Two disclaimers are in order before I start this post: First, I’ve never read any vampire stories, don’t know anything about vampire mythology, or the history of vampire (or werewolf) literature. Therefore, this post contain a lay perspective on those parts of the Twilight series. But then again, neither does most of our youth have these kinds of insights, so maybe my viewing do correlate to a “popular perspective” in that sense. Two, I watched the movies with the intend of seeing how adolescent relations are being constructed, for no other reasons, and carries that bias into my viewing. I owe this to Katie Douglas’ podcast on Twilight.

Confession session: I watched the first three Twilight movies in the past 24 hours. Next confession: I didn’t hate it. It wasn’t so gripping that I didn’t sit and work on other stuff at times, but it was a completely watchable movie. But I watched it with my youth ministry hat on, and I was extremely uncomfortable with what I saw.

I’ve scanned some blogposts from youth ministers on Twilight. Seems like you generally have three types of critique (yes, I know there is a lot of appreciation from youth ministers as well, I’ll refer to this at times, add a few positive elements of my own, but mostly I’m providing a critical perspective, so this is where I’ll focus).

As with Harry Potter 10 years ago or so, there is the obvious religious response to the fact that the film portrayed Vampires and Werewolfs in a generally positive manner. The idea that we are somehow exposing kids to the “occult”. I’m not that worried about it really. Strange vampire saga that frowns upon the killing of humans, actually outright rejects the killing of humans (although it’s accepted as a kind of “necessity”). I guess this is just a default position, but since I’m really not concerned about “vampires” in reality, I don’t think using these myths in stories are problematic purely because vampires are mentioned. I suspect that if I were to study vampire movies generally I might be strongly opposed to the portrayal of violence, but that’s on a different level. Anyhow, the violence scenes in the Twilight series can be described as “mild” to say the most, so except if you chose the road of total rejection of any portrayal of violence  (and then I’ll have to include much of our violent sports), I wouldn’t worry about this too much either as a youth minister. The only scene that is bugging me, concerning violence, is links to “cutting” in Twilight 3, where Bella cuts herself to save Edward. But I guess it’s debatable whether the link can be made to teen cutting. Oh, that and maybe the senseless killing in Seattle by the gang of “newborns”.

The second response some writing from youth ministry has to the films is the portrayal of sensuality and sexuality. A couple of kissing scenes. Again some complain, but except if you are doing a total clamp-down on any portrayals of teen sexuality this shouldn’t concern you too much. On the contrary, if going purely by physical intimacy portrayed in these teen relationships I would say this isn’t even problematic given the age at which characters are portrayed (taking Edward as 17 instead of 109 obviously). Obviously there is the fact that these values are blatantly described as “old-school”, and portrayed as the values of a romantic bygone era that needn’t exist anymore, it is quite remarkable that you have a teen best-seller making any case at all against sex-before-marriage).

I’ll add one more positive to the last paragraph, not concerning teen sexuality, but linking to typical portrayals of teenage relationships. Bella has an abnormally good relationships with her parents. On a first-level analysis quite nice to have this really. I bet most parents in our congregations would love to have this kind of nice and friendly relationship with their parents. Now obviously we must add that parents are portrayed as people who have no understanding of the life their kids are going through and wouldn’t be able to handle it if they did, but hey, parents are portrayer as really caring for their teens, and teens as loving their parents. So lets give recognition where it’s possible, and open up conversations with teens where those opportunities do appear.

However, I want to take on from the arguments on sexuality to get to the point I’d like to make. The film really has very little explicit sexual portrayals. However, the whole thing burns with sexual tension like little I’ve seen before. Maybe the author (apparently a Mormon) heard some of the popular phrases from teen sex education (or Christian high school youth cultures). You know, those saying that you should leave something to imagination, and those saying that you somehow get more “passion” if you let things develop without going into overly sexual experiences too early. Because this film with very little sexual scenes really has you smelling the sexuality every minute of it.

My guess however, is that it’s not the physical stuff that points to this, but the way the relationships is portrayed. From very early on you have this kind-of-typical teenage television relationships where each will do “anything” for the other (even go to high-school together admitting their feelings in front of all the judging eyes). Throw into this a “big story” and a few supernatural elements just to heighten it up. By the end of Twilight 1 you have this kind of super-charged I’ll-do-anything-for-you teenage relationship, where I’ll do anything for you goes somewhat above the normal, but I guess wouldn’t require anything more than a “reality check” if this is to become a model for teenage relationships. Some in youth ministry take issue with any form of commitment in teenage relations, I’m not sure this is bad however, definitely hyperbolic, but that I find an acceptable literary as well as cinematographic strategy. I guess the youth minister in me just have to remind teens that these relations actually happening and being positive at that age is extremely rare.

My discomfort starts after the breakup. Two facts might hide the deeply problematic structure for teen relations being portrayed. There is the obvious fact that this concerns vampires and werewolfs, and therefore shouldn’t be “normal”, and here the fact that I don’t know the myths might cloud my interpretation, since there might be long explanations from vampire mythology from what I’m about to say. However, our teens don’t come to the film with degrees in mythology, and not even with having read the books, so hear me out fans (give me the explanations if you want, but just see the links I’m seeing if you can). The second thing clouding our interpretation is that this is a movie and things end well, and we therefore are told that all the decisions made were good (although the speech at graduation might hint that the decisions weren’t good, but that late adolescence should be a time for making mistakes, so therefore again all’s well that ends well.

But I watch Bella in the months after the breakup, and I see teenage girls. The hunk which she believe to be the love of her life leaves her with some corny excuse about how it’s “better for her” if he leaves, and she goes into a depression. This is portrayed as totally disconnecting from all other relations, sitting doing nothing, and combined with the kind of nightmarish experience which if you do find this in teenage girls (I’m sticking to the films constructions of gender roles, but this can probably be applied to teenage boys as well) 6 months after a breakup you might want to get professional help for the teen. Even for a lay person in vampire stories the hidden idea that there must be some “supernatural” reason for this jumped out, but the film doesn’t portray this as far as I could see. All you know is that Bella experiences this hole in her sole which cause these extreme reactions where she can’t work through the end of the relationship in a healthy way. Worst part: it’s portrayed as a positive thing, since she is clinging to some kind of truth even though she doesn’t know it.

Then comes the adrenaline. Where the boy she lost becomes more important than life. Where just one more glimpse of him is worth risking life. This should not be confused with the idea of giving your life for the ones you love (which I think is a tradition we might not want to forget in this individualistic culture), Bella is risking her life for the romantic ideal. Edward, as the character willing to “sacrifice the relationships because of his love for Bella” is another conversation, and one which I’ll skip for the moment, so let’s continue with Bella and youth ministry. Bella remind me of the caricature of the teenage girl coming into the counselling office, not crying anymore, but determined to do anything for the guy she loves, although she has no idea why he is rejecting her. Sex. Alcohol and drugs. Rejection of family. This is the reality which I find connection with in the life of Bella. And this is portrayed as positive. Clinging to this romantic ideal in spite of all evidence to the contrary, going to the extreme “for the relationship”. We even have the “other guy”, the “best friend” whom she will use in any way necessary just to get “one more glimpse”.

All this might be responsible for the feel of extreme sexual tension I find in the film. I think youth ministers and parents can kind of skip over the vampires and werewolfs of the films, I find it just a continuation of the recent upsurge of fantasy (simply because we now have the technology to make really cool fantasy films?), one which we’ve debated in youth ministry since Harry Potter, and I think, at least in typical mainline and progressive environments, accepted as quite positive contributions to contemporary imagination, and hopefully helping along reading ability (which for Protestants should be a good thing). Explicit sexuality and violence I think we might also skip over. Our teens need to learn how to reflect on displays of sexuality which does not reflect reality (one of the biggest problems of pornography), but I don’t think these films provide the greatest challenge facing this.

But as youth ministers we would have to think about the way in which the romantic ideal in teenage relations are begin constructed. Specifically the role of women in these relations. If Edward is interpreted as the “older guy” it might become even more problematic. The scenes from much of Twilight 2 has shocking reflections of what happens to some teen girls after certain breakups, and we have to provide healthier ways of reflecting on this (Twilight 3 will fare somewhat better in my opinion, but I’m getting to 2000 words, so let’s end this for the moment).

The romantic ideal of Western relations are being pointed out as the cause for a lot of relational issues in our society, and the way in which this ideal it rooted in the construction of adolescence today cannot be denied. This I think is deeply problematic within a film which otherwise portray quite ‘conservative’ values of families and teenage sexuality, and even hints at a few counter-cultural (maybe too strong a word, but there is a hint) values (such as anti-consumerism in Bella’s approach to shopping and critique on the high school culture in her approach to prom).


I’m busy reading Knowledge in the Blood, and Jansen’s exploration of the knowledge of the post-Apartheid Afrikaner children had me thinking at one point that we really need more popular arts to help in the remembrance and and memories of Apartheid. Maybe it was Invictus that also got me thinking. I didn’t really follow the conversation about Skin until I went to watch it, but this exactly the kind of films that we need.

It tells the story of a girl, Sandra Laing, born of white parents, but of polygenic inheritance; meaning that there was black blood in their line, and although it didn’t show in her parents, it reappeared with her. She was a nobody. Officially white, but the older the got, the more she appeared coloured. Times Online has a good article on her story.

The film depicts the complexities of Afrikaner people trying to make sense of the laws which at times simply doesn’t work. It beautifully show how kids were indoctrinated at school, and the culture that taught white kids that only white people require respect. And it shows how powerful political voices can ruin the life of children. It also points out how some Afrikaner people started realizing that they were wrong, in this case the official that was responsible for Sandra’s reclassification from white to coloured.

The school from which Sandra got expelled was Piet Retief primary. The school that I attended as a child. A place that I really loved. The town that rejected her, was my beloved hometown, Piet Retief. The church that didn’t stand up for the voiceless, was the congregation that formed my faith maybe more than any other. Suddenly the perpetrators of Apartheid is no longer people by the names of Botha, Vlok, Malan. But a headmaster from this small school. That not only did what he had to do, but took the initiative to get rid of this kid with her dark skin. I know people who was living in this town at that time, I know a number of people who had to be kids in this school at the time this happened. These people were our friends, people I looked up to, and still look up to. This reality have me want to take the Klopjag route, simply trying to forget that Apartheid ever happened, because the reality of how my own people participated, is just to grave. This is the stories that we would need to work through if we are to develop healthy post-Apartheid cultures.

One thing that I believe the film beautifully portrays, and that I haven’t read anywhere, is the role of gender. Apartheid is a white-man’s system, and the battles are between white men and black men. The woman seem to find ways of overcoming their differences, even in these difficult circumstances, which men find impossible. Sandra and her mother can work on their relationship after she ran away with Petrus, but her father cannot accept this, and rejects his daughter. When the struggle gets bad in the 80’s Petrus continues to blame Sandra, even though she has totally become part of the black culture. But Petrus’ mother, a gogo to Sandra, can keep the relationship open. All over the story woman find ways of building relationships much more effectively than men. Even in the way Sandra two children react to the situation. The importance of woman’s voices in reconciliation is still underestimated! And the importance of woman’s voices in politics, economics and society, to help us in preventing similar atrocities, is still under-appreciated.

18 December was the day Avatar was released in South Africa. 18 December was also the day of the Copenhagen accord.

Today I finally came around to reading the reports of Copenhagen. And I finally came around to watching Avatar. A sad concurrency of events.

Yes, Avatar is good. It might be one of those movies which will take me quite some time to work through. It presents a weird and magically wonderful world with effects which few, if anyone, have ever been able do. In combining this with the total over-romanticization of primal cultures, it reminds me of the 1999 Hallmark mini-series of Journey to the Center of the Earth (which I haven’t seen in 8 years or so, but I remember finding really brilliant at the time).

Avatar portrays this beautifully wonderful world of perfect pantheism (although they mess up this theological concept a bit with typical popular western theological ideas, but that will have to be left for another post), where everything is connected, and everything is in balance. It’s an Eden environment, where humanoids feel nature, care for nature, name the animals.

The movie is a blatant critique of colonialism, of the disconnect with nature brought about by our technocratic society, of the destruction of the earth by humans, of the disregard of everything sacred. And dare I say that the general reaction to this critique is positive. For many, the fantastic fantasy world of Pandora point to what we know, on a deep level, to be right, and true. Peace. Harmony. With all of creation. Living a simple lifestyle. Caring for the environment. Yes, all this and more, the beautiful world of Pandora is what we want. But we want to keep it fantasy.

Almost as if we need the fantasy of the possible life in harmony with nature, to keep our technocratic militaristic consumerist world alive. As if we know that as soon as the hope of peace and harmony disappear, we’ll die. So we keep the fantasy alive, so that we can continue our destruction. Because as soon as we walk out of Avatar, we continue our Christmas shopping, buying more than we need, and more than the earth can sustain. We go back to our lives in security villages and kept safe by large armies that keep the possibility of a society where the masses are living in absolute poverty alive. And not only do we shrug at a climate deal which screams against everything that Avatar has been fighting for, we kind of know that we are not willing to change our own lifestyles to be in harmony with our mother earth.

As the days after Copenhagen pass, the reaction of sadness, and sometimes madness, is heard over and over again. Yes, the thoughtful recognize the difficulties that the conversations faces, the thoughtful know that a first step in the right direction has been made. But the reality is that we are making decisions to safe our own asses. We have heard that gaia (to use Lovelock’s language) is going to make it difficult for humans, and we are willing to keep to the limits which was set so that our own comforts aren’t threatened. But harmony with the earth isn’t even on the table. Actually going above and beyond what the economy and human survival require isn’t even considered. A world where the human species is connected with everything around it is kept for the fantasy world of Pandora.

It’s not the first movie to play around with the dangers of  virtual worlds, and probably not the last. But some serious questions will have to be considered in the coming years concerning social networks and virtual worlds. Gamer portrays a world, 25 years in the future, where a social network is created in which you play another person. A virtual world, but it’s not virtual and not virtual people. The poor in society can sell themselves, their brains get wired up, and then someone can pay to play their bodies. The user sits behind his computer and play someone else.

This “society”, is portrayed by the film as a place where users guide the “bodies” to create a place of sexual experimentation. Maybe taken to an extreme, but it does show something of what happens when an anonymous world is taken where no responsibility needs to be taken.

A game is then created, where you can control a death-row inmate in a first person shooter game… to death (for the inmate). A literal game, a virtual game. People really die, but this while being played by kids.

The film opens up questions on virtuality and reality, and although not doing it very good, it does point to some of the dangers of what may happen to morals when actions are viewed as just virtual. Death and sex become mere virtual experiences.

Although I don’t agree with the general rating from RVA Magazine, it’s critique needs to be taken seriously:

It is a film that demonstrably hates its primary audience. It is a film that tries to criticize the commercialization of violence, even though it itself is commercialized violence.

I wonder about a film that criticizes virtualized violence, and then create a film of 95 minutes, of which a large part goes into just another violent scene: virtual violence.

I’ll give it 2/5 at best, but would consider it worthwhile to stimulate a few conversations.

war on the empire

September 5, 2008

It was Albert Nolan’s Jesus Today which first introduced me to the idea of America as empire. Ever since… well, ever since a very long time ago, like probably about 2700 or more, you find an empire ruling the world: Assirians, Babilonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Roman Catholic Church, Britian… Might be more complicated than this, since the Monguls would come into this at some point, only more to the east, so would the Chinese and Muslim empire. The empire want to rule everything.

In leftist jounalist John Pilger’s documentary War on Democrasy, this theme is taken up again. It talks about a number of instances where the American government has been involved, directly of indirectly, in coups against young South American democracies. Focusing especially on Venezuela, but also on a number of older stories. He talks about attrocities and human rights violations in the name of American National Security, in order that America can keep on controlling these countries.

Empires has always been overthrown in the end. Nolan point to the vast amount of social justice groups that appearing like mushrooms, and that the combined force of these people are stronger than any empire. Pilger talk about young governments in South America that are revolting against the American system, and starting something fresh, apart from mother USA. Both these people seem to find hope for change.

Within recent political events within South Africa this is also of interest. With the growing tension between America and China, as China build up it’s weoponry, and become the second superpower, China seem to be investing energy into Africa, and president Mbeki has built great relations with China. I’ve wondered in the past whether this mean that he has chosen against the American empire. But now Mbeki has made an arrangement to get oil from Venezuela, the country who has supplied America with 15% of it’s oil a few years back (I’m not sure whether Venazuela still supply oil).

In Old Testament thought we sometimes get the idea that new empires are used by God to destroy old empires. In the New Testament we find the idea that God is building a new empire, the empire of God.

To my American friends, just a note: Nolan also admits that some of the strongest voices against the empire is coming from America! Thanks!

filmmakers against racism

August 30, 2008

The 3continents film festival is showing a number of films on human rights at Nouveau’s around Gauteng at the moment. Many of these films are shown only once at each location. Sadly I didn’t follow the Nouveau the past few weeks, been in too much of a hurry, so I only found out about it now, and next week I will be at the Northern Synod for a few days, so will miss whole lot more

On Monday at 20:00 Filmmakers Against Racism 1 is showing at Brooklyn Nouveau, a documentary with the Xenophobic attacks as it’s focus. These were produces by filmmakers that committed themselves to make films that speak of the issue, and portray some of the stories of what happened. You can book your ticket at Let me know if you are going, maybe we can organize a discussion afterwards. Just send me a mail of SMS, of leave a comment here.

Click more to get more info on what the different short films will be about…

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In Afrikaans we have a nice way of saying how I experiences The Dark Knight. I’ll give you a direct translation as well, but it just doesn’t sound the same:

The Dark Knight was net té… te veel, te lank, te donker, te evil, te onrealisties, te veel twists, te goed om waar te wees…

The Dark Knight was just too… too much, too long, too dark, too evit, too unrealistic, too many twists, too good to be true…

Ok, so the joker is a very good personification of evil, that Ben Witherington has warned me about. Batman do amazing things, but driving a motorcycle at an amazing speed, head to head with a truck going at top speed itself, and then swerving under the truck between the wheels… just too much.

Wiring a whole hospital with explosives that not only blow it up, but does so in such a way that it falls perfectly, as if some demolition expert did it in order not to harm the building next door, and doing all this without anyone noticing… just too much

I don’t care for unrealism, but don’t like when a movie presents itself as realistic, and in a wat batman does, by not giving any superpowers to the hero, but still being unrealistic.

But may biggest problem with The Dark Knight… is that it left me suspicios of justice. I loved Batman Begins, I found it inspiring. I don’t know a lot about the hermeneutics of suspicion, but what I know seem to resonate with me. I approach a lot of things in life suspiciosly (others naively). But somehow suddenly realised tonight that I don’t want to become suspicios of the possibility of justice in this world, I choose to have faith that we can fight for justice. But Dark Knight challenge this.

What remains? Racheal dies. Dent becomes corrupted. OK, so Gordon and Bruce remain, and yes, the Batman always act correctly, as the Joker tells him, but in his perfectness I even wondered whether he gave me hope… and for some reason I didn’t find hope in Batman.

Looking back there is one glimmer of hope in the movie: On the ferry with the criminals, when the criminal throw the detonator out of the window, saying: “I’m doing what you should have done 10 minutes ago”. That was a glimmer of hope, things can change. But even in that, the story was actually saying that you cannot trust anyone, because, although the free citizens didn’t detonate the criminals in the end, they still handled it worse than the criminal ship did. Who says that people without records will do things better than those with criminal records? And yes, I know that it’s a valid question… let’s leave it at that.

OK, so looking back. The Dark Knight is a good movie, good effects, brilliant acting, but sadly, it’s not really inspirational, but if you want a picture of evil, then this is the film.