If you’ve ever been to Texas, you may have noticed the Jesus fish symbols on billboards used (presumably) to alert viewers that the company is Christian owned, or that it only takes a few minutes on the road to realize that there is almost literally a church on every corner.
In the Bible Belt, conservative Protestant Christianity is a significant part of the culture at large, and in some ways Little Hope Was Arson, a new documentary directed by Theo Love, is a snapshot of this cultural mashup hung over the backdrop of a mystery that, at least for the first half hour or so, feels not unlike a suspense drama. It tells the story of ten churches in East Texas (or the “belt buckle of the Bible Belt,” as one interviewee calls it) that burned down at the hands of arsonists in 2010. The filmmakers make the narrative choice to withhold certain information about the burnings up front (like who set the fires), letting the audience experience the drama as it unfolds. They add some shots to bolster the storytelling, recreating the eerie feel of the events and establishing the film’s tone: a lone car driving down a dark country road; a shot of someone flicking open a lighter in the foreground with a bright white steeple illumined in the background. The’s a stirring montage early on of news clips and images of the various churches burning, intermixed with wide, sweeping shots of the churches in the dark, all underscored by the creepy indie rock track “Virgin” by Manchester Orchestra. The cinematography in general is lovely and largely understated, making the film visually pleasant.
When it comes to documentaries, different filmmakers have different goals. In Little Hope, the filmmakers seem less interested in making an argument and more interested in simply telling a story. It is a dark and tragic story, and only grows more so as the film progresses. We learn about the arsonists, nineteen-year-old Jason Bourque and twenty-one-year-old Daniel McAllister, and their difficult pasts. Jason was born to drug-addicted parents and raised primarily by his grandparents, and he later got involved with drugs himself and was expelled from college; Daniel’s mother died of a stroke and his father subsequently attempted suicide. Both men became disillusioned with Christianity and God as they grew up. Over the course of the film, we meet various characters who help fill in the story: family and community members, law enforcement and ATF officials, pastors and churchgoers. The filmmakers draw out a lot of emotion and then just let it sit on screen without comment, which is a powerful technique because it gives the audience space to sit with it, too. And there are fantastic characters to move us through the narrative, such as Daniel’s father David, a tall, lanky man with a wide, toothless grin.
The theme of forgiveness is strong in the film, and it seems to prompt several questions: what does forgiveness look like? Who deserves forgiveness? How are we to forgive people who have harmed us deeply? These seem to be the questions that the members of the burned churches are left struggling with, and rather than offering direct answers, the film leaves the audience to struggle with them, too. We are given a few options to consider, such as the former Texas judge who, among many others in the film, says that while he believes God will forgive the men, “we won’t;” the churchgoer who says forgiveness “is a process,” one that she clearly has not completed yet; the pastor who asks for Jason and Daniel’s forgiveness if his church failed them in any way; or the men’s former Sunday School teacher, who, feeling like he could have helped them more, “resigned” from church and now drives across Texas, seeking the lost.
There’s also a discussion of hypocrisy, and the noticeable irony of so many Christians in the film admitting that they cannot forgive Jason and Daniel. Jason himself articulates this tension toward the end of the film, criticizing the “uppity-ness” of wealthy churches who snub people they consider lower than them and are not as forgiving as they claim to be.
The filmmakers successfully present the tensions and tragic circumstances of this story empathetically, without passing judgment, and I know this because as a viewer, I am not persuaded to pass judgment. Watch the film for yourself and see if you agree, but I suspect that, like me, you will be moved by this story of loss, humanity, faith, and doubt, and the film will leave you turning it over in your head for some time afterwards.