A little while back, I gave some thoughts on a fascinating documentary about card-counting Christians. I’m still a bit perplexed about the whole issue, but I love the dialogue it forces us to have. Well, I got to ask the director of the film, Bryan Storkel, a few questions about his work and even his thoughts on the issues presented. He was gracious enough to respond in kind, and didn’t even plug his next work, which he is currently filming.
Holy Rollers was your first documentary, as far as directing goes; why choose card counting Christians? I mean, this is a fascinating topic (all of my roommates felt the need to join me, for at least portions of the DVD), but how did you come to hear about it?
Bryan: I’m glad you found it fascinating. I was immediately drawn to the topic myself. I grew up in a Christian home and I was taught that gambling was wrong. I wasn’t even allowed to have playing cards. Once, we went to a relative’s house and I found a deck of cards. They were immediately confiscated. I guess in general, we are drawn to the forbidden. And that is what drew me to the topic. It wasn’t that I still clung to my childhood teachings of cards being sinful. But rather, it was the thought that many people do still cling to those things. There are things we were taught all our lives and we just go along with them. We never ask why or stop to examine the reason behind the action. It’s often easier to accept these things than to think about them. There are a lot of these types of things that are purely empty traditions.
How do you approach filming something that is so filled with faith-language? It seems like some of the discussions in this documentary would be really polarizing outside of the Christian community, and at times inside of it; how do you present things like “the Holy Spirit told me this” without seeming fake or immediately deranged?
Bryan: I think the best way to approach these things is to be real. I don’t personally think there was an excess amount of “faith-language” or “Christian-ese” in the film, but if people talk in a certain way, I want to portray it accurately. My ultimate goal with this film was to show a group of guys who were living out their Christian faith in a very non-traditional way. That means showing their faults as well. I didn’t want to pretend like they were perfect heroes. I think Christians seem fake at times because they are trying to cover things up and pretending to be perfect. There are scenes that people will disagree with in the film. But, some of the characters in the film will disagree with these things as well. I tried to show that even the card counting Christians didn’t have all the answers. Even at the end of their careers, they were questioning whether or not this was something they should be doing. And sometimes they couldn’t come up with an answer to all the questions. I think that’s okay to say “I don’t know” and continue searching for the truth. It’s much better than pretending you have all the answers.
Are you a believer? Is this a critique/question from inside the Church, so to speak, or from without?
Bryan: I am a Christian. While I did want to bring up the question of whether or not Christians should be gambling, that isn’t the point of the film. This isn’t so much a critique on the actions of the card counting Christians, but rather, it’s an intimate portrayal of their lives. I love to tell fascinating, entertaining stories and when I heard about this group, the Church Team, I just knew I had to make a film about it. I don’t think a documentary needs to have a “Michael Moore” style point to it. I don’t think it’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to tell the audience what to believe. I think my job is to entertain and educate about a little-known topic; to tell a balanced story by presenting all sides accurately. I want to let the audience come to a conclusion on their own. I want them to leave the theater talking about the film and to still be thinking about it hours later. A lot of people have had that response to Holy Rollers, which is great!
What’s the takeaway from this film, in your opinion? Do you want people to be asking questions about gambling, about ethics, or simply about how a Christian should live in today’s weird world?
Bryan: I kind of touched on this in the previous questions, but I’ll sum it all up here. I don’t really care what people think about gambling. I’m not a fan of it, but I think it’s okay in moderation and for entertainment purposes. That isn’t the point of the film. I want people to see gambling and many other issues in a new light. Maybe someone always thought of gambling as a sin and now they will think differently. But I want it to go further than that. I want people to re-examine other areas of their life as well. Like I said before, I think a lot of things in our lives may be empty traditions. We should constantly step back and ask why we do things and make sure they line up with the Bible and not just with tradition.
What do you think, personally, of the ethics of what these guys are doing? Would you participate in something like this? Would you recommend this to someone, if you thought they had the skills to do it?
Bryan: I’ll say this. I don’t think there was anything wrong with the basic principles of what they were doing. I actually trained and did it myself. You are basically doing math and playing a game. It’s not against the casino rules. Call any casino and they will tell you that. They can kick you out because it’s private property and they have their rights.
I will say that there were other areas (as with any job) that one could operate in an un-ethical or sinful way. Stuff happened. Team members lied. They stole. They cheated. Again, these kinds of things can happen in other professions as well and I don’t think there are any strong Biblical arguments against card counting in and of itself.
Aside from the morality of it, it’s a very hard job. It’s not glamorous and it takes a lot of work. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it. For me, it was a lot of stress and I soon found out I could make just as much money working other jobs without the fear of being taken to a back room against my will. Working as a blackjack player makes your new boss in the corporate world seem pretty un-intimidating.
Thanks to Bryan for taking the time to answer some questions. Check out Holy Rollers here, and keep an eye out for his next project, Fight Church.