‘Arson’ was filmmaker Love’s introduction to documentaries
January 18, 2014
Four years ago this month, arsonists torched 10 churches in East Texas.
What followed was one of the biggest criminal investigations in the area. The vandalism caused millions of dollars worth of destruction, but the damage wasn’t just to the buildings.
In the aftermath, residents struggled to cope with the fact that someone had purposely set fire to symbols of their community, which they viewed as a personal attack.
They blamed outsiders, neighbors and even Satan for the fires.
Filmmaker Theo Love, who had 10 short films under his belt at the time, wanted to make a narrative feature and began looking for story inspirations. Once he read about the church burnings, he began his research and started writing a narrative script based on those incidents.
"As I was researching, I realized how fresh the material was," Love said during a phone call from Los Angeles, Calif. "I would talk to these people and their emotions were still raw and on the surface."
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He began filming his research subjects to see if he could get some good behind-the-scenes footage for a DVD extra.
That’s when the focus for the film shifted gears.
"As we filmed, we realized that this had the potential of becoming a pretty good documentary," he said. "It wasn’t on my radar to make a documentary, but through the process, I became a documentary filmmaker."
The result was Love’s debut feature-length documentary, "Little Hope Was Arson," which is included in Slamdance’s Documentary Competition this year.
After switching his focus, Love knew he had a lot to learn about documentaries, and did some of that learning on the fly.
"I did my research, taking notes and calling people during the day, and at night I would stay up until early morning just watching other documentaries," Love said. "I did this for six months and watched as many as I could to learn how they worked."
The filmmaker discovered that most documentaries are taken from a journalistic approach.
"It’s all about discovering a news story or finding a fresh take on a news story," he said. "That’s different than how I was initially approaching this film."
Love came at it through a typical three-act narrative structure.
"What I had learned about writing screenplays is that they had to have a beginning, middle and end," he said. "You needed a protagonist and an antagonist and character arcs."
So he decided to find a balance between the two philosophies for "Little Hope Was Arson."
"I think we were able to do that as effective as we could," Love said.
One of the main challenges of filmmaking started before the cameras began rolling.
"First of all, any time you approach a story that features the subject of faith, which is something that is very personal, you need to build some trust and show some sensitivity," Love explained. "Many times people will think that you are, in some ways, trying to persecute them or cut them down."
To ease those worries, Love and his crew talked with members of these churches and explained that they weren’t going to exploit them or make light or fun of the situations.
"We needed to show them that we were there because there were important and significant events and that, possibly, there would be something we all could learn from it," he said.
Relating to the congregations was fairly easy for Love, who understands aspects of Christian ministry.
"My background is very religious," he said. "I am the son of lifelong missionaries who are in Southeast Asia and knew how to relate to people who are members of small-town churches."
Once he built the trust, Love realized there were so many stories and angles to the story, including the culture and close-knit situations of the region.
"The first night I landed in Texas, I went to a restaurant and within 20 minutes, everyone in the restaurant knew that I was from California and was going to make a film," he said. "Many people came up to me with their stories, whether it was about watching one of the churches burning or that their grandfather attended the church or that their father was a pastor."
After that, Love knew he wanted the community members to tell the story.
"We came up with a strict rule that we weren’t going to have any voiceovers or any live questions asked on camera," he said. "We wanted to be as invisible as possible, because we didn’t want to manipulate the answers, and that made it possible for their culture to speak for itself."
Another thing that changed was Love’s own ideals about the incidents.
"I went into this film from a philosophical standpoint that these were just buildings that burned down," he said. "When I arrived in town, I realized that these buildings weren’t just churches for these people. They represented the center points of these people’s communities.
"These buildings were where life happened," Love said. "These were places where newborn babies were taken to. These were places where marriages started new lives and these were places where lives ended with funerals. So when they burned down, it was a symbol of their lives that burned down."
Theo Love’s "Little Hope Was Arson" is part of Slamdance Film Festival’s documentary competition. The next screening will be Monday, Jan. 20, in the Gallery at Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St. For more information and tickets visit http://www.slamdance.com.