Tribeca Film Festival Review: THE ARMOR OF LIGHT

A documentary about gun violence through the lens of Evangelical Christianity.

I may not know much about America, but if there’s one thing I do know it’s that its bipartisan system has resulted in the politicization of a myriad of social issues, which are in turn further complicated by the entanglement of religion and politics despite the First Amendment. Then again, apart from the grand tradition of hot wings on Superbowl Sunday, maybe that’s all I need to know? Like major sporting events, bipartisan politics are hard to avoid when you live in the United States, and even as someone who moved here a mere six years ago, I’ve grown intimately familiar with the concept. American politics, not sports. I already knew what those were. There tends to be a specific perception of the Right and the Left, what issues they make their focus and what side they come down on, but The Armor of Light brings to life a fascinating moral dilemma caused by the intersection of religion and politics. More specifically, Evangelical Christianity and Tea Party Republicanism.

Reverend Rob Schenck’s journey is a fascinating one. He grew up in a Jewish family in a small, secluded town in New York State before converting to Christianity, and throughout most of his sheltered life, he believed most people (or at least most American Christians) shared his beliefs, something that continued all the way until his Pro-Life activism in 1992. During the protests he helped organize in Buffalo, he was part of the controversial group that held preserved foetuses alongside their signs, and it’s the sort of thing I openly despise, but it’s also not what the documentary is really about. During the protests, a doctor who performed abortions was shot dead in his home, bringing in to question Schenck’s view of the term “Pro-Life” to begin with.

A ways away in Florida and twenty years down the line, young Jordan Davis would be shot dead in his car by Michael Dunn, who claimed he felt “threatened” in accordance with the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. Davis’ mother Lucy McBath would then go on to campaign against the law, against gun violence, and against the NRA, during which time she would cross paths with Reverend Schenck. And while their interaction lasts only but a single scene mid way through the movie, it would go on to have as profound an impact on Schenck as that original shooting did, twenty years earlier.

Even for a person as calm and soft-spoken as Schenck is today, the topic of guns proved to be a confrontational once. When he speaks to his local activist group in Washington after the Navy Yard shooting of 2013, he’s taken aback to learn that several of them carry guns. Back in Florida, Lucy McBath’s own attorney talks about his experiences that lead him to getting a gun license and how easy it was for him to purchase a firearm, and when Schenck brings up the topic amongst members of the various churches he visits, things start to get a little heated. This is, after all, not a black and white issue, but it’s also fascinating to see it argued in a context that doesn’t often come up in these conversations. Both Schenck and the people he talks to find Biblically-based reasons for their stances, and Schenck has no remaining recourse but to try and go outside even that line of thinking, as he attempts to sit down with three three clergymen closest to him and discuss the issue outside the realm of both politics and religion. What ensues is essentially a four-way tête-à-tête over some burgers and fries.

Truth be told, the argument was incredibly fun to watch, but it was also disheartening to see the same arguments in favour of completely unchecked gun ownership be thrown out as if they were rehearsed, and any counter-arguments be immediately shouted down. After all, how can one really begin to undo perspectives that have been so engrained over time that the arguments that exist in favour of them (eg. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”) exist as theoretical abstracts? The film, by way of its subjects, does attempt to place these absolutes in a more practical setting during this conversation, but it’s ultimately a waste. The focus of the scene isn’t so much to convince as it is to accurately portray the gridlock that most of these conversations lead to, and it does so spectacularly, breaking its run-of-the-mill interview style to hover around the table as arguments fly back and forth, often only back-lit by the nearby open window. Four silhouettes and their mismatched, overlapping dialog as representations of how cyclic the conversation has gotten.

As someone from outside the United States, my view of gun culture no doubt falls in line with Schenck’s, but similar to his cautious approach, the film makes an effort to be rounded in its listing and appraisal of arguments. Guns aren’t something I had to even think about until I moved here, and they don’t seem to have been on Schenck’s radar until ’92, so there was a lot he still had to learn about the nuts & bolts of the issue. More than a sermon, the film is an exploration, both personal and practical. Schenck returns home for his family’s spiritual guidance during his crisis of faith, but he combats his crisis of information by firing at gun ranges and visiting large-scale NRA conventions. The evolution of his thought process involves stepping outside of his little bubble and understanding the complex nature of the culture he’s dealing with, and interacting with the people he once perceived as ‘the problem’, which brings about a new kind of enlightenment not found in his scriptures. The question ceases to be whether support of un-checked gun ownership is bad, and falls more along the lines of whether good people can unknowingly contribute to something with detrimental effects in the long run.

The film does make an effort to at least mention of the elephant in the room, the latent racial coding of phrases associated with gun ownership and the Stand Your Ground law, and Schenck even visits a primarily black church to get a sense of where clergy of colour stand on the issue. Their views fall far closer to his than the other religious leaders he interviews, as their experiences with gun violence have been vastly different from the white majority, but it’s a single scene that doesn’t seem to want to explore the issue any further. Despite its attempts to be rounded, it isn’t so much a documentary about guns and gun culture as it is the cultural backdrop that leads one man to question his beliefs and his thought process.

If there’s one choice I hold against the film, it’s the constant attempts at stylizing its transitions by having opinions (on both sides) be constantly muted in favour of voiceover. The film does give you a sense of what each new interview subject is saying, but cuts them with Schenck’s supposed inner monologue. Granted, those scenes are far more about how Schenck’s ever-evolving worldview is shaped by the people he talks to, but by cutting several of those people off before we’ve had a chance to hear them say their piece, it becomes that much harder to actually trace the reasons for Schenck’s change in approach. The only time it wasn’t really a problem for me was when Wayne LaPierre and Sarah Palin were addressing thousands of NRA members like it was Hall H at Comic Con, but that stems more from my dislike for them than it does from what their opinions might have brought to the table, no matter how disingenuous or politically motivated, because ultimately they still do arguments that inform both the issue as a whole, and the issue as seen by Schenck.

The Armor of Light is a fascinating watch because of how cognitively dissonant it can be at times. No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, there’s a strong chance of finding both agreement and disagreement with the film’s main characters. Even Lucy McBath, a woman who believes in women’s right to choose, has to put aside her views on abortion to work with Schenck, despite the fact that they’re both approaching the gun issue by appealing to religious and spiritual reason. Ultimately, it most certainly functions as a similar appeal, standing firmly in favour of more comprehensive gun control, but it’s equally an exploration of how our views are shaped and how they can change over time. More importantly, it’s a documentary about how that sort of change is okay. After all, we didn’t get to where we are as a society by clinging to the past, and we’re not going to progress any further unless we stop falling back on that safety net. The journey towards a better society is going to be an uncomfortable one for many of us, and we may have to question everything we were raised to believe, but considering the alternative, maybe it’s for the best.