Reports from Tribeca 2018, Part 4

Brian Cress reflects on VR short film “The Hidden” in part 4 of the series.

This is Part 4 in a series of posts from members of the All Angels’ community who participated in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Check out Part 1 for the series overview and Bryan Brown’s opening reflection on the film Blowin’ Up.


Brian Cress & The Hidden

Have you ever seen a VR film?

The better question may be, What is a VR film? Well, “VR” stands for Virtual Reality. Maybe you’ve seen commercials with people wearing what look like a huge set of goggles with a smartphone attached to the front. These devices allow you to watch a film, spin around, look up and down, and find yourself in the very middle of the action. It’s immersive and interactive, like real life. Hence the term “Virtual Reality”. VR has come a long way in the last several years, from gimmicky novelty flicks to the serious storytelling we’d expect to find at world-class film festivals like Tribeca and others.

Seth Little and I headed down to the Tribeca Virtual Arcade, donned our VR headsets and sat ourselves down in comfortable swivel chairs, allowing us to spin around 360-degrees to maximize the VR experience. We saw three short films presented as a group in Cinema360: VR FOR GOOD, but for this review I’ll only focus on one for both personal and professional reasons.

Brian Cress - Cinema 360
Brian wearing the VR headset in the Tribeca Virtual Arcade

The Hidden follows Indian government officials, supported by International Justice Mission (IJM), as they carry out a daring raid to free a family living in slavery. We learn that there are currently more people living in slavery than at any other time in human history. This family has been enslaved in a rock quarry in southern India for 10 years—over a paltry debt of $70 USD. We see the family’s tiny home and listen in as one of their children is asked about schooling. The little girl responds that the quarry owner would not allow her to go to school and instead put her to work in the quarry. Their captor, the quarry owner, is confronted and arrested, and the family is evacuated to safety and freedom.

The story alone was compelling and the 360 filmography was very well done. It really felt like we were in on this daring raid with IJM and the Indian government officials. The film came across as real because it was real. The VR format lent a heightened sense of connection to the experience, but the subjects of the film really, truly experienced slavery…and rescue.

VR, cinema, film, good,
The Cinema 360 theater at the Tribeca Festival Hub on Varick Street

And now for some disclosure. I work for IJM and remember when the film crew was in India. We prayed daily as a staff for the filming and celebrated when we heard the raid was successful and that the film crew was able to capture it. More personally, I have traveled to India and visited rock quarries and met rescued slaves just like the family rescued in the film. I remember one rescued slave sharing with me how they had cried out to God to be rescued. It was the God of IJM who heard their cries and whom they want to follow now. This is Isaiah 1:17 being lived out: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

It is great to see God’s passion for justice presented in a new, exciting, compelling way through VR storytelling, opening a door for those who may never set foot in a church to experience God’s desire for freedom for the oppressed and to envisage their own role in the global work for justice.

Brian Cress
For more information about IJM go to www.IJM.org.

Brian Cress is Director of Denomination and Youth Mobilization for International Justice Mission and a member of the All Angels’ community along with his wife Lori. He bears the distinction of being our only participant to have a direct connection to a film in this year’s festival.

Reports from Tribeca 2018, Part 3

This is Part 3 in a series of posts from members of the All Angels’ community who participated in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Check out Part 1 for the series overview and Bryan Brown’s opening reflection on the film Blowin’ Up.


Trevor St. John-Gilbert & “Tanzania Transit”

Trevor St. John-Gilbert is a professional actor and part-time staff youth leader here at All Angels’. He attended a screening of “Tanzania Transit” on Monday, April 23.

What was the movie about?

Tanzania Transit is a documentary by Jeroen Van Velzen that depicts life aboard a train in Tanzania. Specifically, we follow three story lines throughout the hour-long documentary. The first depicts a Masaai grandfather and grandson who are traveling back to their village. The second, a woman who is hoping to start a new life. The third, a preacher who is planting churches across Tanzania.

How did you like it?

I really enjoyed the movie. I don’t typically watch documentaries, so this wasn’t a movie I’d have gone out of my way to see. That said, I’m very glad I did. It was fascinating to see the cultural differences between us. Their culture is very religious, and they are much more open to spiritual topics and conversation than Americans. It was surprising for instance to see how the preacher was able to open up conversations with relative ease. The other thing that surprised me was the moment the train runs over a cow. Everyone hops off the train and is celebrating because food has been provided for them. They make a fire and cook it up right there! In America there’s no way a train runs over anything and we’re happy to eat it.

What do you think the filmmakers are saying with this film?

To be honest, I’m not so sure they were trying to say anything with this film. The director was there for a Q and A afterwards and it really seemed that his desire was to tell these people’s stories. It was very much up to you to interpret the stories how you wanted to interpret them. There really seemed to be no bias in the film itself. For instance, the director thought the preacher was very manipulative, but that wasn’t what I thought at all from watching the movie. It was interesting to see that the director’s opinions of people weren’t seeping through. He honestly just shot footage and put it together for us to see, then to draw our own conclusions.

As far as how the movie connects to the world, I think specifically Americans will be appalled at the treatment of women. I think it shows that even though we’ve made progress in equal treatment here in America that there is still so far to go. Hearing a woman’s story of being married off at 14 to a man who she doesn’t know and then essentially being raped just makes you furious.

It’s also a reminder of the gap in wealth. It’s clear and easy to see it when you’re on the outside, for instance when you watch this movie. But it reminded me that it’s harder for me to see when I’m on the subway. How do I treat those with less? Am I caring for the poor and needy and the oppressed?

How should Christians respond to this film?

For me there were a couple things that really hit home. One was the stories of broken people. On the train you saw racism between tribes, you heard stories of sexual harassment and abuse, you witnessed people treating one another in sub-human ways. You also saw pockets of beauty and courage and hope. It’s a reminder that we’re all human, we all have stories, dreams, and desires. We also all struggle with sin and need help, need a Savior. Specifically, it was a reminder to me and a challenge to remain open to what God is asking of me. Seeing people’s humanity, seeing everyone as a person is really tough sometimes but so worth it when you do.

The other was watching this preacher. It was interesting to watch him because basically he would walk up and down the cars praying for people and selling his book. The things he was saying seemed mostly to line up with scripture and Jesus, but you did question his motives at times. He didn’t seem that humble, but I wondered how much of that is a cultural difference.  Watching him made me ask myself what are the things that I do that make people wonder if my faith is genuine. It also made me pause and wonder how much time I spend worrying about other people’s faith versus just following Jesus myself.

How was the experience overall?

Overall it was an amazing experience! I so enjoyed going down to Chelsea to see the move at such a nice theatre. It was also and premiere with the director, so it was really cool to hear him talk about the film. It made the whole experience way more real. This was my first time at the Tribeca Film Festival and it definitely left me feeling more connected to New York and to film scene here!

Reports from Tribeca 2018, Part 2

This is Part 2 in a series of posts from members of the All Angels’ community who participated in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Check out Part 1 for the series overview and Bryan Brown’s opening reflection on the film Blowin’ Up.


Ariana Miller & Blowin’ Up

Blowin’ Up is a documentary that embodies the verse “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)  It introduces the viewer to a Queens-based trial-diversion program which offers women charged with prostitution and human-trafficking-related crimes the opportunity to avoid trial and have their charges dismissed if they participate in a program designed to help women reflect on their experiences and create an alternative life for themselves.
Being arrested, charged, and brought before a judge is rightly an intimidating and anxiety-invoking prospect.  But rather than fear of judgment, the documentary represents the redemptive potential of the law in drawing a line defining what society will not tolerate, the purpose not being to condemn, but to present individuals with the option to choose a better path and providing a guide along that path.
The absence of the men profiting from and taking advantage of the exploitation of these women forms a palpable void in the film and the courtroom it observes.  Yet women who found themselves in complicated personal situations marked by desperation which were also exacerbated by their exploitation often seemed resistant to characterizing themselves as victims.   One who turned to prostitution to help a jailed boyfriend confessed, “I don’t believe I was human trafficked.  I chose to do that.”  Another who had paid a large sum to immigrate from China to escape oppressive debt asked herself, “I had been in bad situations before and I never did that.  Why do it now?”
Their advocates, rather than manipulating such admissions to induce guilt or shame, probe that emotional awareness to help the women find their deeper, more life-affirming desires.  And not far beneath the surface, lie yearnings so simple and sweet that the viewer cannot help but see girlish innocence.  Asked where she wanted to be a year from now, one young woman shyly admitted, “I want to be a housewife and have a kid.  Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
The trouble, though, was that, regardless of the situations that led to prostitution, once they had entered into it, they found themselves trapped, threatened, and subjected to violence.  What seemed like a means to an end quickly became a prison.
Despite the unfairness of women being targeted by law enforcement while their exploiters often remained free, most of the women, had they not been arrested, would have remained vulnerable to those exploiting them.   Some had recently arrived to the country, spoke little English and so could easily be kept on the margins of society, unknown, unseen and uncared for.  For those who know their cities well, a web of entanglements make it difficult to extricate oneself.  Providing the title of the film, one woman emphasized how hard it is to “blow up,” meaning to cut ties on one’s own and leave “the life” behind.
And so, the ability to summon these women before the law provides the opportunity for society to bring them out of the shadows, from the dark alleyways and dim parlors to the sometimes harsh light of an open courtroom where they are seen and heard, supported and even celebrated for choosing goodness.  In Blowin’ Up, we are presented with a picture of how law and grace work not in contradiction to one another, but rather in coordination with one another.  We see that compassion can come through accountability.  And at a time when stories abound of law enforcement and the judicial system being used to undermine lives, this film provides a look at what we might aspire to.

Ariana Miller is a parishioner and vestry member at All Angels’ and an attorney by vocation. She attended a screening of Blowin’ Up with fellow parishioners Bryan Brown and Elam Lantz on Saturday, April 21, the first screening in our lineup.