October 30, 2015

'The Armor of Light' Targets Conservatives on the Gun Control Issue

Abigail Disney comes from a family of filmmakers. Her father was a longtime senior executive at the company that shares their last name. Her great uncle Walt started it all. But Abby's calling was not the world of Hollywood, rather the realm of documentaries with a social theme. As a producer and executive producer, she has worked on award-winning films such as Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and Women, War and Peace. Now, she's moved to the director's chair for her filmmaking debut, The Armor of Light.

Disney was "in the trenches" on several of her films: "I wasn't just writing checks," she says. Yet directing was different. "It was scary to shoot this film. I had any number of reasons to quit. It was terrifying." So why did she go on? "This was really a very personal story for me,” she maintains. “It came from the heart." Disney has long been interested in the subject of violence as seen through her previous projects, nonprofit work and academic studies. There was something in her background that made it a perfect story, too. Raised in a conservative household, she now realizes that The Armor of Light is a "reconciliation with my upbringing. I wanted to reach across the aisle.

"I am drawn to people who shake things up," Disney continues. And that's just what she found in the film's main character. Reverend Rob Schenck is an evangelical Christian pastor who is becoming increasingly concerned about how using guns may not be consistent with his pro-life stance. Polls show that evangelicals are the religious group most opposed to gun control.

The documentary follows Schenck as he starts questioning those beliefs. "I approached him with the idea," Disney explains. "I was searching for somebody in the pro-life community who was worried about this and would talk to me." She had previously talked to three other pastors; none would agree to be filmed. They told Disney, "If I say anything, I will be destroyed." A mass shooting in Schenck's Washington, DC neighborhood in 2013 motivated him to sign on. "He's so brave," says Disney. "He had integrity. We started talking about what we shared and put aside our disagreements. We developed a bond of trust." Since participating in the film, Schenck's outreach organization Faith and Action has lost some funding.

Disney acknowledges that she leaned on every person she could to make the film. The end result is a riveting look at the full story-arc transformation of Schenck. He is joined on his journey by a gun control supporter named Lucy McBath, whose unarmed, teenage African-American son was killed by a white man who claimed the "Stand Your Ground" defense. (He is now in jail serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.)

Disney approached McBath around the same time another filmmaker had: Marc Silver, who went on to make the award-winning 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets. "I tried to hold her at arm's length" because of the other film, says Disney. But it became clear to her that "McBath needed to meet Rob." They are on different ends of the political spectrum, but they agree on the issue of guns, and the sanctity of life. As Schenck says in the documentary, "In my community we talk about the value of every human life. Usually that's in the context of abortion. And if we believe life begins at conception, there's a whole lot of life beyond conception until natural death."

One of the more intriguing scenes in The Armor of Light is when Disney and her crew visit an NRA convention. The filmmaker was granted full access after interviewing the now former president of the organization, David Keene. "His wife had loved Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and that got us a meeting,” Disney explains. “He was perfectly lovely, and that got us a pass to the convention." The production team was pretty much unknown to the NRA at that point. "Now we are on their radar," says Disney. And that's OK with her. "We think of the NRA as our Sea World; the more they come after us, the better." Disney is even offering NRA members free admission to the film at a local theater if they show their membership card.

Through The Armor of Light we see that those who worship with Schenck strongly disagree with him on the issue of gun control. But when he visits an African-American church in Baltimore, he discovers he has more in common with this group. The cameras show that while these characters are politically conservative like Schenck and other white worshippers, they are in full agreement about a need for gun control. "I don't want to turn off whites with that scene,” Disney maintains. “I wanted to have a light touch. But when everybody in a race agrees on something, we're in trouble." Why don't some white people share Schenck's and her concerns? Disney thinks it might be because "white folks never imagine they are going to look down the barrel of a gun."

Coincidentally, it was only white characters who dropped out of interviews. "If you meet with us, you stay with us," says Disney about their position. Conservatives who now are working with her on the issue confess, "I had no idea it was going to be so hard."

"I felt like there was a divine hand in all this,” explains Disney. From the timing of Schenck's agreement to do the film, to the title, which comes from a passage Disney discovered in the Bible. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light." Schenck later ends up using the passage in a sermon he delivers in the film. "Guns are all about fear and hatred," Disney notes. "Light is the antidote."

The Armor of Light opens in theaters October 30, and will screen in conservative communities around the country. The film is slated to air on PBS’ Independent Lens in the spring of 2016, and the broadcast will include a 90-minute town hall meeting. DVD distribution is also planned to select Christian colleges, and women's Bible study groups. "I hope the film gets embraced by Christian conservatives, and they speak their conscience on the issue,” Disney asserts. “I hope it catches fire in churches. If lots of people feel like this, we could have a revolution."

 

Lauren Cardillo is currently working on a show about an Olympic swimming hopeful.

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