Note: A review copy of this film was provided to me in exchange for a review. I thank especially the film’s executive producer, Bryan Storkel, for working to make sure I received this documentary, since I asked for it such a long time ago. In addition, you can check out the film’s website here.
There is no easy way to sum up the issues that naturally arise in a film about a pair of arsonists who target churches, starting with the church they grew up in.
We’ll start with the merits of the documentary. The easiest way to sum up the film’s credentials is to say this: you wouldn’t be wasting your time, by any means, if you decided to give this a watch. The narrative is well crafted without feeling contrived–no easy task in a documentary, confined on the sides by reality and compelling rhetorical tricks. The story is not so well known that you’ll feel like you know the ending (unless you’re from east Texas, I imagine), but also not so localized that it feels as though it is making a mountain out of a molehill.
Mild spoilers to follow.
The tale is heartbreaking, and is told with increasingly painful revelations: first the church is burned, then you discover it might just be arson, then you learn who may be guilty. The film captures a wide range of reactions to the fires: some demand justice, others offer forgiveness, and many sit somewhere in the middle. A few have trouble admitting the guilt of their loved ones, and others act to help bring the guilty to justice.
This variety of viewpoints is precisely why talking about the issues in the film is no easy task.
One puzzling issue has to do with one of the arsonists. In every interview he is featured in, he has trouble admitting his own guilt. But the particular way in which he talks about his guilt is peculiar. At the time of the crimes–both the particular moment of the crime, and at the time in the young man’s life–he was on some number of drugs. Some were prescribed, and some were illegal (there is one explicit reference to marijuana, but there is an implication that other drugs may have been involved). When asked whether or not he was guilty, his response amounted to an inability to deny the evidence against him. In other words, he wouldn’t declare guilt, nor would he absolve himself. In his drug-induced stupor, he couldn’t tell if his actions were real. He doesn’t fight his sentence, so far as we can tell, but he certainly thinks he deserves parole, since he wasn’t acting in a way that had a real motive.
While legally it seems he did have intent (I’m not a lawyer, but the action wasn’t ‘accidental,’ as if a stray cigarette were carelessly tossed), the moral status of his intent is a little trickier to work out. Presumably he chose to take the mind-altering drugs, especially the illegal ones. Does his decision to do something that places him in a compromised state of mind impart an ethical ‘decision-made’ status onto his inebriated actions? Is a drunk driver as responsible for his or her actions as a sober one?
Another–and, to me, trickier–issue is that of retribution. Some of the church members reacted rather well. One pastor even showed up to the sentencing, not only to forgive, but to ask for forgiveness. In what struck me as the most powerful moment of the film, the pastor addresses the two young men, just sentenced to multiple concurrent life sentences. He began by saying he came to offer hope, and I worried he would offer an empty platitude about how the church had forgiven him. Instead, he asks forgiveness. There is a sense in which this could still be fairly safe, since the boys are not likely (if it is even possible) to get out of prison. But the pastor seemed earnest, and did offer forgiveness. I hope he continues to visit them (provided either of them have any wish at all to see him).
But not everyone reacted so well. One woman says that forgiveness is a process, and that shows throughout. Some church members admitted that they were not at a place of forgiveness yet, but others spoke more harshly. “God will forgive them, we know, but I know I can’t.” The sentiment is understandable; a total of ten churches were burned down in a forty mile radius. This is small town Texas–they self-describe their part of the world as the Bible belt buckle. Their church buildings mean a lot to them, but strong opposition in the form of what must have felt like home-grown terrorism has to be devastating. I wouldn’t venture to say I could react with more grace, despite what I believe is our calling.
All in all, the film is a well told drama. You’ll squirm a little, you’ll gasp, and you’ll come away with some strange mixture of compassion and a desire for justice. The controversy is subtle, and takes place in a way that feels authentic, rather than with the sneaking suspicion that the director has an axe to grind.