Law student explores intersection of religion, politics in ‘Seeing Red’

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For Leah Belsky LAW ’09, who helped produce the new documentary “Seeing Red: A Journey Through the Moral Divide,” the perceived moral divide between devoutly religious Americans and the Democratic Party is just that — a perception.

Now in her first year at Yale Law School, Belsky is trying to break that illusion down, juggling her schoolwork with her attempts to promote the documentary, which is not being shown in movie theaters.

The film, which chronicles the schism between evangelical Christians and liberals around the country, was filmed on a shoestring budget using home-video equipment. Neither Belsky nor her co-producer, Gerry Corneau, had much experience in filmmaking.

“I took a short course in filmmaking while in Washington, D.C., and [Corneau] had never made a film,” Belsky said. “In a certain way, you’re liberated: Anyone can grab a camera and a computer.”

Belsky and Corneau’s distribution plan is unusual. While most novice filmmakers seek out an agent for a theater release, Corneau and Belksy instead decided to distribute the film by selling DVDs online and encouraging “house parties” and public screenings. Eventually, Belsky said, she hopes the word-of-mouth recognition reaches a volume high enough on both ends of the religious and political spectra that the film is picked up for a network broadcast.

The film’s visibility shot up after it was selected from more than 500 submissions for the 22nd Boston Film Festival and shown on Sept. 11. It was one of 27 movies shown at the festival, which has premiered studio films such as Oscar-winner “American Beauty” and, this year, Zach Braff’s “The Last Kiss.”

“‘Seeing Red’ was one of the submissions we thought was impactful and imparted a really interesting message,” Robin Dawson, the festival’s executive director, said. “We also try to support student filmmakers. We definitely felt that the film was well done and also particularly timely.”

Belsky grew up in a secular Jewish family in Connecticut, and went on to be a political science and biology major at Brown University. She said she was initially inspired to make the film after the 2004 presidential election.

“I was one of many Democrats who was really frustrated and puzzled about why we lost, and we heard everyone talking about this idea of moral values,” Belsky said.

This confusion led Belsky, Corneau and two other like-minded friends to film their journey through some of the most religious, secular, conservative and liberal areas in the country in order to develop an accurate portrayal of the moral divide that they felt mainstream media was neglecting.

Corneau said he chose to co-produce the film because he was dismayed by the lack of communication between those on either side of the debate.

“We’ve gone from sound bytes to word bytes,” Corneau said. “It keeps getting dumbed down. I thought, ‘There has to be something I can do.’”

To familiarize themselves with the heart of the religious base of America, the filmmakers visited the Second Baptist Church in Houston — a 30,000-member megachurch and the second-largest adult ministry in the country — and spoke to the pastor, Ed Young.

“It was interesting because of how honest and candid he was,” Belksy said. “So many people think the religious right is trying to manipulate people, but most people aren’t.”

Belsky and her crew of three decided they needed to initiate a dialogue between liberals and evangelicals. The documentary’s Web site features a discussion forum, and Belsky said she hopes the site will serve as a hub for people of different faiths and political views to discuss the movie and bridge their imagined divide.

“There is a lot of diversity within evangelical America which is rarely portrayed anywhere,” Belsky said. “There are people out there whose progressive values are motivated by Christianity, people who Democrats should naturally be able to communicate with.”

Prior to making the film Belksy had little experience with evangelical Christianity and said she was always slightly skeptical of church-based social organizations. Filming the movie gave Belsky firsthand experience with the people behind these movements and the good they can do for a community, such as a church in Houston that spearheaded the city’s Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

“On the one hand, you intellectually see that if [faith-based organizations are] given money, they’ll use it well,” Belsky said. “But on the other hand, they’re doing everything based on Jesus, and I don’t believe in Jesus. I felt a certain alienation.”

The movie turned out to be a personal journey for the 48-year-old Corneau, who, after years of living a secular Christian lifestyle, became a born-again Christian during the making of the film. Before making the film, Corneau said, he had been “seriously considering” moving to Canada after the 2004 election.

“It was a true sort of calling,” he said. “I really felt like God was genuinely calling me.”

Corneau said the highlight of his experience working on the film was driving away from an interview at the home of his mother-in-law, who is a lesbian pastor.

“She is the quintessential very progressive, very faithful person,” Corneau said. “[The other filmmakers and I] were driving away in the car really excited saying, ‘If that’s what Christianity can sound like and be, I could do that. I could believe that.’ That was so appealing personally to hear.”

Belsky said she believes she discovered during the filming “where the Democrats went wrong.” She said one of her most striking interviews was in Vermont with a group of peace activists nicknamed the “raging grannies.”

“We tried to ask them about their values,” she said. “The funny thing is that liberals can’t talk about moral values. … A big problem with the Democratic Party is that we don’t know who we are and what core values bring us together.”

Berry Kennedy ’08, a religious studies major and co-head of the Yale branch of Unity08 — an organization working to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives by promoting a bipartisan candidate in the 2008 presidential election — said she supports Belsky’s notion of inter-faith discussion.

“I’m a practicing Christian,” Kennedy said. “I go to church every Sunday, and I feel that people of different faiths should be able to come together and listen to each other. I think that religion is a very important issue because it’s being used to polarize people in a way that doesn’t need to happen.”

Matthew Pirkowski ’09 , another co-head of the Yale branch of Unity08, said he also believes dialogue is essential to creating progress because once people of different backgrounds sit down together, they ultimately may realize they have more in common than they originally believed.

“It’s just a function of the fact that we tend to fall in communities where it’s easy to not interact with those who engage in a different lifestyle from us,” Pirkowksi said. “It’s very easy to view these people as irreparably different from you.”

The producers of the film were denied grants to fund the film, but they felt the issue was sufficiently important to pursue with their own funds.

“If you ever have an idea and can’t shake money from the institutional money tree, just do it anyway,” Corneau said.

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