[Christianity Today Movies; Aug 25, 2011]
Here’s what happens. You prepare for a phone interview with an actor or director by thinking up a list of questions. Really, you only need one or two good ones, and the conversation takes care of itself.
But the person being interviewed has a different perspective. There are certain points they want to get across, regardless of which questions you ask. They may have been reiterating these same points into different microphones a dozen times a day for many days.
In this case, I wanted to ask Vera Farmiga, director and star of Higher Ground, about the portrayal of the church community in the film. It’s more affectionate and positive than the stereotypes we often see; it’s notably more positive even than the presentation of this community in the book that preceded the movie. In response to an audience question at Sundance, Farmiga said that she had earlier spent three years with the project and then backed off, because she didn’t feel right about the way the community was being depicted. I wanted to hear more about that.
Vera, however, wanted to talk about the inherent struggle that accompanies a search for God; she sees the film as being an honest representation of the experience shared by adherents of any and every kind of faith, everyone who knows those “I won’t let go until you bless me” moments. Here’s how our conversation went.
Whenever evangelical Christians hear there’s a movie coming out that includes a depiction of evangelical Christians, they get nervous, because it is so often negative.
Understandably so. I get it. I understand that defensiveness or fear.
The memoir that preceded the movie, This Dark World, depicted a church that many evangelicals would consider oppressive or cultish, and they worry that people might think it depicts evangelicals everywhere. Higher Ground is not like that, though. It’s a more positive presentation. Was that a deliberate decision?
Absolutely. You know, it’s not even a positive or negative portrayal; I’m not skewing it either direction. I’m just showing a legitimate struggle — the struggle to find intimacy in our relationships with God. It takes an enormous amount of courage to say “I’m struggling” and to find your voice. That honesty, the terror, the fear, is brutal — the admitting of that. But God is big enough to accommodate it.
I wanted to make a legitimate film about that struggle. So to me, as the director and as the actress, my responsibility is just to tell — is to be blatant about it. Look, I think it’s easier to digest if you ask me well, did you skew it positive, did you skew it negative? And it’s really not a skew, it’s not a bias.
Carolyn Briggs herself will tell you that when that memoir was written—well, look at the title: This Dark World. It’s now been renamed Higher Ground. It’s piggyback marketing, but it’s also a more positive title. The book was written at a very dark time in her life with very little perspective. And she admits that the editors have skewed the memoir in a direction where it appears like she completely rejected her faith, whereas she’s never wholly been able to do that. It’s been a lifelong journey for her, but it’s between her and God. And she had the courage to talk about that struggle. That touched me to the depths of my being, to the depths of my soul. I admired her courage in that story.
And that’s a journey that you share, to some extent?
I think we all do. Look, I mean you’d have to rip out all the pages about Job; you’d have to rip out all the pages about Thomas in the Bible, if this wasn’t a human condition, a legitimate one.
You know, I really felt that it’s possible, especially in these times, in this harsh, rude, warring world that we live in, where most of the bloodshed is, “My God is greater than your God” and we’re fighting in the name of our God — we have to find a way to peaceably coexist, spiritually. God is love. I think all religions can agree on certain definitions of God and concepts of God, like God being the God of love, the great “I am” energy.
And so this was a challenge. I’m asking audience members that are not fundamental Christians to have a certain measure of tolerance, of openness and receptivity. And I’m saying, “Come and witness a story about a search for authentic faith.” That search requires that we make a big leap into a world of uncertainty, and these are expressions of courage and strength rather than fear and weakness. That might not be easy to grasp.
Christians may be able to grasp this more easily than non-Christians would expect, because we are so familiar with this experience of struggling.
I agree. I think what she wrestles with is what everybody wrestles with, no matter what your belief system is, no matter how you’re approaching God.
Something that surprised me in the movie was how positive the characters are. We expect members of conservative churches to be presented as unattractive people.
Unattractive, lacking a sense of humor, lacking sexuality, lacking personality. This really is a fringe community, and yes, the pastor was having a really selfish day when he shut Corinne down [in a scene where Corinne is rebuked for appearing to preach, usurping the masculine role]. Pastors are human beings, too. And these are real issues that I think women at that time and place in history were struggling with.
Again, it is a fringe community. I keep stating that. I keep saying that I’m not trying to make a big statement about Christianity and patriarchy. It’s not. It really has to do just with this certain denomination in a time and place in history.
A lot of that has changed since the 70s; the role of women is very different than it was four decades ago.
Yeah, but I think there still is sort of a gender bias in terms of pastoring churches and the numbers there, but that is changing as well.
Well, there’s a gender bias in Congress, you know; it’s everywhere.
Yeah, it’s everywhere. It’s in my profession; the reason I took the reins of this film was because I feel like I don’t get the opportunities that I want to voice the challenges of my soul. I feel like since Down to the Bone (2004), which was I think my calling card for every film I’ve ever done, I think that since that experience I haven’t really had the opportunity to delve so deeply into not only the physical, emotional and intellectual scope of a character but into the spiritual dimension. So this was me creating my opportunity.
That’s great. And it was to some degree autobiographical because of struggles you yourself have known?
Absolutely. And will know the end of my days. I grew up in a Ukrainian Catholic-turned-Christian household, and that is my family’s faith. My father instilled in me — of utmost importance and innate in me is the yearning to determine for myself — to define God, to define holiness for myself. That was my parents’ number one lesson for us. They are men and women of God and that’s where they operate from.
There is a really rich artistic tradition in Eastern Catholicism; there’s a lot of beauty there.
We started off Ukrainian Catholic, and that’s still part of our heritage and has been an influence as well, but my parents had moved to a certain nondenominational, Pentecostal Christianity, just to be clear. In their search for a more personal [faith], to get away from ritual, even though ritual is so beautiful, I think they were looking for very direct [faith].
Were you raised in a Pentecostal church, then? How old were you when they made the switch?
I was raised in many different kinds of church. I’ve sat in hundreds and hundreds of denominations. And ultimately the closest one to our house was — we traipsed around everywhere, we moved several times. But we went back and forth between holy days in the Ukrainian Catholic church, and Sundays at the local evangelical house of worship.
Can you tell us anything about where you’re attending now?
I have not been home enough. Just as perspective, our two-and-a-half year old has been on 80-something flights in his life. We’re constantly going, constantly traveling. So for us, God is in temples and in churches, and on park benches. I don’t belong to any particular church, but I’m someone who will be able to walk in any place of worship, any house of worship, and have a direct correspondence.
Thank you for giving us a character like Annika. She’s delightful and surprising, in that she’s nothing like how evangelicals Christians are usually depicted. She’s a blessing, in that way.
I agree. I just got chills. I agree. That’s Christians as I know them, with all their perfections and imperfections. I mean, that’s humans as I know them.