Virginia’s Calling

Virginia’s Calling might well take over the spot for the most obscure film I have written about so far. It has never had a theatrical release. It is available to watch online, and has been screened for various private groups, mostly of evangelical Christians.

In its way it is an unusually easy and an unusually difficult film for me to write about—both for the same reason, which is that I have such a high level of familiarity with it.

Because the filmmaker is a good friend of mine, I was a sort of informal advisor throughout the making of the film. I discussed the film in detail with him on many occasions, watched numerous drafts, provided detailed feedback, made suggestions, etc. I watched him raise this child from birth, and I contributed some modest amount to that raising.

So that means I know this film better than the vast majority of films I’ve written about. But the downside of having seen it over and over in its various incarnations is that that level of familiarity and repetition dulls the emotional impact and makes it harder to put myself in the shoes of someone for whom this material is fresh. Also, because I’ve seen so many different drafts, some of the impressions I have of it in my mind that I’m inclined to comment on might be based on elements that aren’t even in the final version (insofar as there is a “final” version; I don’t know but that some further changes might be made at some point).

Let me start with a brief history of the film project.

Barry Lyons, an academic—anthropologist specifically—has long been keenly interested in climate change, convinced that it is an existential threat that is not being addressed appropriately. He has become especially interested in a certain niche issue in the politics of climate change, which is the question of whether and how Evangelical Christians—who of course are disproportionately right wing, Republican, Trumpist, etc. in their politics—could be persuaded to join the side of those seeking policies that will lessen human-caused climate change.

On the surface that seems a futile quest. Frankly, when you dig a little deeper it still seems a futile quest, trying to win those folks over to the liberal side of any issue.

Then again, it’s not like all the Evangelical Christians in the country or the world are going to take an up or down vote on climate change, and all that matters is if you can get 50% plus one to opt for the liberal side. Progress is progress, and if the percentage of Evangelicals willing to accept an anti-fossil fuels approach to climate change policy and to vote accordingly could be increased from whatever it is now (from 14% to 17%, from 26% to 31%—I don’t know), well, every little bit counts.

Yes, on the whole it’s one of the least promising groups to try to reach—like targeting African Americans in your struggle to preserve Confederate Civil War monuments—but I believe his position is that it’s the people on the opposite side of an issue that it’s most important to address. Preaching to the converted gives you a much more receptive audience, but what do you really gain if they like what you have to say? They were already on your side.

Lyons is used to primarily expressing himself through the written word, but a few years ago he developed an interest in filmmaking. He had only the slightest training or experience with film when he commenced this project, but he put together a team of people with a more significant film background than his, and he set out to create something that would appeal to Evangelicals.

The initial plan, if I remember it correctly, was to create a documentary about people around the world who were already dealing with devastating climate change—rising sea level, changing weather patterns, etc. threatening their homes and livelihoods. But specifically people who are Evangelicals or who would be most sympathetic to an Evangelical audience, who would frame the climate change issue as one of stewardship of the Earth or “Creation Care,” and who would send the message that not only is environmentalism not contrary to Evangelical faith, it is obligatory because it means honoring and safeguarding the gift of a livable Earth that God has given to us.

I mean, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s hopeless, as it’s still a matter of getting people who revere Trump as a near deity to side with a bunch of primarily non-white foreigners whining about an issue that viewers have long since been convinced is a conspiracy of anti-American, anti-capitalist liberal liars. It’s hard to imagine making any headway with that crowd, but that’s the goal anyway, to get Evangelicals to switch over to the side of the climate change activists.

Over the course of months that turned into many years, plans were drawn up, budgets created, people hired, volunteers recruited, interviews filmed, etc. Predictably, as much time and attention had to be devoted to fundraising as anything.

Since he and his team were largely making this up as they went along, plans were constantly changing and the intended final product was altered many times.

Initially it was to be a feature-length documentary where we got to know three, four, five, six, whatever, different individuals and communities in far-flung parts of the globe, from inhabitants of islands in the Marshall Islands that may soon cease to exist due to the rising ocean, to farmers in Ecuador who fear they will be unable to subsist the way they have for centuries because the bizarre and unpredictable weather no longer supports their traditional crops, to coastal military bases in the U.S. that the Defense Department recognizes cannot avoid being flooded out if climate change isn’t addressed in time, making climate change a clear cut national security issue, to possibly a few others.

This proved to be such an intimidatingly mammoth undertaking (imagine the logistics and expense taking a film crew to the Marshall Islands would have been) that soon enough the idea was instead to make one “chapter” at a time and release it as a short film, to garner attention and more money, and only in the much longer term future to combine them all into the final documentary.

Then the idea of the feature-length documentary seemed to get relegated to the back burner, and it became likely that the stories that started as short films would likely remain as such permanently.

Then the multiple short films kind of became one short film. Not that it has been completely ruled out that the project will continue beyond that, but really making one decent quality short film turned out to be plenty ambitious enough. Just bringing this one standalone short film to fruition was an exhausting and impressive accomplishment; I’m not holding my breath that there will be more.

So, the end result of it all was Virginia’s Calling, the story of an Evangelical Christian, politically conservative, woman named Virginia who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (Early on, there had been talk of titling the film something like Virginia Cubed or Virginia3.)

Virginia and her family went through a devastating flood in Virginia Beach. Flood waters destroyed not only possessions of significant monetary value, but items that were priceless in their emotional meaning.

In the lead up to and during the catastrophe she insistently clung to her faith. Whatever the media are saying, whatever the weather forecasters are saying, it’ll never turn out bad like that because God will protect us. Religion as the ultimate insurance plan.

By the way, isn’t that theologically incredibly unsophisticated? I mean, isn’t it obvious that bad things happen to good people and to specifically devout fundamentalist Christian people all the time, and isn’t it sort of grade school level Christianity to claim that that does not in the slightest constitute evidence against their religion? I mean, what about Job and all that? Faith and prayer aren’t supposed to protect you from pain and difficulty in life; they’re supposed to make you better able to accept the pain and difficulty in your life as manifestations of God’s inscrutable will.

But Virginia thought being a devout believer gave her ironclad protection against misfortune, and when that turned out not to be the case, she suffered a crisis of faith. In her perception, God had abandoned her, and she didn’t understand why. Devastated, she fell into a depression and even came close to suicide.

Ultimately, though, she decided that what God wanted from her was not to give up, but to fight for herself and her family. Because of the terrible experience she had gone through, flooding was the issue of greatest emotional importance to her, and so she became a local activist raising awareness and pressuring local officials to take action against the threat of future flooding.

The specifics of her activism are left rather vague. Climate change is barely even mentioned until quite late in the film. (Clearly a strategic decision. The idea is to downplay if not hide that this is a climate change film for as long as possible until the Evangelical audience is hooked on an emotional level by Virginia’s story.) But it seems like she’s talking about local flood mitigation policies of some kind.

That’s in keeping with the “Think globally, act locally” philosophy, but does that really make sense with the issue of climate change? Are building codes and sand bags or whatever in Virginia Beach going to somehow slow down the catastrophic heating of the planet? Isn’t this an issue on which we need to act nationally, and internationally, rather than locally? To vote for precisely the opposite kind of candidates for President and Congress than Virginia and her ilk no doubt vote for, to change economic, regulatory, and taxation policies drastically to counter the massive power of fossil fuel companies, to radically change lifestyles in a greener direction, etc.?

Well, baby steps I suppose. Virginia’s not exactly Greta Thunberg, but by the end of the film she seems to be someone who doesn’t automatically hate all liberals and liberal ideas, or dismiss climate change as a hoax. If you could get an Evangelical audience to come along even that far, that’s an accomplishment in itself.

The film ends with Virginia’s insistence that faith remains key, that we need to have faith that if we need a new power source rather than fossil fuels that God will surely provide it, because “he always has and he always will” provide us whatever we need to flourish. Which you could say shows she still doesn’t get it, that she still thinks getting your ducks in a row theologically will be rewarded with earthly success, just like being a devout member of the correct Christian sect was supposed to keep her house from flooding. But, again, I guess if the film influences Evangelicals to emulate her, if they are willing to accept a move away from fossil fuels as consistent with God’s will for whatever reason, then it will have served its purpose.

There are elements of her story that are emotionally compelling, though as I mentioned for me their force has been dulled somewhat due to overfamiliarity. But, for instance, I like her brother, and the way he speaks of her and her strong will in his interview.

In the end, will the film in fact sway Evangelical audiences toward the filmmaker’s side on climate change? My guess is it’ll do very little in that regard, simply because conservative Evangelical climate change deniers would never watch a pro-climate change film, regardless of how soft the sell is.

My understanding is that the folks who have shown interest in it thus far for screenings and such have been liberal Evangelicals who were already believers in climate change. (That’s not an oxymoron. They’re a minority within the Evangelical movement in this country, but they’re not a tiny minority. Younger Evangelicals especially are not uncommonly liberal on certain issues, including climate change.)

So it’s preaching to the converted after all. But that doesn’t have to be a dead end. If you can inspire liberal Evangelicals who were already on your side on climate change to maybe weigh that issue a little higher and to act in ways consistent with being on that side of the issue more than they do already, that may be the best you can hope for with a film like this. I don’t think you were ever going to snare people who think environmentalists are literally in league with Satan.

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