Sunday, 18 March 2018

We Don't Go Back, an appendix: The Sermon (2018)

Dean Puckett's short film The Sermon begins with a view over a rocky, lonely landscape. We hear the rising drone of a church organ, and a woman's voice (the voice of the lead actor, Molly Casey), saying:
England, what have you become? 
What has happened to your daughters and sons?
And then the credits – reminiscent by design of a low-budget British film of the 70s – roll, and when you have a film, especially one that clocks in at a few seconds over eleven and a half minutes, that starts like that, you've got to accept that as a programmatic statement, right?

The other times I've seen small independent features with a folk horror theme, I've been sent the films by their directors, which is immensely flattering; but with The Sermon, I responded to a call from Dean for reviewers, since I'd seen the trailer already and my interest had been piqued. This was a film I wanted to see, and I guess that's partly because of how personal the subject matter is to me. And it's hard to express how personal it is, because here is a short film that isn't yet available to stream or buy that is only eleven and a half minutes long, and it's really hard to analyse without ruining the whole thing, especially since I want people to read this and still want to see it.

But as the title gives away, I can tell you there's a sermon in The Sermon; as the venue of the premiere – the BFI Flare London LGBTQ+ Film Festival – gives away, I think you can guess what the subject matter of the sermon might be, and given that it's marketed as a folk horror, with a deliberate folk horror aesthetic, I think you should be able to guess that the pastoral setting is not one that is infused with grace and light.
It's good. It's beautifully done.

The centrepiece of the film, around which the rest of the action happens, is that sermon, and look, I've been involved in churches in some way, as regular readers of my blog will know, since my mid-teens, and I've navigated my queer self through evangelical protestantism, and various liturgical expressions of Christianity, and eventually to where I am now, and while the sermon in this little film itself is undeniably clichéd, I have heard that sermon, or one very like it, and more than once.

Sermons are very often clichéd; the point of them, and I say this as someone who has in fact taken the pulpit quite a lot over the last twenty years, is often not to say something new, but to confirm and restate orthodox teachings (or at least teachings that are orthodox to that pulpit). You can be transformative and illuminating, but just as often, you can be small and limited, and that really depends on the way in which a community responds to the preacher. The sermon as a phenomenon is not wholly the work of the preacher, then, because it reflects the teachings of the community, and (and trust me, I've been in this situation) if the preacher speaks to a doctrine the community has no truck with, the cold shoulder (or worse) results. You don't give a sermon to change hearts and minds; you give a sermon to assure people of what they believe already and to convict people who already feel the pangs of conscience for having violated what they believe to be true. And that includes calls to faith, the best of which welcome people who were already looking, and the worst of which manipulate and bully people into making a commitment.

So a sermon that's anti-gay reflects the community it's a part of. I believe quite adamantly that religious faith gives people a rationale to act how they were going to anyway, which is why you have wonderful, welcoming, affirming communities of faith and cold, rigid, bigoted ones. It's why you can have Christians who are radical pacifist-Marxists and Christians who will vote UKIP.

And religious communities have strategies of control. And I've been in the sort of community where, to survive, you wind up condoning and even taking part in hateful, violent actions.

And this damages you.
The Sermon reflects, in the slim running time of the film, all of these things. The affirmation of a community's norms; the way in which a person conceals who they are and winds up throwing others under the bus, and how that casts a shadow over you. You fester, you nurse fantasies of confrontation or revenge. And The Sermon follows that through, in an extravagantly visual way.

The Sermon suggests the emotional turmoil of its protagonist with an apparition that could be supernatural or symbolic, and it doesn't matter which, and that's the mark of a decent piece of genre film, that you can even ask that question.

Even more compelling for me is that the film's studied past-time aesthetic is actually a sort of decoy. The church in The Sermon is somewhere between Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist, and is not quite out of the past. While the clothes and mannerisms reflect a piece like Requiem for a Village, both in the Edwardian modes of dress and the intentional 1970s look of the thing, in fact The Sermon rejects its categorisation as a period piece; there are heavy hints that it in fact may even be set in a post-apocalyptic future. And in that, the film is a warning, as much speculative horror as folk horror, against the sort of ideology that insists that things could be better if they were "how they used to be". Which is, come to think of it, strongly reminiscent of classic British TV folk/speculative horror like The Changes and The Tripods. It says that perhaps we should not be complacent, that people might yet turn back the clock and legislate our love. In that respect, it's very contemporary, and very, to resort to cliché, which seems right when you're talking about a sermon, part of Brexit Britain.

I have talked around the film, and I suppose I had to. But the takeaway here is that The Sermon is disturbing, and grim, and beautifully shot, and Molly Casey particularly gives a great performance, and it is true, in ways that I might not want to accept.  

The Sermon is due to premiere at the BFI Flare London LGBTQ+ Film Festival, BFI Southbank (as part of the Altered States shorts programme) next Saturday, 24th March, with a repeat showing on Sunday. I wish it every success.

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