Small Films, Big Themes

I love short films, which is what I program at the Newport Beach Film Festival. Like short stories, the creator has to get right to the point, compressing the narrative, removing anything extraneous. There is no time to slowly develop characters and plot. The best of them contain the seeds of their completion and hook your attention in the first few seconds. I am not a filmmaker, but I imagine that, at least in some ways, short films are harder to make (or at least harder to make well) than feature-length films. I watch a lot of short films, and I can confirm that a good film is hard to find. (For my favorite example of a great short film, watch this brilliant, almost-single-shot from Australia. Don’t read the description first!)

Last year’s NBFF had a lot of great shorts, as always. One of the films I programmed you can watch now on Omeleto (which is a great place to find short films). During a rare downpour in Newport Beach, I was able to have a drink with writer/director Dan Burks, and producers Niraj Bhatia and Sy Huq. The Stranger has all the elements of a great short: the antagonist shows up quickly, the source of the conflict is a mystery, and the truth is revealed to the viewer as it is revealed to the captive family. The tension is sustained throughout, and the performances are entirely believable.

In 13 minutes, the film manages to open up more than one theme. We have our own prejudices exposed as we judge who is good and who is bad based on how they look, and whether they are “inside” or “outside.” We also are forced to consider identity, how much of it is constructed, how much is given, and how much is (as far as we can tell) pure chance. The major theme, however, is secrets and what they do to us over time. When lies are not immediately exposed, we may think that we have gotten away with them, especially if the only other person who could falsify the lie is apparently dead. We might forget things, or at least relegate them to the dark corners of our minds where we do not go, but are they truly forgotten? We like clichés such as “time heals all wounds,” but it is not true. Time neither heals nor forgives.

In Christian terms, sins are not forgiven because a lot of time has passed since their commission. The Stranger illustrates how good we can be at deceiving ourselves, but very few hidden things remain so. Paul tells Timothy, “The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Timothy 5:25). But they all appear. Jesus Himself says that “nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26). I think about this every time someone is exposed as having done something that he or she thought was private and hidden. Especially in the age of ubiquitous cell phones, there are very few “private” things. Psalm 139, among other Scriptures, asserts that whatever other people might know of me, God knows and sees all. There is no place where one can hide from Him.

There are, of course, two possibilities when one is confronted with a hidden sin, or a crime kept secret: confess, or justify. The “stranger” (P.J. Sosko) wants a confession, but Sam (James Tupper) is not sure what action needs confessing. He even confesses something the stranger is not seeking. Finally, he confesses what the stranger wants to hear, which is tied to both Sam’s actions and the stranger’s identity. But every action has consequences, even if the roots go back decades. The film ends as a tragedy, but we are left with the question, which of the characters is now actually free?

In the terms of our current cultural moment, confession will come, and it will often be forced, even if not at the literal barrel of a gun. There will be justifications and rationalizations; there will be half-apologies and non-apologies. If people are held accountable in some way for their actions, either criminally or socially, we wonder whether the “punishment” was enough. How long, for example, should it be before a celebrity caught in some sort of indiscretion or crime or unacceptable action is able to resume a public role? How much contrition (or attrition) is enough? How much financial suffering should be inflicted? People may disagree on the answers to those questions, but one thing that cannot be given in the court of public opinion is forgiveness. The terrifying thing about being unable to hide our sins, either before man or God, is that there is then no escape from what we have done. It is literally impossible to “make up” for what we have done. Sam certainly can’t do anything to undo his actions and their consequences. That is the negative (in the sense of photography) sense of forgiveness: it acknowledges exactly what has been done and its seriousness, and gives an unearned gift to the person who has committed the sin.

Forgiveness cannot be earned by proving that one is “heartily” sorry for sins, or by “sincerely” repenting of them. It can only be a gift, a refusal to hold against a person the things he or she has done; a releasing of them. This is what God does in Jesus Christ, refusing to hold against us the things done and left undone, known and even unknown. “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). The Christian confession is that God has held all of it against Christ on the cross, and that Christ received it all willingly. The crucifixion proves that forgiveness is never excusing sins, or pretending that they don’t matter, simply because a lot of time has passed. Sin matters precisely that much. And forgiveness costs: it costs us our own vengeance, our own anger, our own bitterness. It costs us wasted time and wasted mental energy. But the cost of our sin and the cost of others’ sins against us has already been absorbed in Jesus’ own body and death. Even so, how often are we eager to receive forgiveness for ourselves, while we find all sorts of reasons why we do not have to extend it to others?

The Stranger is not a story about forgiveness. But it leaves us with a question, primarily from the perspective of Sam’s wife and daughter, Teresa (Natasa Fontaine) and Sandra (Abbie Jenkins), respectively: what will all the secrets revealed do to their lives? What about Sandra’s action at the end of the film? Sins and confessions are one thing; forgiveness is altogether something else.