What If It’s Not the Prisoner Who Needs Forgiveness?

Screenshot from Redemption of the Prosecutor

Screenshot from Redemption of the Prosecutor

We started making our new documentary “Redemption of the Prosecutor” for the same reason we always do: someone told us a story.

Bill Mefford works in the social justice office of the United Methodist Church, and he called us last August to say he’d just seen an amazing talk. The talker was one Preston Shipp, a devout Christian and former prosecutor from Nashville who went into a local prison to teach. When Preston heard the inmates’ stories, he began to realize how unjust the system was. He was especially torn up about an inmate named Cyntoia, who was Preston’s star student and had received a life sentence as a juvenile. Preston underwent a spiritual crisis that boiled down to a fundamental question: “How can I reconcile the job I was being asked to do as a prosecutor with my faith in Jesus, who proclaimed release for prisoners?” We won’t give away the ending, but there’s a surprising twist that left us saying this is a story that needs to be told in churches across America.

Jesus Resurrected and 'The Undocumented'

Screenshot from 'The Undocumented,' airing April 29 on PBS.

Screenshot from 'The Undocumented,' airing April 29 on PBS.

At the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham last week, I saw Marco Williams’ new documentary, The Undocumented, which tracks migrants as they hike into the United States across the border between Mexico and Arizona, trying to escape the detection of border patrol agents, and trying to survive the deadly heat of the Sonoran desert.

The documentary follows a young man, Marcos Hernandez, as he tries to find his father, Francisco,  who was last seen in the desert walking for days in the 120-degree summer heat. Francisco left their home in Mexico with a coyote — man he paid $2,000 to lead him across the border — to make enough money to pay for his son’s expensive dialysis treatments. But he never called; he never returned. The coyote reported that he left Francisco in the desert because he was sick and couldn’t keep up with the other migrants in the group. Marcos fears the worst — that his father died of dehydration, of heat exhaustion. But to confirm the death he has to find the body.

The filmmaker focuses on the morgue in Tucson, Ariz., where the medical examiner investigates human remains, looking for clues that would help identify the dead in order to return whatever is left to family members and friends, to provide some kind of closure, to honor the dead with a burial.

In the film, Marcos won’t believe his dad is dead until he can see his dead body, or whatever is left of his body — a skull, teeth, his rib cage. He will not believe unless he can see.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). That’s what Thomas says to the other disciples about the resurrected Jesus; and what Thomas says about needing to see the body reminds me of the story of Marcos, about the need to see in order to believe.

HBO Documents Unlikely Saviors of 50 Holocaust Children

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus lived a comfortable life in 1930s Philadelphia. Photo courtesy RNS.

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus lived a comfortable life in 1930s Philadelphia, where he made a good living as a lawyer, and she kept a stylish house.


They were secular Jews who sent their children to a Quaker school, and unlikely candidates for the mission they assigned themselves. Gilbert revealed the plan to his wife as he was shaving in the bathroom, so their young son and daughter would not hear.

He wanted to go to Vienna and save 50 Jewish children from the Nazis.

Let's Talk Poverty in the Debate

Tomorrow night is the first presidential debate. It will undoubtedly be an important moment in the campaign for the highest office in the land. But, whose lives will it be important to?

Certainly, there will be a lot for pundits to discuss and dissect. They will analyze phrases and statements, and will compare them to polling data and focus groups in swing states. Super PACs will record gaffes by either candidate, ready to turn them into multi-million dollar commercial buys.

But, as a person of faith, what I want to know is: how will the words that are said and the positions that are staked out affect the 46 million people in our country living in poverty? What does it mean for the hardworking families who can't put food on the table? Or the 1 in 5 children for whom poverty is an everyday reality and opportunity seems to be an illusion?

Tonight is the world premiere of a film that puts those questions front and center. The Line is a new documentary film from Emmy award-winning writer and producer, Linda Midgett. It tells the stories of real people struggling to make ends meet but still falling below the poverty line. These are stories far too common in our country today and should be a central topic of this debate.  


Afternoon Links of Awesomeness: August 16, 2012

Neighborhood Film Company reaches out to homeless people in Philadelphia --- interview with The Book's founder Nick Zammuto --- This American Life's "The Convert" --- Pixar's new short film "Partysaurus Rex" --- musicians Silversun Pickups vs. the Romney campaign --- Stride gum parodies Apple --- Over the Rhine documentary from Nowhere Farm in Ohio. See these and more in today's Links of Awesomeness...

Undocumented or Illegal?

Photo: Juan Camilo Bernal /

Photo: Juan Camilo Bernal /

When people who have immigrated to another country through methods other than the official legal system are discussed, we hear quite a few words bandied about: “illegal,” “undocumented,” and “alien” just to name a few. The terms are often used interchangeably, but are these terms interchangeable? On NPR’s, Tell Me More, Professor Kevin Johnson, Dean of the law school at the University of California at Davis says no.

“I fear that ‘illegal immigrant’—the term—is a loaded term. It is not as loaded as some of its predecessors like ‘illegal alien’ or ‘wetback,’ but it still is a loaded term,” says Johnson.

Mandela: An Audio History

In Mandela: An Audio History, the voices of activists, artists, and ordinary citizens unite to tell the powerful narrative of overcoming apartheid through strength and solidarity in South Africa. In this five-part audio documentary, hosted by Desmond Tutu, the weaving of personal interviews, newsreels, and found sounds from Mandela and those around him (both for and against) are highlighted to showcase the watershed story of a 50-year struggle.


Take a listen to Part One: 1944 –1960

Hellbound? New Film Explores Ideas, Doctrine of Hell

One of the highlights of the Wildgoose Festival for me was a sneak preview of the feature length documentary Hellbound?,which will be released in select theaters nationwide this fall.

The film picks up on the recent media buzz generated by Rob Bell's controversial bestselling-book Love Wins, taking that debate into new levels of intelligence and depth.

Like any good documentary, we have the entertaining attention grabbing parts, which aren't hard to find when your topic is Hell and damnation:

We meet people at a death metal concert, take a tour through "Hell House" where actors attempt to traumatize teens into the kingdom by reenacting scenes from Columbine. Then there are the street interviews with the rather obviously mentally unstable and angry folks from Fred Phelps' church, holding their "God Hates Fags" signs and screaming at anyone who passes by.

The movie quickly moves beyond this however, delving into the deeper issues at hand. Unlike so many other Christian films, Hellbound? is neither sentimental nor sensationalist. The word that comes to mind instead is depth.



Screening Relevance

Three highlights from Full Frame are films that mingle mature cinematic craft with ethical depth.

Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.