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Nick Pollard, founder, the Damaris Trust

19 October 2012

'You can think, "We'll put on a Christian event and people will come." They won't'

Films are a great way to encourage people to think about big questions. We don't like the word "evangelism", because it immediately raises preconceptions in people's minds. We prefer the concept of walking people on their spiritual journey as they seek answers to the big questions of life.

Damaris is run by a team of people who have a firm grasp on the Bible, a clear understanding of popular culture, and the ability to relate one to the other. Between us, we are able to seek out new films that help people as they move on their spiritual journey.

One of the things I discovered is that you can think: "Oh, we'll put on some Christian event and people will come." They won't. It's not where they're at. But they are still thinking about spiritual and moral issues, and they think about them through the films. We realised what we've got to do is say: "If you're thinking about deep things like hope, trust, dedication, and you're going to the cinema, here are resources to help. . ."

Practically every film we see, we think of different people we could share this with. With The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it was about how we can help the older generation think about taking risks, for instance. We think of young people taking risks, but old people can do that as well - step out and do something different.

Back in the early days, when we were creating Bible-study material for home groups in partnership with Scripture Union, we produced a large resource based around the issues raised by Harry Potter.

First and foremost, and most important, we must treat the film with integrity. It's not about cherry-picking bits that we can illustrate a Gospel story with. We must look at the ideas that the film explores and the questions it raises, and consider how, with complete integrity, we can help people who have watched it to develop their thinking about those issues.

We don't use exploitative films, either of people in the film, or the audience. Pornography - we wouldn't be involved in anything like that. That's not helping people to think about issues. It's exploiting their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Damaris is a registered charity that depends on the gifts of Christians, churches, and grant-making trusts to enable us to pioneer and develop new resources.

We work in partnership with the film industry. We introduce different audiences to the key themes and messages of the film. There's the cinema-going public who will go to anything - a small number. We're part of the means by which the film industry can interest other people who are looking for films that interest them, and we are helping people on their spiritual journey. As long as we treat the films with integrity, there is never any problem.

We create community educational resources to go with new films as they are released in the cinema. Sometimes, they are special, short films, a whole range of different types, or little reflective films we call a "Movie Moment": presenting clips from the film and raising life issues designed to stimulate discussions.

Reel to Real takes issues raised in a film to real life. So, from Africa United we made a whole bunch of videos on child soldiers, AIDS orphans, child prostitution, and got experts in that subject to speak about these issues and how people might take action.

Nobody buys them: they're given away free. Each one is designed for a particular group; so, for example, our The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was made for the University of the Third Age, which is made up of a quarter of a million people across the UK. We also produce work for groups that do film studies and cultural studies.

We began by creating resources for churches; but I was very struck by God's command to Abraham in Genesis 13: "You'll be a blessing to all people." So we're moving much more to making resources that any community group can use: Scouts and Guides, Rotary, schools. We do website assemblies online every week for primary and secondary schools. It's great fun when we release clips from the film and a teacher can show it to their class, saying: "Next week this film is coming out."

We worked with 20th Century Fox to get Chariots of Fire re-released for the Olympics. We had a feature about it in the opening ceremony, and we had the film digitally remastered and released throughout the country.

I wanted to be a doctor as a child, and originally came to Southampton to study medicine, but switched to psychology at the last minute. Then, at post-graduate level, I moved into philosophy. As a teenager, I was fascinated by different philosophies and religions.

I made a commitment to be a sceptic, and to seek truth wherever it would lead me. This led me, in time, to becoming convinced of the truth of the life and teaching of Jesus.

I regret not completing my Ph.D. All the research was done; much of it was written. But my wife and I were head-hunted by the Billy Graham Association, and the attraction of all the opportunities to help people to explore the gospel was overwhelming.

I used to love camping and walking, but now we are hugely attracted by cruises. Is that a sign of age?

Recently I have started to relax by reading biographies. It's fascinating to read the inside track on people's experiences as they journey through life

Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto: whenever I feel tired or jaded - I have a wonderful drawing room upholstered in leather, my little bit of luxury - I put that on, and sit on the sofa. That's enjoying life.

I wrote a book called Get More like Jesus While Watching TV [Damaris, 2005]. I say which is my favourite film in that; so I could just say buy the book. But it's It's A Wonderful Life. It's a 1950s film that engages you emotionally and intellectually, and you ask: 'What would the world be like if I hadn't lived? What has been my impact on the world?' There's an angel in it, which is theologically way off-beam, but I'm not worried about that, because it helps people think.

I've been deeply influenced by Peter Berger and his concept of signals of transcendence. One of the things he talks about is the idea that there are things in the world around us that awaken within us an insight into the deeper questions of life, transcending the material world. You watch a sunset. There's got to be more. . . A newborn baby: amazing. That happens in the cinema all the time. For so many people, it provides wonderful signals of the transcendent.

Is it possible to be forgiven? To find a love that will stay with us for ever? We're going to be working on Nativity 2, and it's about a small group of kids entering a Songs for Christmas competition, and David Tennant is in it. There's a line in the film from someone talking about how his dad left him, and he says: "Ever since then, all I've wanted is a best friend who would stay with me for ever." You're laughing all the way through because it's so funny, then there's a quiet, moving moment, particularly powerful because it's in the midst of all this humour. So many people will say that, too. We want to say: "Well, perhaps there's a God who loves you and will be with you for ever."

Colossians 3 is both the favourite and the least-liked - because it challenges me every time I read it. It's practical and inspirational at the same time - and, no matter how long you have been following Jesus, there is always more in that chapter to challenge you.

I get angry about the way in which some people in the Church advocate entertainment over serious engagement. I love practical jokes, love humour - but people in the Church think Christian outreach means just entertaining them, or engaging with them emotionally.

People misunderstand film if they think it's merely entertainment. There's a huge layer of complexity in even a superficial rom. com. A lot of work has gone in to engage people at all levels - aesthetically, artistically, emotionally. We identify with a character very powerfully, feel the emotion with them, engage intellectually, think about the questions they are facing. We are whole people, emotional, intellectual, active.

I'm happiest whenever I am with a group of people who are actively engaged in thinking about the big questions of life.

I pray that I will be able to "make the most of every opportunity" [Colossians 4].

I'd like to get locked in a church with my son. We could talk philosophy and theology without having to stop for food.

Nick Pollard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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