Independent Documentary Filmmaker
The Frozen Chosen
I think there's a larger battle going on for the future of American culture and identity and planting churches and marching on Washington are both attempts to influence the outcome.
By Heidi Legg
If you grew up watching TV in the 70s and 80s in North America, you were likely familiar with televangelist preachers Jerry Falwell and Tammy Faye Bakker. They filled the airwaves from 1974 to 1989, with their preaching and gospel hour, followed later by scandal. As a GenXer, it would be hard to miss them as part of the cultural landscape of our generation, in company with The Jeffersons, Gilligan’s Island, and Family Feud vying for ratings. Today, The Voice, Billions, and The Apprentice reflecting our cultural aspirations, along with a deluge of homemade content on every device with a plug. In hindsight, it is hard to deny these cultural influences on our choice for leaders when we look at the rise of George W. Bush under the evangelical veil and now President Trump under a penchant for celebrity. How do these cultural movements take shape? And how do they fuel our deeply held beliefs in this, our polarized nation?
For the past seven years, independent documentary filmmaker Elizabeth O'Brien Gardner has been filming a young evangelical church planter, David, and his wife, Betsy, in Boston – a city Gardner says the evangelical movement calls ‘The Preacher’s Graveyard.’ Her 72-minute documentary, The Frozen Chosen, follows the journey of David and Betsy as they build a congregation of fellow millennials looking for salvation. We meet a young ballet dancer who struggles with his homosexuality and looks to the church for guidance, another young man who is a seeker of sorts, baptized by David and born-again in a dramatic scene of speaking in tongues and what looks like physical possession, and a cast of other millennials in search of community. Many of the youth live around the Fenway and Brighton areas and meet regularly. In a time when fundamentalist religion dominates our news cycle and the country seems more divided than ever, Gardner’s documentary takes a neutral look at how evangelicals are growing their following while asking us to consider how this differs or is similar to the dogma of other movements or building of dreams.
Your documentary, The Frozen Chosen, is in many ways about a movement. How do you define this particular movement?
I would say that it's a new generation of evangelicals and I think for many of us coming out of GenX, when we think about the word 'evangelical,' if we lived in a part of the country that weren't as surrounded by evangelicals, our association was primarily through the preachers Jerry Falwell and Tammy Faye Baker during the Reagan era. It was this idea of the ‘Moral Majority’ and family values. I think it's safe to say that for a great deal of mainstream Americans, those evangelicals and those figureheads probably left a polarization in our minds.
You went to Harvard and then on to study journalism at Berkeley. Those are pretty liberal campuses. Is it fair to say you went into this documentary with a secular view?
I knew how I viewed evangelicals and I knew how people who shared my worldview, probably, also viewed them. In terms of this new movement, this film is really about the millennial generation of evangelicals, not the evangelicals we knew of in the 80s. Not only are the people in the film evangelical church planters reaching out to millennials, they're trying to do things differently than the generation that came before them.
They see how divisive and polarizing that earlier generation became, and they see that the mixing of politics and religion didn't work out so well. Their whole idea is that they want to reach out to people and move their hearts, and in moving hearts, perhaps change minds. I will say, however, the theology is very similar. It's their approach that differs.
In the film, it’s hard not to have empathy for David, the church planter here in Boston, your film's main character who is up against some pretty unlikely odds. How did you balance his struggle and remain neutral and unbiased?
It was very tricky. It's very astute of you to point that out. The film follows this young, ambitious church planter, David, and his wife who are part of this larger movement of church planting within the evangelical denominations. It’s a way to reach all people, but specifically a way of reaching out to younger people. Millennials are actually falling away from religion in droves, and the evangelical denominations have realized this. As a result, they started this movement over the past twenty years that's really blown up, in particular over the past decade.
Rather than being hired by a church to be the pastor, these young guys are sent out to places that are deemed to need an evangelical presence. The mission is to build their churches from the bottom up. They’re opening churches all over the country, particularly in the Bible Belt, but also in places where you wouldn't expect: in bars, in art galleries, and in bowling alleys. These are places they have deemed as less threatening or strange than a church. They are choosing more familiar venues.
Who are they trying to reach?
It is an attempt to target a more secular mainstream culture. David and his wife Betsy are attempting to do that here in Boston – which is actually one of the least evangelical places in the nation. Amongst church planters it's considered the 'preacher's graveyard.' Boston is actually considered to be one of the toughest places in the country to plant a church; New England and the Pacific Northwest are the two most difficult places.
You really take a close look at David, the main character. How did you narrow down your focus as you scanned this evangelical movement?
My editor and I talked a great deal about how to approach David and Betsy's story, understanding that you're going to have a large part of the audience that does not agree with what they are thinking as evangelical Christians, nor support their journey or what they're trying to do.
But we felt it was really important to balance those moments because in the end what they are doing is a very human endeavor. They have a dream and they're trying to accomplish that dream, and whether or not you agree with all of the particulars of that, we all know what it is to have a dream. But what if your dream is to convert people? That seemed like a really interesting question to me.
There are a lot of 'movements' in America right now. Audiences can understand the concept. How did you think about your approach to movement building?
I looked at it through the lens of a cultural divide. That's how I came to it. I had gone to a wedding out in Oklahoma and I'd never spent much time in that part of the country, and from the minute I stepped off the plane, I felt like I was in a different country – a very Christian country. Everything from the billboards to the kids wearing Jesus t-shirts in the airport to the town where the wedding was held gave me context. The town had five evangelical churches and about 300 people and I really got this sense of ‘wow, there's an entirely separate culture or movement afoot in this country than where I live in Boston.’ I really don't bump up against that too much in my life and I became interested in this idea that we have these parallel cultures going on in this country.
How are the political protests today around social issues different from movements like the evangelical right expanding on coastlines of US?
I guess I would say the protests we are seeing now are different from the church planting movement in a number of ways but both speak to the significant divide in the country, so apparent after the election, and both could be said to represent the next phase of the culture wars. One side is looking to win votes or policy change while the other side is looking to win souls.
One big difference though is that this generation of evangelicals, the millennials, seem to have much less appetite for politics than the "moral majority" generation (Jerry Falwell, Jim Baker, etc.), as I mentioned earlier, who came before them. Mostly, because this generation saw that approach didn't really seem to work and it was very polarizing. David told me that rather than trying to change the culture through politics, church planters are trying to change peoples' minds first and then maybe that will change cultural beliefs. But I think there is a larger battle going on for the future of American culture and identity and planting churches and marching on Washington are both attempts to influence the outcome.
You spent many years refining this documentary. What did that offer you?
Yes, I spent about seven years on it and when I would tell people what I was working, many people thought of David and Betsy as being much more fringe than I did, because of where we live. Here in Boston, their beliefs may be fringe but through doing the film, I realized that they were part of this much, much larger movement. If you tally people who identify as evangelical or born again, it's 33% of the country! Of course, you can live in your own little bubble whether that's a Christian bubble or a secular bubble. I think this was born out by what just happened in the election.
How can one cross these bubbles or create transculturation? Where do we begin thoughtful conversation?
I think that's a great question. I think it can be difficult right now, with people being very heated in their discourse, and for good reason. This is a little easier said than done, but I would say that part of what came out of this experience for me that was really valuable was getting to know David and Betsy and the relationship that developed with people who I really wouldn't have come across in my everyday life. We may have very different world views, but I did feel like we were able to find some common ground. I guess my only piece of advice would be for people on all sides of the divide to approach people with less demonization. I think that would help.
If you get invited to a wedding in Oklahoma…
One thing that I thought was really interesting after the screenings was that people would come to me and say, ‘you really humanized David and Betsy,’ and I really appreciated that feedback. But it also made me laugh because of course David and Betsy are human – as are most evangelical Christians. They are a nuanced people, as we all are nuanced people, but it can be easy to lose sight of that today.
What public opinion would you like to change?
There are many public opinions I'd probably like to change, actually. One thing that came out of my film where I probably disagreed the most with the people in it was this idea of people thinking that we all need to live one way or to think we all need to believe one thing and how that's the right way to live. To be fair, it’s not just evangelical Christians who think that way. It’s fundamentalists of all religions, but I would argue fundamentalists exist outside of religion, as well. This idea of there being one right way to live and one right way to believe and that if I'm living this way, then you need to be living the same way as well or else you're not living the right way. I fundamentally disagree with that viewpoint.
What did you learn about yourself in making this film?
I discovered that religion can be very polarizing and tackling such a topic can definitely feel like a lot of responsibility. It can make you feel uncomfortable to be putting yourself out there in that way. Of course I knew that about religion, but I really had to come to terms with it and struggle a little bit, because there are moments in this film that are going to make people uncomfortable and there are moments in the film that made me uncomfortable, but as a documentary filmmaker I actually think that those moments can be really important and make for a more interesting film.
What are you focused on right now with your filmmaking?
I'm definitely mulling ideas. I'm in that phase now where any time I hear someone talking about something really interesting, my first thought is 'could that be a film? Would that be a good film? A good article? A good novel?’ The thing with documentary film is that you always want to make sure that the subject you pick is filmic. I’m thinking and I'm percolating. There's a great deal going on in our country and a lot of good stories to be told.
Where are you showing The Frozen Chosen today?
We have a couple of screenings coming up locally and a screening in California as part of a spirituality series this month. We're also setting up smaller screenings as people reach out to us. People are interested in hosting screenings where there can be a panel with a Q&A and time for discussion. There seems to be a demand for that. We're also preparing to stream online this week.
Douglas Coupland called Generation X "heartfelt storytellers and fantastical creators," which is what we're wrapping this twenty part series around. How do you see our generation?
I love that quote. I see our generation as probably the most cynical generation.
Why? Is that because we're sandwiched between two huge generations?
Exactly, but I think we have a real sense of irony in our generation and I think there's definitely some cynicism there. We may be a little less earnest than the millennials, but I think that there's innocence as well. When I look back on our childhoods - and I guess it's how most people feel when they look back on their childhoods - there was no Internet, no iPhone, no Instagram. That's how I think of our generation.
What GenX peers do you admire?
I really love Samantha Bee and Jon Stewart. In terms of filmmakers, I love Wes Anderson's work in the Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mister Fox. I love his vision and his ability to bring that vision into his films. I love the work of Nicole Holofcener who makes exquisitely made films that tell very specific stories and feel very true to life and they have vision, like Anderson’s, throughout. Catherine Keener's always in her films and they're always about similar types of subjects, but different variations on those subjects. In the documentary film world there are many whose work I admire, but I'm thinking of Lucy Walker right now who's made a number of documentary films including The Crash Reel, about snowboarder Kevin Pearce and so much more.
What film from your youth influenced you?
That's an easy one. If I'm thinking about my teenage years, I think that my answer is probably shared by most GenerationXers – John Hughes movies like Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink. It’s nice to see that those films have really held up and stood the test of time.
Favorite road trip you've taken as an adult?
Probably taking our children to Europe for the first time. We tried to pack a lot in. We had a lot of crowded hotel rooms and a crazy itinerary but it is a joy to be able to show your children a different part of the world and let them know that people live all sorts of different ways and that there are a lot of opportunities out there for them.
Where do you go to unwind? You're a Boston local.
Yes. I grew up here. I go to the movies at Coolidge Corner Cinema. That's where I go to unwind.