‘Voiceless’ takes Christian filmmaking where it needs to go
October 12, 2016 (Crisis Magazine) -- First there was Bella, then there was October Baby, followed by Gimme Shelter—three films with unabashedly pro-life messages—and not surprisingly all three produced by Christian film-makers in what has become known as the faith-based film genre. This reviewer has been quite open about her opinion of nearly all films created by dedicated Christians—with a few exceptions such as Bella and the more recently released Risen, they represent a collection of sub-standard filmmaking. Voiceless, another faith-based pro-life movie, was released October 7. Faith-based films are cinematic attempts at story-telling motivated by belief in Christ with the full-intent to promote the Gospel or offer an inspirational message. The problem with most of these movies is that they are first about the Gospel message and secondarily about the art of filmmaking. The genre is often described as “cheesy” thus few who care about movies as an art-form take faith-based films seriously.
The producer of Voiceless, Stuart Mignon and co-executive producers such as Jason Jones, of Bella fame, were painfully aware of the canned, predictably preachy—ok “cheesy” nature of Christian films and set out to make a movie focused on abortion that avoided all the weaknesses expected in films made by dedicated believers. And they succeeded. Voiceless is intended to awaken sleeping churches and apathetic Christians to do something about the injustice of abortion as the film’s website itself explains: “This film encourages people to stand up for what they know is right, particularly as it pertains to taking God’s truths into society to address social issues. It addresses the spirit of retreat as it pertains to engaging the culture that has developed within the Church.” This is a laudable goal, yet Voiceless deserves to be appreciated for how it functions as a better faith-based film. For this, undoubtedly much credit goes to the movie’s writer/director Patrick Necerato.
The movie’s main character is Jesse Dean, discharged from tours of duty in the Middle East, he suffered a serious wound in battle which causes him to walk with a noticeable limp. War has not only wounded him physically; Jesse is emotionally scarred by guilt when he failed to save a civilian who bled to death in his arms. This failure provides the key to the movie’s moral center as Jesse articulates to his counselor: “When you had the chance to save someone’s life and they die, you always feel you could have done more to help.” Actor Rusty Joiner is convincing in this role as he provides a thoughtful, tense but under-stated performance. Newly married, he and his wife Julia, played by Jocelyn Cruz, move to Philadelphia where Jesse has been hired as head of a community outreach center for an inner-city Protestant church. Jesse settles into his ministry at the center located next to the church where he instructs young neighborhood boys in the rudimentary skills of boxing. Soon however, Jesse notices the “health clinic” across the street and comes to realize it is indeed an abortion clinic. No one seems to care, least of all anyone at the very church where he works and worships. Jesse is provoked in conscience to make a response. He faces opposition from the church’s pastor Gil Solomon who sees protesting the clinic as a threat to his primary goal of building up his congregation. Jesse’s wife also opposes his efforts as she is afraid of the controversy and possibility of her husband being arrested.
Jesse is particularly moved to action when he sees a young woman standing alone and distressed near the gates to the church. He seeks to help her and learns that she has a scheduled abortion appointment. Jesse is caught off-guard. He is not prepared to effectively assist her, doesn’t know what to say, has no literature to offer, and only clumsily tells her not to do it. And while he at least made an effort, the woman rejects his advice, crosses the street, and enters the clinic. Later, in a complete state of isolation, racked with guilt the post-abortive woman commits suicide. Jesse, also racked with guilt attends the wake service and is blamed by the woman’s parents for their daughter’s death—as they believe it was his anti-abortion witness, however feeble, that caused their daughter to feel badly about the abortion and thus take her own life.
Jesse, in an audacious move, knowing it was the abortion itself that led to the woman’s suicide, bursts into the abortion clinic holding the woman’s wake-service memorial card that bears her photo. In a very compelling scene he asks to talk to the clinic manager and shows the photo to women seated in the waiting room telling them: “Did they tell you, you could wind up like this?” He makes an attempt to witness to the women not to abort their babies until the security guard roughly throws him out. Next we see Jesse sidewalk counseling outside. At first he is awkward and unsure of himself, but gradually gains experience and begins to have some success in turning women away from abortion. While Jesse continues to face opposition from his church, he is encouraged by Miss Elsie, an elderly Scottish woman, a life-long member of the congregation played by Susan Moses, as well as Danny, a young jobless man from the “hood” who will face an out-of-wedlock pregnancy with his girlfriend who is tempted to abort their child at the very clinic across from the church.
As Jesse escalates his anti-abortion activism, a violent incident occurs outside the clinic. Though completely not at fault, Jesse is arrested, faces a court hearing and ordered by the judge to remain thirty feet from the clinic’s entrance, effectively shutting down his ability to talk to the women and save babies from abortion. Jesse believes he cannot obey the unjust restriction and prepares to defy it. The question remains, will his church support him, or will Jesse remain the maverick in his anti-abortion witness?
There are reasons why Voiceless is the better pro-life movie and also a huge leap forward in Christian film-making. It does a number of things right that causes it to steer clear of the canned, expected preachy tone of most faith-based movies and the superficial, contrived plots and characters that dominate this genre. For example, Voiceless takes its time. The film-viewer is slowly introduced to the story’s main characters. They are allowed to develop as three dimensional people and not merely propped up as predictable figures for the sake of getting to the Christian message. For instance, Jesse as a discharged soldier has left-over psychological baggage with which he must deal. We later learn in a flash-back scene that he suffers acute guilt over what he perceives to be a failure in his soldierly duty. This personal struggle adds depth, interest, and complexity to his character. Also, when Jesse comes to learn that the “health clinic” across the street is indeed an abortion clinic, it takes time for him to forge a response—thus he and the film-viewer as well are allowed to take it in, ponder the significance of the situation as Jesse’s own conscience grows in sensitivity to the life and death issue with which he is confronted. When he is arrested, he and the abortion clinic manager sit in a row of three chairs at the police station—he at one end, she at the other, with an empty chair between them. Jesse asks her why she does what she does. The woman, while certainly not warm, nonetheless is presented as a real person who explains to Jesse that she believes she is helping women. Thus a pro-life film allows the enemies of life to be who they are without caricature or stereotyping.
Voiceless presents us with believable dialogue in a well-written script. Perhaps the movie’s greatest strength lies in its well done acting, most notably Rusty Joiner’s sensitive, thoughtful performance. Indeed Voiceless has no weak performances as was not the case with October Baby—a film much supported by the pro-life community.
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However this movie is not without some flaws. Aspects of this story could have been better conceived and a few cinematic decisions were simply wrong and thus Voiceless very laudably brings the faith-based film closest to the cinematic artistic finish line—but certain weaknesses hold it back from ultimately crossing over. That the girl whom Jesse spoke to just before she went into the abortion clinic actually kills herself seemed over the top. Some women in the history of legalized abortion have committed suicide—but a far more common post-abortion complication is a botched procedure, something from which many women have died! Just this July 4, a 23-year-old was found dead in Battle Creek, MI due to complications following her abortion! Jesse could still scrutinize himself in such a situation due to not knowing what to say to the woman and failing to offer her the help that she needed.
Without giving away the film’s climax, this scene could have benefitted from what I call my “less is more rule” for Christian film-makers. In an inspirational movie of this type, film-makers are tempted to provide that grand faith-based conversion of its characters—and in this respect Voiceless succumbs. However, the episode is wisely mounted without dialogue and relies only on actors’ facial expressions and body language which helps the scene escape the cheesy quality that characterize these types of film resolutions.
And while the abortion clinic isn’t shut down—just about all other situations that were ragged, rough or potentially headed in a negative direction are all positively resolved. Danny lands a job, he and his girlfriend get married and are shown happy with their baby. In the final scene Jesse is working in the community center which is now expanded, painted with murals, and stocked with more equipment that includes a professional boxing ring. A more thoughtful, realistic ending would have left a certain tension or even ambiguity in the circumstances of its characters—not everything neatly tied up. However, the fact that the abortion clinic is still there, its exterior can be seen through the windows of the community center, means Voiceless cannot be accused of an absolutely forced rosy conclusion.
Regardless of certain story-telling imperfections, Voiceless is a very good pro-life movie; well acted, well written, well directed. But it is not only a good pro-life film, it is a good film. Voiceless takes the faith-based film where it needs to go. This movie is not just about the Christian message—rather its creators took the art of film-crafting seriously and it shows. The producers state that they wanted to make a movie that would stimulate Christian churches to respond to the injustice of abortion. Voiceless has the potential to achieve that goal. This is a movie that deserves to be seen and promoted, not only for its laudable purpose, but also for the fact that dedicated Christians achieved a higher-level of film artistry. Voiceless represents a major step forward in the crafting of the faith-based film and thus can be called an important movie. Other faith-based filmmakers should take note.
Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine.