felt we should be heading and combined with that cool mix of spiritual yearning, opportunity, passion and evolving support it found its way organically.

I’ve always been very keen to advise people to go for their dreams and accept perceived failure as lessons along the way. I am not afraid of perceived failure and, I guess from my mountain climber/instructor background, I love taking risks!

I have been very fortunate to have support from my wife and kids and also from friends and colleagues. That counts for so much.

JM: If you had to pick 3 highlights of your career so far (and one lowlight) what would they be?

PP: That’s tough!…

Well let’s maybe start with a lowlight and then build up from there.

I guess when you have spent an incredible amount of time, effort, money and goodwill on getting films made, when something really bad happens it really hurts. The Insatiable Moon is a feature film shot in New Zealand which I produced and took 10 years to make with massive sacrifices from many involved. The film was amazing and did really well, winning several awards. When a very well known film outfit brought the film out on DVD for global release, after a good run in cinemas, it was out of sync (lips didn’t match the spoken words) and that destroyed the film’s potential to break out. That was so gutting on so many levels. BUT, I believe the film is still to have its day!

Now for the 3 highlights!

1: Making The Insatiable Moon with an incredible team of people and having the stamina and determination to do so over a 10 year period. It is a film I am very very proud of.

2: Seeing young people I have helped to mentor, train and encourage flourish in the creative and film industry. That’s a huge bonus for me. Some, I have spent decades working with and others, just a few months, but it makes so much of what I do worthwhile.

“True success is in the success of others”, a very wise person once advised me.

3: The whole journey- if that’s not too much of a cliché. But I am amazed that both myself and key others involved in this journey are still going! There have been numerous set backs and tough times alongside amazing seasons too. The combination of God’s good grace, friendship and support, my family’s patience and love and never ending new opportunities for creating/collaboration and meaningful engagement is a truly marvelous thing.

Thanks Pip. We’ll continue the interview next time, but for the time being, this will give you a flavour of The Insatiable Moon

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When Bad Things Happen To Bad People (And We Enjoy Watching)

Earlier this year, Richard Spencer was punched in the head whilst being interviewed at the Trump inauguration in Washington DC. The clip soon went viral, with a number of people praising the attack and circulating musical remixes, among them rapper Killer Mike and comedian Tim Heidecker.

For those who were aware of Spencer’s status as the president of a white supremacist think thank, the clip represented not just violence against him as an individual but an assault on his views and prejudices. As such, the joyous celebration of the attack on social media can be understood as a natural and passionate response, a public decrying of the evils of white nationalism and an empathetic stand with those Spencer would seek to victimise. As David Benjamin Blower observes in his excellent book Sympathy for Jonah, the normal response when faced with evil is to desire its destruction. In other words, punching Richard Spencer in the head does not only feel emotionally satisfying, but morally correct.

This natural desire for cleansing or redemptive violence, is one of the oldest and most reliable currencies employed by the world of film and television. A large number of Hollywood blockbusters, both those aimed at adults and children, will depict physical violence in the hands of a ‘good’ entity as the ultimate solution against evil. Upon viewing them, many Christian movie-goers will satisfy themselves by reading Christ-like narratives into the action. However, biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink describes this plot structure as ‘The Myth of Redemptive Violence’, stating it has its origins in a Babylonian creation story, to which the central message of Christ stands in opposition. Though worth reading in full (here), the Babylonian myth can be summarised as the idea that violence is an inevitable aspect of the human condition and that conflict must be resolved by greater powers establishing aggressive dominance over lesser powers, thus bringing order to chaos.

It should be noted that the Babylonian myth contains a good deal of insight into human nature. However, the life and death of Christ gives us not only an alternative to the Babylonian myth, but a story which subverts it entirely. As N. T. Wright states:

“People want to defeat force with force and it can’t be done, if you do that, force is still in charge. The only way you defeat force is with love and that remains the great challenge of the gospel.” (reference)

Christ’s victory is achieved in love and self-sacrifice, not by murdering or dominating his enemies but by being dominated and murdered by them. In other words, he demonstrated that the mechanism of love is to absorb rather than to inflict damage.

Carnal Thrill

But the Babylonian myth is very popular in our culture, and this presents a challenge to both the Christian consumer and the Christian artist (particularly those working in television or film). When people pay for an experience with their time and money they expect to be rewarded. With regards to film and television, this expectation is often along the lines of comfort and/or entertainment. It is much more enjoyable for audiences to vicariously live the defeat of their enemies via identification with an action hero than to be reminded of Jesus’ command to “take up your cross”. Perhaps Jesus does not wish us to defeat our enemies, perhaps he wishes us to die. However, that’s a hard sell for a screenplay.

It’s also a hard sell for many as an evening’s ‘entertainment’, at least in my experience. One such ‘take up your cross’ screenplay that did make it to the big screen was John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. However, despite the clear and powerful analogy between the actions of the protagonist and those of Christ, this film has received a mixed reception among my Christian friends. Complaints are not often levelled at the plot, dialogue or acting but rather the film’s ‘heaviness’, with the comment that ‘I usually watch films to switch off and enjoy myself’. Therefore it seems there are times when even Christians don’t like to be presented with the gospel outside of a Sunday morning!

The undeniable reality is that there is a certain carnal thrill to violence which is hard to resist. Many would argue that it is generally more exciting to view cinematic conflict resolved through violence than dialogue (although to some degree this depends on the strength of the writing). Many of us are also lucky enough to experience film and television violence as something of a novelty not present in our daily lives, where hopefully peaceful conflict resolution is the norm. Thus engaging with violent media allows us a safe space with which to indulge our primal instincts and natural human desire for power and dominance. An example of this is the 2008 smash-hit Taken, which sees Liam Neeson murdering swathes of Albanian sex traffickers in an effort to find his missing daughter. I can only comment on my own experience of the film, which was that it was fun insomuch as it provoked and then satiated a frenzied bloodlust. As a cathartic celebration of my base impulses, it was enjoyable in the same way that pornography is.

Moral Reassurance

As well as being somewhat comfortable and exciting, Walter Wink argues that the myth of redemptive violence also allows the audience something of a moral reassurance. Film and television within the redemptive violence model are often presented as simplistic ‘good versus evil’ stories. Wink states that this allows the viewer to:

“identify with the good guy so that they can think of themselves as good. This enables them to project out onto the bad guy their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust (…) When the good guy finally wins, viewers are then able to reassert control over their own inner tendencies, repress them, and re-establish a sense of goodness without coming to any insight about their own inner evil.”

A clear example of this is Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film which allows the audience to gleefully indulge in gratuitous violence, which is guilt-free due to being directed towards an unacceptable enemy (Nazis). The purpose of the film is not to consider the actual nature of humankind’s inhumanity during a horrifying period of our collective history, but to use this tragedy as justification for our entertainment. The audience is left with the reassurance and self-satisfaction that they are good because they hate Nazis, regardless of how they would have acted as a citizen of Germany within the 1930s and ’40s.

A similar approach was taken for Tarantino’s follow-up, Django Unchained, this time the historical bogeyman being represented by 19th century Texan slave-owners. Once again, audiences can cheer for the good guys on their violent conquest against the villainies of slavery and finish the movie with the knowledge that all is well and justice has been served.

Released a year later, a point of comparison can be made between Django Unchained and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave – a harrowing slog of a film which represents a much more serious piece on slavery and differs wildly from Django in terms of tone, approach and intent. Yet when viewing 12 Years a Slave in the cinema, I was struck by one scene in particular where the protagonist, Solomon Northup, retaliates against the savage treatment from a plantation owner by attacking him with a whip. This was met with cheers of delight from subsections of the audience, yet surely this was because they’d fundamentally misunderstood the scene by interpreting it through the lens of a light-hearted revenge thriller, such as Django. Surely the scene was not supposed to be viewed as the point in the movie where Northup starts ‘kicking ass’, but rather the tragic depiction of a formerly peaceable man driven to animalistic rage by the brutal injustices of his environment. Has the approach taken by films like Django and Inglorious Basterds, often defended as fantasy entertainment, become so commonplace that it can now dominate the way in which we interpret and understand cinematic violence?

But it’s a myth! 

Violence remains an intrinsic part of our nature and thus of our culture, its ability to thrill, excite and engage is something which will continue to be undeniable. However, this doesn’t meant that as creators and those who engage with art, we shouldn’t question the stories we are being sold about the role and nature of violence. Christians remain in the paradoxical position of being somewhat tied to their natural and violent impulses, but also given the instruction and example from Jesus to transcend them. They are called to something higher and more difficult than redemptive violence, a call which though painful is given in love. For it should not be forgotten that the myth of redemptive violence often is that – a myth. When the credits have stopped rolling and the action hero wipes the blood from his hands, how often will his actions have truly brought peace and salvation?


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Embrace Of The Serpent

There’s a bunch of critically acclaimed films that have gone under many of our radars. In response I started gathering a few friends on occasions to watch a movie with me and then spend time afterwards arguing whether it merits the praise. Our last film was Ciro Guerra’s ‘Embrace of the Serpent’.

Embrace of the Serpent

Director: Ciro Guerra

Summary: A drama set in early 20th century Amazonian rainforest

Released: 2015

Certificate: 12A

Starring: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis


cover.aiRating system:  I consider 3 aspects of the film: the script, the whole production and finally how strongly the film impacted me and provoked powerful ideas and intense conversation. In each category I give marks out of 10.


‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is a stunning, thought-provoking, psychedelic and refreshing piece of South American cinema. Shot in black and white, it tells two stories and interweaves them. In 1909 a German ethnographer seeks the help of an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate and together they embark on a dangerous quest to find a rare healing plant. 30 years later an American botanist approaches this same shaman, now worn out and losing his memory, to be his guide on the search for the plant.

Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar, the 2 actors that play the young and old Karamakate are outstanding. Torres’ beauty, intensity, clarity and wit grabbed me right from the start. This is his story, not the story of some explorer from the northern hemisphere. In fact even the way the two intertwining tales are edited expresses the Amazonian people’s non-linear perception of time.

There’s a nuance to each of the main characters. No one fits neatly into their designated stereotype boxes. Roles are subverted and this film artfully exposes the brutality and spiritual hypocrisies of colonialism.

Every decision Karamakate, who is the last surviving member of his tribe, makes has the added weight of him being the sole representative of his people. Two of the key questions the film asks are: if you forfeit your very essence can it regained? What is lost when God’s creation is systematically destroyed and the people who can read Eden’s maps have been killed?

Martijn Schirp of High Existence writes: ‘Watching this story unfold, a deep longing awakens to return to what we have lost.’

I was struck by the moment Karamakate hears European music for the first time via botanist Evan’s phonograph. The piece is Joseph Haydn’s classical Bible-inspired masterpiece The Creation. Karamakate immediately recognizes within the music something Evan probably doesn’t recognize: a deep, authentic spirituality and an aural portal to something transcendent. ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ vividly depicts both culture clashes and connections. If you’re up for an epic, invigorating, disturbing rainforest adventure then I recommend this film.

I’ll finish with a quote by the film’s Colombian director Ciro Guerra: This knowledge (of the indigenous tribal sages) has been passed on through oral tradition, it’s never been written, and from my personal experience, trying to approach it was kind of humiliating, because it is not something you can aspire to understand in a short time like you do in school or college. It is related to life, generations, natural cycles; it really is a gigantic wall of knowledge that you can only admire and maybe try to scratch its surface.


Your chance to respond: 

Have you seen Embrace of the Serpent? What did it make you think about? How did it make you feel?


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Learning from ‘Silence’: Rejection and Success Often Go Together

I can’t work out whether I’m late to the party or should have left this a little longer to marinate, but I’ve got round to writing some reflections on ‘Silence’. Last week, I focused on the work itself; today I wanted to turn my attention to some lessons we can learn from how ‘Silence’ was actually received.

Making faithful, powerful art can still get you rejected

The response falls quite neatly, but still jarringly, into two camps. We’ll come to the general reception later, but when we look at the response of the church, it is fair to say that Endo’s book was not embraced, initially at least, with open arms.

On its release in 1966, Silence, as a book, was condemned by several Catholic churches in Japan and some sectors of the evangelical church across the western world were similarly suspicious. Mark Williams, professor of Japanese studies at Leeds University, notes that despite the fact that the book sold well in Japan, the “hardcore Catholic community view it as heretical and blasphemous… Endo was persona non grata among Japanese Catholics. You can’t find the book in any Christian bookshops…’ (Here‘s the full source)

Having said this, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of knee jerk condemnations of the film adaptation from evangelicalism this time around (although that may have more to do with the fact that we’re much more comfortable with doubters like Scorcese raising difficult questions of faith, than we are with card carrying believers like Endo doing the same).

In a way then, it wouldn’t be pushing it too much to say that Endo shared the fate of Father Rodrigues: considered apostate by the very church he loved, for doing what, he at least, thought was right. However, while there is a romantic poetry in this symmetry, we mustn’t neglect the personal anguish this would have caused. Endo had to endure real rejection for carrying through his artistic vision, and I personally don’t think that this was an indication that he did anything wrong.

I think that we too, as artists in the church, have to embrace this reality. If we make authentic, powerful work, we will experience similar rejection from our Christian brothers and sisters. This may be simply in the form of misunderstanding or in feeling patronized or undervalued, but recent history would suggest that the greater the impact our work has outside of the church, the greater the rejection may well be from other Christians (Lecrae is an interesting example in this regard).

There are clearly lessons here for the church in general, but for us as artists, who I guess would make up the majority of the people reading this blog, we must go into this with our eyes wide open. I don’t think it should lead us to distance ourselves from church, but to realise that if we are looking for affirmation and even validation there, we will be sadly disappointed. I would wholeheartedly encourage all Christians to knit themselves in tightly to a local church , but at the same time, I’d equally encourage Christian artists to make sure you have strong friendships with other Christian artists who will ‘get you’, although they still may challenge you in your practice. (I guess, in a sense, those last two sentences explain Sputnik’s own raison d’etre very neatly)

Art like this can smuggle Jesus into the heart of a culture

But for many people, they may wonder why we should take the risk at all?’ Why shouldn’t Christians play it safe and go on making sanitised, well intentioned art? Why make work that could lead people to wildly different conclusions to the ones we intended- both in the church and outside it?

I’m sure that there will be a future blog post about the parables of Jesus that could be slotted in at this point, but as it is not written yet and as that would be veering from our immediate subject matter, I’ll simply redirect you to the parable of the shrewd manager (Lk 16:1-9) and then add a  WWJD?

The story of Silence itself though gives a compelling response to such questions. The fascinating thing about this story is that the events depicted were very real and still have a huge effect today. There are countless examples throughout history of brutal anti-Christian persecution leading to church growth- ancient Rome and modern day China spring to mind. However Japan is an anomaly. In many ways, Japan successfully suppressed Christianity in the 17th century and it never really bounced back.

Today, under 3% of Japan would self identify as Christian. That’s a smaller number of Christians than you’d find in Burkina Faso, and a smaller percentage of Christians than you’d find in Saudi Arabia. However, at the heart of modern day Japan, Endo’s Silence is revered as a crucial cultural artefact.

In 1966, it won the Tanazaki prize, one of Japan’s most sought after literary awards, and it is still held in high regard in his homeland where he would be listed in any compilation of modern Japanese literary greats.

This is a remarkable achievement. Whatever you think of Endo’s work or of Rodrigues’ example or of Scorcese’s adaptation- this work has burrowed Christianity into the heart of a culture that has systematically suppressed the Christian message in the public square. And anyone who wants to study this book is going to have to burrow themselves even deeper into Christian theology as, let’s face it, it’s not like Christianity is a peripheral theme in the book. Everything is here- from the atonement to repentance to grace to forgiveness. And Jesus comes out of it incredibly well.

It was very moving to read Andrew Garfield’s reflections on playing the role of Father Rodrigues in the film. In preparation for the role, he underwent a whole course of Jesuit retreats and exercises and when he was asked what stood out for him in these exercises, his reply was this:

“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.”

I think that anyone approaching Endo’s work with a spiritual openness would be able to navigate their way to the same affection, and that is something remarkable.

For all their failings, perhaps the apostate priests of the 17th century have left behind a legacy. From their stories, marred by human weakness and failing, Jesus has regained a place at the heart of Japanese culture- hidden from view, yes, but still accessible to anyone who wants to take a look. And now, they are speaking through Hollywood too.

Whether that vindicates them stepping on their fumi-es all those years ago, I don’t know, but it is certainly a wonderful and unexpected epilogue. For all Christians who long to see every culture come to fall in love with Jesus, it’s certainly a huge reason to thank God for Shusaku Endo (and for Martin Scorcese). For all Christians who want to make art that speaks into their specific culture, we should be doubly thankful, because here we have someone who has given us a pretty good model of how it should be done.

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Learning From ‘Silence’: Asking Difficult Questions

Perhaps I’m not watching the right films, but I don’t remember ever seeing a film that did to me what Scorcese’s Silence did to me. Without trying to be clever, I can genuinely say that it brought me to silence.

But as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not brilliant at keeping my mouth shut, so I thought, with a couple of weeks, a reading of Endo’s original book and a few good conversations with friends under my belt, it was about time I put down some thoughts here, particularly in regards to the impact this work has on us as Christian artists.

Scorcese has at least until recently described himself as a lapsed Catholic (although he may have had a delapse) but there was nothing lapsed about Endo. Though he wrote Silence, for which he is most remembered, while fighting a particularly nasty bout of tuberculosis, partly processing his own experience of the silence of God, he never stepped on the fumi-e himself, at least publicly anyway. While Scorcese’s spiritual journey is fascinating in its own right, I’d like to assess the film and the book together, as products of Endo’s faith filled imagination, and therefore as an example of exceptional art made by a Christian. This is a piece of art to be savoured (for this try, here), but it is also a fascinating picture of how to make exceptional art if you’re a Christian (and also a helpful heads up as to what may happen if you do).

Before I offer 4 lessons I’ve learnt through the book/film then, I’d better give the rather predictable spoiler alert. However, it’s not just that spoilers lurk in the following paragraphs, but that you will be doing yourself a major dissservice if you engage with ramshackle reflections like this one and miss out on the work itself. So, if you’ve not read the book or seen the film, I can think of at least two more constructive things to do than to read any further at this point.

Okay, with that out the way, what can we, as Christian artists, learn from Silence? I’ll start off today and finish my reflections next week.

We must be prepared to raise dangerous questions and guide our audiences through them

In one respect this is very obvious, but the power of Silence is surely in its ambiguity. Was Rodrigues right to tread on the fumi-e? Would Jesus really ever tell anyone to deny him, particularly as it led to many more denials and acts that actually betrayed other believers? Whose example should we value in this story? Whose should we reject? Should we side with the faithful peasant martyrs, although they may just have been sun worshippers who took Mass? What about the stoic, unflinching Garrupe- who submitted to death, but whose dogma seemed to trump his humanity? Or, of course, the proud, but ulitmately compassionate Rodrigues? And where should Kichijiro fit into our affections?

‘Should’ is probably the key word in that last paragraph. Is there a ‘should’ at all in how we should respond? By that I mean- was the creator of the work’s intention to drive us down any of these particular paths or just leave them all open to us and let us take our pick? This is where Scorcese’s adaptation becomes particularly interesting, as I wonder if the film and book have different approaches to how we ‘should’ respond. The film leaves us with the strong hint that Rodrigues’ faith had continued, not just in him but in his family, but the extent of this faith and the meaning of the events that we’d witnessed are left untouched. Endo however leaves us with something much more tangible. Just before the appendix, Endo depicts Rodrigues administering the sacrament to Kichijiro and the final paragraph leaves us in no doubt as to the final spiritual state of his protagonist:

…The priest had administered that sacrament that only the priest can administer. No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. ‘Even now I am the last priest in the land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.’ (p 257, Picador/2007)

For Endo then, Rodrigues is not an apostate at all, but someone who has found a deeper, more mature love of Jesus even through his apparent act(s) of apostasy. There may even be some quite firm theological convictions here about incarnational evangelism vs simple proclamation of the message.

However, with that said, by this point, the work has been done. My head was in such a spin from all the theological puzzles and overturned expectations that I left the book (just as I left the film) trying desperately to tie everything together, and this for me was where the power of Silence really kicked in.

By raising so many difficult questions, and then at best half answering them, I was forced to think through the places where my own zeal and conviction have been overshadowed by arrogance, what part my own desire for praise plays in even my most apparently selfless acts and whether I’d be prepared to be rejected by Christianity for Christ. Needless to say, these are deeply unsettling questions and I could imagine a work leading you to these in a very unhelpful way. However, in this case, it felt safe. It felt safe, because ultimately my journey was not guided by an unanchored seeker like Ferreira (or perhaps like Scorcese, although that may be a little unfair) but my guide was Endo- one who had heard God speak clearly in the silence and had endured tuberculosis and the rejection of the church and still came out trusting Jesus.

I think this gives us an excellent example of how to take people on these sorts of journeys through our work- how we can lead people down the path of difficult, even dangerous questions, while simultaneously acting as a light to guide them through to a firmer faith in the end.

Our lives help to interpret our work

To reiterate then, while Endo skilfully leads his reader away from the rocks of apostasy through his skill as a writer, the work is rooted not just by what we find in the text, but in what we find outside it- in the life of its author.

There would surely have been many people who stumbled into the cinema on a Saturday night in early January, expecting to see Wolf of Wall Street 2, and have left slightly bamboozled, but perhaps also with the opposite impression from the one I’ve laid out above. It would be quite possible to view this film as a condemnation of missionary activity and a declaration of the powerlessness of the Christian message. However, if you did even a little bit of homework, it would be impossible to hold on to this view for very long.

It may seem very simple, but it is important that Endo wrote this. A person of faith. A person who loved Jesus and worked through these questions positively in his own life. For us, as Christian artists, it is also important that our work is made by us, and therefore our lives should be considered as important interpretative tools of our work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the content of my work doesn’t matter. Far from it. However, it does mean that if I am following Jesus closely, trusting him in my own life and growing in faith in him, then I am much more able to raise difficult questions constructively in my work than I would be if I was a flaky Jesus-affiliated drifter.

Ultimately, powerful art raises powerful questions. On the other hand, ‘Christian art’ (as it has been perceived) has often laid out powerful answers, but done it in such a prescriptive way that almost all the power has been evaporated. We must buck this trend and make art that raises the kind of questions that real people are asking, and actually that we are asking. Even those we haven’t yet settled on the answers to.

We don’t want to cause anyone to stumble and we definitely don’t want to lead our brothers and sisters into sin, but actually I wonder if Christians have rushed to sanitise their work (and therefore often neuter it) because they’ve forgotten that their faithful lives are already interpreting their work for their audience.

Of course, this does require that as Christian artists, we hold fast to Jesus, but if we do this, I think we should resist the temptation to fill in all the gaps for people out of fear of being misunderstood. Our lives and our art work in tandem. Let’s aim to make both excellent!

In the next post, I’ll give some reflections on what we can learn from the response to this work, both in the church and outside it.

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Christmas Videos: Kings Church Edinburgh & St Pauls Auckland

On Tuesday we highlighted some music to get you in the Christmas mood. Today we have some videos- 2 to be precise. Christmas always gets Christian creatives motivated and there are plenty of good videos out there, retelling the Christmas story or exploring the questions it raises.

To stand out from the melee, you’ve got to be good. You’ve got to come in at a different angle, you’ve got to exhibit a level of quality that will stand up even discounting the seasonal good cheer. These two videos do just that. So here goes:

Threadbare (King’s Church, Edinburgh)

Kings Church, Edinburgh, is a church that I’d love to get to know better. They’re in the New Ground bit of Newfrontiers, we’re in the Catalyst bit, so we’re like siblings, or at worst cousins. My good friend Luke Davydaitis is one of the leaders (and he’s a great bloke) and they’ve got all sorts of exceptional artists in the church and Jennifer Rawson is one of them.

Jennifer Rawson used to be called Jennifer Taylor and featured in our very first Sputnik Anthology back in 2014. Her poems were some of the highlights of that particular publication but I’d heard nothing from her since. Until this video. I don’t think that Jennifer is the lady in the video, but she certainly wrote the poem that it is built around.

To put it simply, this is how to do a church Christmas video. Forget all the wrappings and just go for the heart of things. This will work in a carol service, but it stands up in its own right as an excellent piece of work at any time of the year (inside or outside a church meeting). It’s well shot, well edited and well recorded. I get the impression that Kings church folk were also responsible for the soundtrack too. Phew!

As Christians left, right and centre fill Youtube with earnest and deeply mediocre ‘spoken words’, it is so refreshing to hear someone who knows how to wield the English language with subtlety and skill.

Take note: this is what happens when you get an actual poet to do a church video, rather than getting a pastor,student worker, or just some good looking member of your congregation to do it.

Seriously guys. This is awesome.

Star of Wonder (St Pauls, Auckland)

I’ve rather selfishly kept this up my sleeve for the last week or so, and noticed that none of my Facebook pals or twitter cronies have cottoned on to it yet. I LOVE this video.

When Sputnik began, St Pauls, Auckland were a huge source of inspiration to me. They are most renowned for their Christmas videos, particularly the Spike Jonze-y ‘Good News of Great Joy’ and Michel Gondry-esque ‘An Unexpected Christmas’. They then dropped off most people’s radars (although their subsequent offerings were also fantastic).

Upon a little investigation, I soon found out that, while Christmas seems to be their shop window, St Pauls is more than a sanctified Santa’s grotto. These guys don’t just have a creative streak, they seem to be something of a creative powerhouse in their city. They put on art exhibitions, gather thousands to their creative services and basically put the rest of us to shame (or spur us onwards, depending how you’re feeling that day).

Behind all of this is a guy called James Bowman. He was senior art director at Saatchi until 2013, but has since moved to New Zealand based advertising and communications company bcg2. We exchanged some emails early on and he was really encouraging in those early days, for which I am still very grateful.

Therefore, it was excellent to see a link from him in my inbox to the new SPAM (St Pauls Arts and Media) Christmas video. What was more excellent though was the video itself. After the full on cuteness of GNoGJ and AUC, this is more of a stealth attack. It is a masterful piece of work- drawing you in, with a light smile here and a furtive glance there, until the understated, but still grand, reveal.

Whereas most Christmas videos talk and talk at you, this features just one Bible verse. But there is a simple profundity here that should not be missed.

City crowds are a helpful window into modern life. We walk through our lives increasingly isolated and individualistic, cut off from those around us, in our iPod dream chambers, augmented reality games or just swapping emojis with people on Whatsapp. But, even in such a world, Christmas has something to say. Christmas is about the one who can still grab our attention and he can turn our vacant stares and world weary frowns into huge beaming smiles.

More than any other video I’ve seen this year, this one boils Christmas down to its most crucial component: Joy to the world.

Happy Christmas!

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Doctor Strange: A Masterclass in Christian Film Making

A few years ago, when laying out the vision behind Sputnik to a gathering of creatives, I made the claim that there were no Christian artists producing culture shaping art now (or in the last 30 years). Basically, I think I’d been warming to my theme, and though I stand by my general point that Christians are not proportionately represented operating at the highest levels in the arts, I was, of course wrong.

My friend Joel Wilson graciously rubbed this in by immediately compiling a list of 50 Christian artists who I’d claimed didn’t exist. Jonny Cash, Makoto Fujimura, Alice Cooper, Terence Mallick, PD James, etc, etc.

Well, that was early 2015. I’d like to add another name to the list and as regards cultural influence, I wonder if this one may be a new entry at number 1. He would have been a pretty high entry when Joel first compiled his list but for the fact that nobody would have guessed that the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser:Inferno and Sinister may actually have been a Jesus follower! Now, he’s the the helmsman of the latest Marvel blockbuster and I imagine that we haven’t heard the last of Scott Derrickson.

Doctor Strange very much follows Derrickson’s modus operandi up to this point, in that it is the last film you would naturally expect a Christian to touch with a bargepole. Dr Stephen Strange is the invention of comic artist Steven Ditko and he made his first appearance in 1963 to bring a bit of black magic into the Marvel Universe. From the start, he appealed very naturally to a generation experimenting with psychedelic drugs and eastern mysticism and his escapades are punctuated by spells, incantations, vampires, demigods and demonic possession.

In some ways, the movie follows suit, exploring some of the occult elements from the comics but also relying heavily on a multiverse cosmology- an idea that has become popular through Richard Dawkins, largely as a way to explain the existence of our universe without having to resort to a creator. For these reasons, predictably, there has been a backlash from some quarters of Christendom (here and here). As ‘the editorial staff’ at puts it:

Some movies, however, not only distract some people from the Truth, but introduce completely new paths for people to follow that will lead them away from eternal life with Jesus Christ and away from loving their neighbors as themselves. Sadly, Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE is one of those movies.

I’ll be honest- I couldn’t disagree more. As I watched the film, I was incredibly impressed at how Derrickson steers the film in such a way that he not only fails to alienate the comic fan base, but actually leads people potentially towards Jesus through the most unpromising of evangelistic source material.

In many ways, it follows in the footsteps of The Exorcism of Emily Rose as an apologetic against materialistic naturalism (the belief that there is no supernatural reality). One of Strange’s early conversations with the Ancient One makes this very clear:

The Ancient One: You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your whole life trying to widen that keyhole. To see more. To know more. And now on hearing that it can be widened, in ways you can’t imagine, you reject the possibility.

Dr. Stephen Strange: No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.

Now, fair enough, The views Doctor Strange is converted to from this point aren’t exactly from the pages of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, but to hone in on details would be to miss the point. It’s another cinematic blue pill/red pill moment and its effect is to cast curious minds upon the possibility that there’s more to life than meets the eye. (About 30 million curious minds so far, judging by the box office takings).

You see, Derrickson understands his audience and knows the battles which need fighting. The church’s sensitivity to the occult in popular media has been based, at least in part, on a presumption that people’s default position was of Christian faith or at least something similar. Therefore, as the above quote states, these biblically prohibited practices would ‘lead them away from eternal life with Jesus’ and should be resisted at all costs. However, that bird has now flown. People have moved further and further away from faith in Jesus in much more fundamental ways than dabbling with the odd ouija board (dangerous as that may be). A secular mindset has become dominant on both sides of the Atlantic, and therefore, like it or not, you are dealing with people who are already miles away from Jesus. If you want to lead people back, adding another splinter into their mind to cause them to question a materialistic view of reality is surely exactly what is needed.

In this way, Derrickson is a brilliant example of how to engage our culture with the Christian worldview. If we are to regain a voice through the arts, we must learn to pick our battles, ignore our hobby horses and hone in on the key obstacles to faith. We must become adept at bringing out truth from our culture’s own stories, while treating those stories themselves with respect. Derrickson can’t even help himself in this regard and ends the movie with a pretty blatant atonement allegory. This guy’s a hero!

As well as thinking through the positive message of the film, it’s also worth noting what was missing. Think for a moment about what a Doctor Strange movie may have looked like in another pair of hands. Deadpool was Marvel for people who want swearing and sex, Doctor Strange was the one those who wanted séances, tarot cards and occult rituals. But in Derrickson’s hands, all of these elements are underplayed and a vague mysticism pervades. There is an indication that some of the key characters have been dabbling in the dark realms but again this is done in such a way that it would be hard to imagine that many people would be enticed to follow suit through the movie (Will Smith’s son being a high profile exception) . Damage limitation may seem like a humble aim for Christian involvement in the arts, but it is of some value.

However, it would be amiss of me to leave it even there. It’s not just that Derrickson survived his first blockbuster directorship while staying true to his convictions. He’s made a very enjoyable movie going experience. Yes, it’s a pretty generic superhero origin story with fairly 2 dimensional characters but it would be fair to say that in the areas of special effects and action choreography, he has truly broken new ground. Throughout the film, the fight scenes bend the rules of space and time in a manner that should have been a total mess, but instead were thoroughly original and exhilarating.

It’s not high art, but it’s high quality art, made by someone with an attention to detail and a respect for their craft that is quite formidable. And it leads a trail of breadcrumbs that could lead to Jesus. And it does it through the story of an occult magician. And multiverses.

Please pray for Scott Derrickson that God would strengthen him and keep him upright and wise in the industry that he is in. And pray that God would raise up more artists like him. Then keep your eyes peeled, as it will be fascinating to see what he’ll do next.

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Catalyst Workplace Day: Game changer

Most of us have a strange relationship with paid work. On the surface, most people like to tell you how much they hate their jobs, but dig a little deeper and you usually find that work is normally where people base their sense of meaning and develop many of their most precious life skills. Recently, our conflicting attitudes to work have been drawn out by the clamour of futurists, predicting the rise of machines in the workplace doing us all out of a job.

The popular responses to these predictions seem to have gone in two directions- Yay! Freedom from work. We can choose how to flourish and spontaneously help the communities around us. But wait a minute… will I actually be able to motivate myself to spend my time constructively? Won’t it just lead us to retreat into meaningless cul de sacs of entertainment (that by then will probably revolve around VR machines that we never need to unplug from)?

And there we have the conflict: work is a drag, but perhaps it is necessary for us to flourish as human beings. Or to put it more biblically, work was given to us as a source of dignity and joy, but through our sin, it has been cursed, and now becomes beset by futility, frustration and stress (Genesis 3:17-19)

Therefore, it was a great pleasure to spend the day on Saturday with a load of other eager drones, thinking carefully through the place that work should have in our lives and how as Christians we should go about our jobs. It was the first ever Catalyst4TheWorkplace Day and it was very worthwhile. More specifically, Sputnik had the pleasure of running the stream for arts professionals, and that too seemed to go well, and I thought I’d share a bit of a report, and some observations from the day.

For me, a day like this was always going to be about people. It was great to be able to spend some time with old friends and make some new ones too and sticking such an awesome bunch in one room and seeing what happened was always going to be fun. In all the presentations and discussions, three things struck me that particularly remained with me afterwards:

‘I decided to approach this properly as a career’

Mike French, writer of An Android Awakes, said this when describing his journey towards becoming a published author. God had told him (in the bath if I remember rightly) to go down this career route, and he wasn’t just going to rely on his imagination and natural flair for writing. Basically he signed up for a course with a literary consultancy and immersed himself as much as he could in the literary scene. This may all seem pretty non-exceptional, but I think it is so helpful to hear simple stories like this. A common experience of Christian artists is that others in their churches don’t take their art seriously, however I wonder if actually a lot of the time Christian creatives don’t themselves take their art seriously. If someone feels ‘called’ to become a lawyer, they do a law degree, if they feel God tell them to become a chef, they go to cookery school, however I’ve met loads of Christians who feel that God has called them to be an artist in one field or another and simply assume that that is the end of the story- all they need to do is be creative and their work will change the world. Now often it has to be said, there is no obvious career preparation track available (how do you become a songwriter, for example?), but often the lack of proactivity that follows from such an assertion of artistic calling is simply down to not approaching ‘this properly as a career’. Do you feel God is calling you to be an artist? Approach your art properly as a career. Do you think God may be calling you to be an artist but you’re not sure? Approach it properly as a career- start training/do an internship/apply for that course and see if things click.

‘We like work that is exciting and at times we also like work that is paid’

This quote was from film maker Joel Wilson and it spurred off an interesting discussion about the even more interesting relationship between artists and money. It was fascinating hearing all of the artists on our panel as they talked through their stories. Each one seemed to divide their work in a  similar way- some work that pays the bills, other work that is less financially rewarding but perhaps more in line with what makes them come alive as artists. Daniel Blake subsidising his fashion labels by teaching at the London school of fashion. Phil and Harri Mardlin doing corporate gigs to fund projects like StageWrite, Bedford’s main annual new writing festival. Chris Donald juggling graphic design jobs with running the Minor Artists record label and production company. It would be fair to say that a theme developed as the afternoon passed.

I’d imagine that this will come as no surprise to any of you who have ever pursued your artistic gifting professionally, but if you are looking into exploring this possibility, it is well worth taking note of this reality. In the arts, as well as in other occupations, what is exciting and what we get paid for don’t always line up perfectly. Understanding this from the outset could save a lot of trouble down the line if you are serious about exploring whether your art form may be able to pay the bills at some point.


As we were worshiping all together in the first session of the day, Daniel Blake took the mic and told us how he’d seen a billboard outside the window with #gamechanger written repeatedly on it. He felt that God wanted to bring this to our attention as the day was going to be a game changer for people in how they see their work. This resonated with me immediately and I leapt up to add that I thought that this could be seen even more broadly as a game changer for how we, as a family of churches, even see church itself and how we serve people in their jobs.

As I talked to artists and listened to their stories in the afternoon, I felt struck by the possibility that there was a third game to be changed. In Sputnik, we’ve spent the last four years discussing the big conceptual questions and encouraging artists and non-artists in our churches to see the importance of the arts and work that through in church life. On Saturday, I suddenly realised that the conversation had moved on. Now, we weren’t talking about up in their air ideas and vague notions of validation and affirmation. We were down to brass tacks. We were talking about how we can get paid from this stuff. How we can self subsidise ourselves in our art. We ended the day taking this even further to the question of patronage and whether the church can play an important financial role in this by taking on a role of patronage of individual artists and the arts in general.

I’m looking forward to God changing the game for Sputnik and working more meaningfully with professionals as well as amateurs, helping talented artists learn how to make a living and even perhaps becoming more of a vehicle to enable the church to take up once again its historical role as an important patron of the arts.

That’s a game I look forward to playing and if that resonates with you I’d love to hear if you’d like to play it with us.

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Suicide Squad: Mental Illness For Fun And Profit

In recent years superhero movies have enjoyed an explosion in popularity. Almost every new release seems to be a major movie-going event, thanks to their colourful accessibility and widespread appeal.

Not one to be left out, the church has also taken the genre to its bosom, with youth outings or small group socials often planned around the latest offering. This is perhaps because of their high-budget, action-packed thrills, combined with a low statistical probability of encountering any naked bums (most depicted skin-on-skin contact will be a big manly fist connecting with a big manly face). Or perhaps it’s because the movies normally promise glossy blockbuster entertainment with a relatively straightforward good-verses-evil message; this message undoubtedly a wholesome influence on the church’s young men – teaching them to never give up in the fight against evil with the continual use of physical violence and an absolute faith in their own moral compass. Young women are also assuredly provided with a positive role model in the form of the obligatory female who Can Kick Just As Much Ass As The Boys (albeit one with a third of the dialogue and a mandatory skin-tight costume).  So we sit munching a £6.99 bag of popcorn, soaking up the bloodless violence and eagerly await the upcoming article about how the aforementioned manly fist represents Jesus and the aforementioned manly face represents satan (or perhaps, in the more subtle efforts, Western Consumerism).

The latest superhero movie, due to grace our screens on the 5th August 2016, has taken a slightly different approach. From the DC stable (trailing pitifully in the wake of the Marvel juggernaut) comes Suicide Squad – a movie adaptation of a comic series where a number of supervillains team up to do a thing. Judging by its title and promotion material, Suicide Squad has spurned the family blockbuster market and plumped for a ‘dark’ tone, mixed with wanton destruction and insufferable zAnY hUmOuR. For example, the initial trailer is largely set in a grimy cityscape and features a string of explosions interspersed by smug quips from the rounded-up roster of rapscallions.

Now I’m a surly sourpuss who doesn’t find the prospect of Suicide Squad particularly exciting or amusing. However, beyond the movie’s jarring technicolour kookiness there’s something else about its overall branding which perturbs me. Specifically I’m referring to the way that it seems to be using the ‘exoticism’ of mental illness in its promotion. [FOOTNOTE 1]

The most obvious target would be the movie’s title. However, I don’t see this as particularly offensive, given the reference to the concept of a ‘suicide mission’. It would also be remiss of me to pretend that I haven’t previously enjoyed the mythos of characters like the Joker. After all, who can truly resist the anarchic allure of an unhinged malefactor, whose loose grip on reality nonetheless fails to prevent him preparing several elaborate, city-wide traps (whose mechanics encompass a series of tricky moral quandaries)? However, whereas previous DC media seemed to encapsulate the Joker’s disposition by a kind of non-descript ‘madness’, things seem a little different this time.

Perhaps I was previously ignorant, but the employment of mental instability as a marketing tool feels more pointed around the release of Suicide Squad – particularly in reference to specific mental health experiences and terminology. For example, in promoting the upcoming movie, a number of entertainment blogs and websites seem to be confusing the terms ‘psychotic’ and ‘psychopathic’. Despite them both containing the same root word, this is not a mistake that should be made lightly.

Broadly speaking, ‘psychopathy’ is characterised by callousness, remorselessness and a lack of empathy. In comparison, ‘psychosis’ refers to a spectrum of psychological and sensory experiences which may involve, for example, unusual sensory experiences (e.g. hearing voices), or holding strong beliefs that others find odd (e.g. ideas that may be considered suspicious or paranoid).

What’s key about this distinction is the kind of behaviours assumed by each term. While high levels of psychopathic traits are associated with an increased risk of violent and antisocial behaviour, people with psychosis are much more likely to be at risk of violence themselves than perpetrators. This may be partly due to negative portrayals of mental illness in the media, including insinuations that psychosis leads to violence. And while there are tragic occasions where people with psychosis commit violent acts, these are rare, overrepresented by the media and often perpetrated by individuals who are responding in fear against a perceived threat to themselves. Furthermore, people with psychosis can internalise negative media portrayals of themselves as dangerous and immoral, which can result in more mental health difficulties and a fear of seeking support from others.

Granted, much of my beef is with various entertainment websites covering the film and not the film itself. However, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Suicide Squad is trying to court a certain type of promotional material. For example, there’s the article boasting of the need of a therapist on set. Then there’s the interview with Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang in the movie) where he refers to director David Ayer’s creative approach as ‘psychotic’. Perhaps a misjudged comment, but various websites lapped it up, running the term ‘psychotic’ within their main headline. One site reblogged the story by describing Ayer as ‘psychotic, but in a good way’, noting this was ‘rather fitting for a film about a group of dangerous criminal weirdos’.

Pre-release, the jury’s still out regarding the film itself. However, there is one moment in the trailer which doesn’t bode well. The clip features Harley Quin – former psychiatrist-turned-badwoman who Can Kick Just As Much Ass As The Boys (albeit one with seemingly too much of the dialogue and is featured in one scene stripping down to her bra and pants.) About a minute into the trailer, Harley makes a quip about voices in her head telling her to kill everybody. It’s a joke sure, but the tone in which it’s made is flippant and insensitive. Plus the fact that this was chosen as a crowd-pleasing, ‘sizzle reel’ moment is a sad indictment that people who hear voices presumably aren’t considered important enough to avoid offending, even from a purely commercial perspective.

I don’t believe that Suicide Squad holds deliberately malicious intentions. And it may seem churlish to attack a film on the strength of its trailer and a few misjudged quotes. However, there is something about the marketing of Suicide Squad which seems to be cashing in on the misplaced mystique around mental illness and in doing so co-opts a larger narrative, one which lumps psychosis with violence and moral bankruptcy. This is not a new problem, but it’s one which gives us a false understanding of psychosis and risks stigmatising those who may already be experiencing significant distress and difficulty. In other words, if mental illness is explained as justification for immorality (fictional or otherwise), we may begin to equate the two [FOOTNOTE 2]

Still, who’s excited for Aquaman (2018)!?!


1) Note that some people who experience psychotic experiences would reject the term ‘mental ill’, finding it unnecessarily victimising. There are also debates around the utility of terms such as ‘ill’ and ‘well’, given the continuum of experiences which could be classified as ‘psychotic’ and difficulty in establishing demarcation criteria for a valid and reliable medical diagnosis. In reference to this I have largely tried to avoid using traditional diagnostic terms, however, this discussion is beyond the scope of the current article. For further information, see here.

2) The waters get muddier when you consider that most people who commit violent atrocities and mass murders are presumably not completely mentally ‘healthy’. However, it could be argued that in high profile cases, the label of mental illness is often used post-hoc as a justification for amoral acts, excusing the perpetrators of responsibility and further stigmatising those with established mental health difficulties. It’s a complicated area, which I don’t have space to fully explore in the current article, however, see here for further discussion.

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Film, Folk Guitar, and a New Kind of Album

A couple of weeks back, we highlighted Stewart Garry’s exciting new project Sojourner. Basically, Stewart is one of the country’s finest acoustic guitar talents, particularly specialising in fingerstyle, and ‘Sojourner’ is an album and a film, recorded live at a number of locations that have inspired him in his writing (from a lighthouse on the outskirts of Newcastle to a Scottish whisky distillery). Sojourner was officially released yesterday, but we caught up a couple of weeks back to find out more about the project and the man himself…

So Stewart, introduce yourself.

Hi, my name is Stew Garry, I’m 27 years old, currently based in Coventry but originally from Newcastle upon Tyne. I’m a part time student studying theology and also work part time as an elder for my church in Coventry whilst continuing to play music when and where I can.

I’ve always been into music. Growing up, my parents brought me up on a solid foundation of jazz music- Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong stand out as people who I still love to listen to and inspire my writing! I started out playing penny whistle in school folk groups (ending up playing on ITV at one point somehow?) but quickly had a fascination for all musical instruments, playing violin, steel pans and various other instruments until I was settled on the drums. I joined a rock band aged 13/14 playing mainly black sabbath covers, which was truly awful! But we got this gig playing at an opening of a local studio in Newcastle. So we played our set, thought we’d nailed it and on walks this older guy, with a beat up guitar. I’m thinking ‘who’s this guy?’ And he plays one of the most stunning pieces I’ve ever heard on the guitar! The guy’s name is Tommy Emmanuel and he was playing his version of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’. Needless to say when I picked my jaw up from the floor, I dropped my drumsticks and said ‘I’m going to do that!’. Ever since I’ve been trying to work out how to play guitar like that, looking at other great guitarists like Andy McKee, Don Ross, Eric Roche and Antoine Dufour for technique and Inspiration.

Throughout that time I also played in a lot of different bands, jazz (which was a must to try and play like Miles) and rock bands, including a post hardcore band called Juinera where I got to play alongside Chris Donald who produced this album.

How did you come up with the whole idea for Sojourner?

I composed this album bit by bit over the last 4 years, gigged it and refined it until I was ready to record. I tried a few times to record the album in a studio, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t sounding right.

One day, Chris and I were talking  about how much YouTube was playing a role in the rise of modern Fingerstyle guitar playing and he had the idea of doing a live film, where we would visit different places that have inspired my music.

There are so many factors that have gone into Sojourner. I love the way that it’s not just a collection of songs, but a laying bare of the factors behind the songs and of you as an artist. One of the key elements seems to be place and geography as you record all the songs in places that have inspired your writing. How do you feel place and location affects your art?

Yeah, something I love about instrumental music is that it evokes different things for different people, it allows the listener to engrave their own stories onto the music which I think is awesome! But for this album I thought it would be great to bring the listener into some of my thoughts about the compositions and what inspires me, that way I think people who may struggle with instrumental music might be able to understand where I’m coming from as well.

Playing live at the different locations was a really fun way to record, it makes everything more relaxed! You’re not shoved into a small booth, with microphones thrown in every direction at you! It’s just playing that music I love to play in the places that are special to me, which was a huge joy! I think that made all the difference to the album, each place had a unique look, sound and feel. For example ‘After the rain’ was played in this little chapel in Cornwall that me and some friends visited a lot, so I had some great memories of the chapel but also the reverb in there was awesome, the weather played a part as well! It had just rained and so it made filming there even more perfect.

How does your art fit into your role as a church leader? In what ways do you find the two a natural fit or a source of tension?

I love doing both music and church work! I think having both aspects of music and church works well. Music is an outlet of creativity, I see it as a sabbath activity, it’s restful and brings joy, it’s also worship whenever I’m playing. Church work allows me to spend a lot of time studying the Bible which is a great joy, the more I study the more I learn about Jesus which in turn inspires me to write! So I think the two overlap nicely. The only tension would be touring and how that works alongside church, but it’s a small tension and one that is usually easily workable.

When the project is fully released on 16th May, what can we expect?

The project will be sold in various formats. You can get it digitally or physical copies. It will come as a CD/DVD double disk, so you can watch the film or just sit back with a dram and listen to the album. You can order the album/film from the Minor Artists shop (you can get it from bandcamp or iTunes but we would prefer if you could get it from us directly).

Thanks Stewart. If he hasn’t convinced you to shell out for this fantastic project,  let the music speak for itself: here is the second video from the project (featuring Sputnik favourite Joanna Karselis) to whet your appetite:

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Stewart Garry’s ‘Sojourner’

Minor Artists is part record label, part collective and part music production company. Founded by Sputnikmagazine contributor Chris Donald a couple of years back, it already has at least three bona fide classics under its belt- mSTORK’s ‘The Crux’, Benjamin Blower’s ‘Kingdom vs Empire’ and Ebenezer’s ‘Outremer’, but its forthcoming project is its most ambitious yet.

On the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign, ‘Sojourner’ will be released in 16th May. It’s a cinematic folk album (which I think means that it’s an album and a film) by one of the UK’s finest acoustic guitar talents, Stewart Garry.

Stewart has built a career playing around UK venues, but in ‘Sojourner’ he returns to places that have inspired his writing, from Laphroaig Distillery on the Scottish island of Islay to a lighthouse in the outskirts of Newcastle. The album was recorded live in these diverse locations and filmed simultaneously and last week, the project’s first offering: ‘The Don’ was released. It’s a video featuring beautiful imagery of Islay, a short interview with Stewart and of course the song itself, performed in the cavernous depths of the island’s famous whiskey distillery.

It’s the perfect way to experience Stewart Garry, infusing his very tactile music with a powerful sense of place while exposing the intense physicality of his style.

We’re hoping to grab an interview in a couple of weeks, but to tide you over we thought we’d just point you towards ‘The Don’ and let you see/hear for yourselves:


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Getting a dose of horror movies in your diet

Great work Thinktheology and Nathanael Smith for not playing it safe with Tuesday’s post- a review of Robert Eggers’ ‘The Witch’ and general reflections on the horror genre. The guys at Think asked me to do a sort of companion piece that went up there on Wednesday, but I thought I’d share it here as well. 

Should Christians watch horror movies? Twenty years ago, in the kind of churches I grew up around, this question would have been met with a uninanimous and curt response and Nathanael Smith would have probably found himself facing something not dissimilar to the Salem witch trials!

Things have moved on and for some that is enough to settle the argument. Christians have made our peace with Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter, it’s only natural that we’d continue to repent of all of yesteryear’s knee jerk cultural prejudices.

However, it’s really important that we stop and think this through. I’ve got mixed feelings about the way the church interacts with art (in all its shapes and sizes) nowadays, and as someone who helps lead a church and spends a lot of my time working with artists, I’ll be honest, I’m still working this stuff through. However, I’ve got a few thoughts that I’d like to throw into the pot:

1. We are not to be undiscerning consumers

Andy Crouch charts the Western church’s shift in how it interacts with culture largely as a shift from a posture of wholesale condemnation through to undiscerning consumption. He warns of the risks in such a position:

‘…consumption, as a posture, is capitulation: letting the culture set the terms, assuming that the culture knows best and that even our deepest longings (for beauty, truth, love) and fears (of loneliness, loss, death) have some solution that fits comfortably within our culture’s horizons, if only we can afford to purchase it.’(Culture Making, pp 95-96)

In all of these discussions, I fear that for many of us, when we hear ‘if your conscience allows it’ (which I fully agree with by the way) we hear an encouragement to capitulation. Our consciences certainly have an objective Holy Spirit element to them but they are also educated and trained and they can be seared, it seems, almost beyond repair (1 Tim 4:2). One of the main ways I have learnt to hone my conscience has been by wrestling at length over the art I indulge in. I have smashed more records and CDs, binned more DVDs and stopped halfway through more TV series than I can count. I felt God prod me that some were leading me towards sin, others were leading me to think in unhelpful ways and others just needed to go as I was more interested in them than in Jesus at that time. I have found this costly- both financially and in terms of losing things I loved- but the payback has been that I’ve learnt to hear the nuances of God’s voice as I’ve learnt to discern the prod of the Spirit and obeyed Him along the way.

2. As we think about the true, right and lovely, we must find a place for the ugly, wicked and horrific

Whatever decisions we make regarding specifics though, we must find a place for horror in our lives! When I was growing up, Philippians 2:8 was used pretty liberally to warn me off a whole host of evils. However, I can’t help thinking that Paul’s teaching here has been somewhat abused. Paul teaches the Philippian church to ‘think about such things’ (the true, noble, right, etc) which is very different to ‘only think about such things’. If he’d done the latter, he would have been making the rather radical move of prohibiting serious reflection on large chunks of the Old Testament. Ezekiel would be considerably shorter (Ezekiel 16? 23?) and Judges 19-21 would certainly have to go (imagine Eli Roth getting his hands on that particular passage).

God chose to expose us to the horrific effects of sin in his own perfect word and he hasn’t spared us any of the gory details. It is totally understandable why many Christians treat Christianity as a bunker to hide away in, safe from the horrors of the world, but that’s not what it was ever meant to be. We are meant to be able to look evil in the face, acknowledge head on the depths of depravity in the world and then give our lives to the one who crushed the snake’s head in a bid to rescue people and refashion our culture. A church that ponders flowers, eagles and sun rises all day will likely develop a fairly rose tinted view of the world. God however chose to motivate his people into action by encouraging us to dwell on stories of gang rape, dismembered corpses and donkey’s genitalia. It’s certainly not meant to be entertaining, but if an irregular dose of some cinema that may be deemed slightly unsavoury can wake us up to the horrors of the real world we live in and the desperate need for us to do something about it, then it may be worth a few sleepless nights.

3. Living in Babylon means learning the culture

As I’ve thought about the shift in the church’s attitude to culture, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s largely down to a change in perception of where we live, spiritually speaking. In my early years, Christian leaders talked as if we lived in Israel. Once into my twenties, the general concensus was that we were in Athens. But as has pointed out on this very site, we are now squarely rooted in Babylon.

Therefore, Daniel is a very helpful model for us. He was immersed into Babylonian culture (Dan 1:4) and took the assignment on with some gusto. Of course, he did need to take a stand for righteousness, but he did this by resolving  not to defile himself with the literal consumables he was given; he did not seem to fear the cultural produce he would have been filling his mind with every day.

In Daniel’s footsteps, we must learn the language and literature (and music and film and theatre and visual aesthetic) of our culture. As someone who leads a Christian art network, I’m particularly interested in how we apply this by subverting these norms into high quality, culturally incisive art that can speak back into the culture, however, this can be applied much more broadly to all who want to understand the state of play around us and communicate meaningfully to those outside the church.

In conclusion, I’m not sure exactly how we tie all of these threads together, but I’m convinced that we need to. We have to learn to value what is good and be careful in how we nurture righteousness in our thoughts, words and deeds, but at the same time, we must become more robust, so that we can stomach what Babylon feeds us- in virtually all its forms, artistic or academic- and use it to overthrow, or even better redeem, that horrific city.

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The Grandmaster

There’s a bunch of critically acclaimed films that have gone under many of our radars. In response I have started gathering a few friends together to watch some of these movies with me and then spend time afterwards arguing whether they merit the praise. The ensuing arguments will then be fed into reviews. To kick things off, Wong Kai Wai’s ‘The Grandmaster’.

The Grandmaster

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Genre: Martial arts drama set in the early 20th century

Released: 2013

Certificate: 15

Starring: Tony Leung & Zhang Ziyi


film review

Rating system: This is my own little rating system:  I consider 3 aspects of the film. Firstly the script, secondly the whole production and finally how strongly the film impacted me and provoked powerful ideas and intense conversation. In each category I give marks out of 10.

‘The Grandmaster’ has some things you’d expect from a kung-fu film including a final battle against an honourless villain, and some things you’d expect from a Wong Kar Wai film, namely an artful and quietly tragic love story. But what happens when these two genres collide?

Well, the mixture of styles and moods make for an odd but palatable film. ‘The Grandmaster’ has all of Wong Kar Wai’s signature quirks: melodramatic music, carefully placed visual poetry, ripples of regret and great cigarette smoking.

The fight scenes are stunning, but Wong Kar Wai seems averse to making a super-slick film –– some shots change speed (on purpose) midway through gradually becoming flickery. He chucks a pale blue, solarizing effect on some of the shots, which I can’t remember ever seeing before in a feature film, because it’s just weirdly unrealistic.

Thematically the film mourns the loss of ancient Chinese traditions and wisdom. There are some cracking quotes in it:

“Kung fu – two words – one horizontal, one vertical. If you’re wrong, you’ll be left lying down. If you’re right, you’re left standing.”

Repeatedly ‘The Grandmaster’ asks the viewer to consider what a well-lived life in tumultuous times might look like.

What I probably liked most about the film was that I only realized its pivotal scene, a beautifully choreographed battle, WAS the pivotal scene until much later. As the narrative progresses the two fighters evidently reminisce over that encounter, deftly coaxing me into their sorrowful nostalgia.

Yes, it’s an introspective kung fu flick about honour, regret, revenge and loss.


Your chance to respond:

Have you seen The Grandmaster? Or other Wong Kar Wai films like Chung King Express? What do you make of them?

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The Quickener- A Review

Hip hop has a very divisive position in our cultural consciousness. For some it is a force for good, for others, for ill. Some talk of it with an almost holy reverence, others dismiss it as childish and creatively backward. Whatever side of the fence you are on, though, it has become clear that it can no longer be dismissed as a novelty or a passing fad. By many measures, hip hop is the foremost genre in popular music worldwide today; it is an enormous cultural presence in our society with tremendous influence.

And, what’s more, this take over has taken a mere 35 years. It is this fact, maybe more than any other that reveals that, whatever your opinion of Run DMC, Jay-Z or Odd Future, there is a creative energy at the heart of this movement that is worth attention and respect.

In the late 70s, in a reasonably deprived area of New York, young black men and women with little access to the musical gateways of their day, literally started
a revolution. As the first DJs would hijack electricity from street lights to power the block parties from which hip hop was born, hip hop’s pioneers borrowed freely from musical styles and lyrical traditions to shape a new force in world music. This explosion may be hard for the uninitiated to discern from perusing the early releases of JVC Force or Roxanne Shante, but it is much clearer when taking a step back and witnessing the wider fall out. Musical technology suddenly leapt forward as modern prototypes of today’s DJ mixers and samplers appeared. Hip hop music instantly spawned (or at least redefined) innovations in almost every field of art- in the visual arts (graffiti), in dance (b-boying and breakdancing), beat-boxing, fashion, and on and on.
Hip hop at its essence is all about unbridled creativity; magpie-ing all that glitters in the near vicinity and creating something new and fresh.

This is why ‘The Quickener’, Joel Wilson’s debut film, billed as a medieval rap thriller, is not a rogue offering on the far left field of this strange cultural movement. It is hip hop.

On Saturday 21st September, I attended the premiere of Joel’s film at the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I knew the concept (set in Britain in the time of the Great Plague, something to do with a gargoyle, all dialogue rapped) but I still couldn’t see how (or if) it would work. Some had imagined it would be something like Martin Lawrence’s ‘Black Knight’- a transportation of black street culture into a world full of castles and banquets. I knew it wouldn’t be that. I was imagining something closer to a more monotone Les Mis.

Thankfully, what I witnessed was stylistically much more subtle. For the most part, the actors rapped in an almost freeform style, using authentic medieval vocabulary, while Pete Yelding’s excellent soundtrack settled inconspicuously into the background. Then, every now and again, organic percussion would drift into the mix and the delivery would become just slightly more syncopated. Suddenly rappers were exchanging lines back and forth to carry forward the plot, but then, almost before you noticed, it was back as you were, and you were almost watching a Shakespeare play. This worked brilliantly, drawing out the strength of rap as a style of communication, while dispensing of so many of its distractions.

This is not all that was positive about the film either. Far from it. It was beautifully shot throughout, with the feel of a superior BBC drama, the plot co
ntained a healthy mixture of logic and mystery, and the script was at times mesmeric in its poetry while clear enough to make sure the audience knew what was going on. All sorts of cheeky nods to classic rap groups and anthems kept the 90s hip hop geeks with a smile on their faces too.

It wasn’t perfect, but then again it was never going to be. Joel raised the entire finance and crew for this project from his own personal networks and though all involved acquitted themselves ably, a larger budget and an Adrien Brody/Black Thought hybrid at the centre of the piece would have been a bonus (obviously). The 30 minute running time was also an unavoidable drawback. It would have been great to allow the characters a bit more room to breathe and the plot a bit more time to marinate. But then again, this would have meant that it would not have fitted into any short film festival slot, so less people would see it. Joel, please take this as a plea for an extended DVD version.

Lets face it, this was a ridiculously ambitious debut. People who want to get into film making start with clever but obvious narratives and sparse screenplays set in minimal locations, with two or three main actors. The Quickener aimed to take us back 700 years to muse over enigmatic, deeply spiritual themes, while all the lines were delivered in a style many people still think only works if you have your baseball cap on backwards.

But that is the spirit of hip hop. Trying things that have simply never been done before. Like when Kool Herc started to repeat breaks on old disco records or Grand Wizzard Theodore ‘scratched’ a record back and forth for the first time. Yes, they stood on the shoulders of other artists, but with these semi-plagiarised scraps, they truly created something new, bold and inspiring. The Quickener does exactly the same.

I’ll be very interested to see what this truly unique piece of art triggers into existence over the next 35 years.

The Quickener is now available to stream free of charge here: