Director teams with Evangelical minister to reframe fight over firearms
Abigail Disney and the Rev. Rob Schenck may turn out to be a match made in heaven. Which is a very surprising thing.
She is, after all, an abortion-rights supporter with left-leaning politics. He, on the other hand, is an Evangelical minister of impeccable conservative credentials -- and a former combatant with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.
Where they found common ground, unexpectedly, is on the issue of gun control. Disney's new documentary, The Armor of Light, explores how Rev. Schenck went from being a pillar of the Christian right to a possible pariah, all because of the way his thinking evolved on that issue. Gun control went from being outside the scope of his thought to a central thrust of his ministry.
The Armor of Light recently qualified for the Oscar race for Best Documentary. It opens in more than 20 cities on Friday (Oct. 30), including Los Angeles, New York, DC, Denver, Houston and Dallas. Interestingly, the filmmakers are offering NRA members free tickets on the opening weekend by following these instructions:
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to register. Present your membership card to THE ARMOR OF LIGHT greeters outside your participating theater to receive a free pass for you and a guest. A limited number of free passes will be given out in front of the theater 1/2 hour prior to the screening time on a first come, first served basis. All participants must obey local firearms regulations and theater policies. This offer is valid for showings from 12pm-8pm, 10/30-11/1 only.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Disney in Los Angeles as she prepared for the theatrical release of her documentary.
Nonfictionfilm.com: How did you first get interested in the topic of guns?
Abigail Disney: I was drawn to it in part because I really don't understand why we do it [love guns]. It's a strange thing to me. I feel like I dropped here from another planet, because just none of it makes sense.
I wrote a dissertation at Columbia [University] on war novels. And that involved me spending some time understanding the weaponry... Part of what I was writing about was this kind of American obsession with war and the kind of way that we have it in our heads that this is the best thing we do. It's like our national fever dream.
NFF: How did you go from studying this issue from an academic point of view to really taking on a more activist role?
Disney: When Women, War & Peace came out and Pray the Devil Back to Hell -- which were my first two big [producing] efforts -- I got invited to a lot of other countries to talk about peace and peace-building. One day I found myself in Northern Mexico talking to a group of women who were suffering there by the [drug-related] violence... I was talking to those women, doing my usual thing, and somewhere along the line I kind of couldn't tolerate it anymore -- that I'm an American woman and I know there are a quarter million weapons coming from Texas and Arizona into Northern Mexico every year, feeding that conflict, horribly destroying their lives... It really hit me hard that day and I thought, "I'm going to do something around this [issue] if I can affect this some way, some how."
He just really couldn't believe there was this massive kind of moral failing at the center of everything, that he had missed.
NFF: The politics around gun control and gun rights are so intractable.
Disney: The political dynamics [are] kind of locked up by the behavior of trolls and some bad actors but also a lot of sentiment -- a lot of emotions, high, high passions. Sandy Hook was a great example of it. Everybody's impulse is to double down on what they already believe every time some [mass shooting] happens. Those guys say, "No. Arm up the kindergarten teachers." And we say, "No. There should be fewer guns," and then our reaction is a confirmation to them that they're right and vice versa. The hole just gets deeper.
[I thought], "What could break this deadlock?" And it seemed to me that there was a group of people woven into that other side -- hardcore believing people who have in another area of discourse a very strong language about the value of every human life. And it seemed to me that those things were not making sense together. It seemed important to try to sit down with somebody who was a pro-life Evangelical and very active in the conservative world and find out from him, did he ever think about [that contradiction]? Did he think it was inconsistent?
NFF: And that person wound up being Rev. Rob Schenck.
Disney: Rob was the fourth person I talked to and that conversation kind of led into [him saying], "Wait a minute, I have to do something about it!" And then we picked up a camera and followed. It's crazy.
NFF: Was the gun issue something Rev. Schenck had been thinking about before he met you or were you presenting him with a whole new idea?
Disney: He had never given this thought before... There was a long conversation between us for about five weeks, back and forth. He would ask me some questions and he'd think and talk to some advisers and he'd pray and then he'd come back with more questions... He said, "I kept trying to find a way that you're wrong [about gun control], but I can't figure out a way that you're wrong." He just really couldn't believe there was this massive kind of moral failing at the center of everything, that he had missed.
The idea is that if Evangelicals were really apply what they claim to believe [about the sanctity of human life] across the board in their faith practice there really should not be as many Evangelicals in the NRA.
NFF: What was the reaction among his peers when Rev. Schenck started to voice this thought that being pro-gun and pro-life were incompatible?
Disney: What the film shows is just how daunting this is to take on. He really is flying in the face of the opinions of pretty much a hundred percent -- almost a hundred percent -- of the people he works with.
NFF: It almost feels as if guns are the religion.
Disney: [Rob] says in the film he was not just surprised by how central the guns were to the way [fellow Evangelicals] understood their lives, but it was like a part of their theology. They have worked the guns into their theology. So you're worse than a heathen if you don't protect your family. Gotta have a gun.
The whole idea is like, "We are the guardians of what America is really for and about and therefore if the government runs amok we need our guns to make sure it gets right again." And there's a mythology or a weird fever dream about the potential for religious persecution which is never far from people's minds in the very far Evangelical right, and that's a part of the reason they don't like to talk about giving up guns. It's terrifying [for them]. [My[ overwhelming impression of these people is they're lovely, good, decent people who want to be good in the world and they're scared out of their minds. They're so frightened.
The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Disney: We're hoping to trigger -- and I can't stop using gun metaphors -- hopefully people to just first look inward at home and ask themselves, "Maybe we don't need this many guns. Maybe we don't need this much ammo. Maybe there's a better way to think about our personal safety." If you're a Christian I really, really hope you wouldn't prefer to shoot an intruder even if he is a bad guy.
Checkhov says, "If there's a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act it has to go off by the third act." Because if there's a gun on the mantelpiece it's pretty much all you can see... And so it soaks up all your imagination. It has to go off -- it's got to fulfill itself. And in my thinking there's a gun on the mantelpiece in this country and it's sucking away our ability to think about anything else.
There's a minister in the film who says, "If I see a child being pushed into a van shouldn't I protect that child?" Yes! The answer to that is yes! Absolutely, protect that child. Now, can we really talk about whether or not the gun is the best answer to that? Maybe [use] a pencil to write down the license plate number, maybe your voice, maybe a cell phone... There are a hundred options but if you've got a gun on your hip it's like a gun on the mantelpiece in your imagination -- you've got no other ideas. And I think that's what happens at the individual level and I think that's happening at a social level in this country. We've got a gun on the mantelpiece.
NFF: The other main character in your film is Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, the Florida teenager who was shot to death at a gas station by a man who invoked the state's "Stand Your Ground" law. [The notorious case is the subject of the recent documentary 3 1/2 Minutes. Ten Bullets]. We see Rev. Schenck meet with Ms. McBath, who is a deeply Christian woman, and it has a big influence on him.
Disney: He meets Lucy and the word he uses to describe what he gets from her is "testimony" -- which is a very fraught religious word. This is her testimony about what has happened in her life, what transcendent things she understands based on what she's learned.
His expectation is he'd be a pastoral counselor. He would sit and say nice things to her and she would feel better and he would pat her on the hand and then she would go. He did not get the meeting he was thinking he was going to have. He got a meeting with this forceful moral voice who challenged him and said, "You really want to go to your death bed thinking you didn't do everything you possibly could [to reduce gun violence]? I could see his face when we were shooting that scene and I just thought, "Oh, you poor man." Because he was like, "I have no choice. I have to [act]."
It was a hard moment for him because he was really sucking it up, knowing there would be damage to his career and potentially just destroy everything he's built and he really just didn't have a choice, because it's the right thing.
NFF: The documentary is coming out just a few weeks after the shooting at the Umpqua Community College in Oregon. But I'm hesitant to call the film timely because these incidents happen so frequently.
Disney: When we picked up the camera to start the project I felt almost with total certainty that there would be at least one, maybe two, even three incidents while we were shooting the film. And there were more than that in two years... The Washington Navy Yard shooting. Isla Vista happened, and Isla Vista was really awful. So we knew that that would happen with some regularity.
NFF: After the Oregon shooting President Obama openly stated we should "politicize" the issue of gun control. What did you think of him saying that?
Disney: I was so happy he said that because when you're saying it's not a political issue you're just accepting the way the other side is presenting it -- as not a political issue. This is about common civic spaces not being safe for everyone in them... I don't know what politics is if not that. It's sorting out the civic space so that people feel secure in it. That is politics. That's how politics is. That's what it's for.
Of course nobody wants to be vultures swooping over the bodies of dead innocents and taking advantage of them but at the same time there is a moment every time we have one of these shootings that people are wide open to the idea that we're not doing it right. And that's why it is really important to speak in those moments.
The problem is that we have dug a really deep hole here. There are more guns than trigger fingers in this country, right? And as you say, the film was going to be timely no matter what.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.