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Unto us a child is born, on screen

21 December 2012

The Nativity Factor is an annual competition that encourages people to produce their own version of the Christmas story. Prizes are awarded for the best ones. Steve Tomkins reports

Nativity scenarios: No Pressure

Nativity scenarios: No Pressure

A MAN in jeans and a hoodie walks through a wood, his face darkened with rage and pain. Memories of angry confrontations churn through his mind, as he screws up the photo of him and his girlfriend and throws it away.

There is a flicker of light, and he notices two children, all in black, standing before him. They have come to tell him, in their own way, that Mary is telling him the truth, and much, much more. . .

It is not the traditional depiction of the nativity story, but then that is the whole point. This surprisingly moving short film, No Pressure, is an entry in the Nativity Factor competition, in which contestants are challenged to make a film that tells the old, old story in a new and engaging way.

The competition is run by ITN and Jerusalem Productions. "We're looking for a creative and original retelling of the nativity story," Dan Faulks, of ITN, explains. "It doesn't necessarily have to be radically different - it could be quite traditional, if it had amazing production values."

The first competition was held last year, and the winner was the Revd Gavin Tyte, Priest-in-Charge of St Peter and St Paul's, Uplyme, in Devon, with The Beatbox Nativity, a one-man summary of Luke's nativity story that uses rap and beatbox. "That was a pretty traditional version of the story," Mr Faulks says, "but done in a really off-the-wall way".

The point of the contest, he says, "is to raise awareness of the Christian values around the Christmas story. It's not exactly aiming to raise the profile of the nativity story, because it's everywhere, but trying to get people to take another look at it."

The film, featuring the figure in jeans and a hoodie, and two young "angels", gets its title, No Pressure, from the angels' ironic words of reassurance to Joseph. It is the work of 4six3, a group that makes DVDs that explore life issues for Christian children's groups.


The project is run by Sarah Robinson and Nick Willoughby, and involves local young people in the acting and camerawork, and some of the writing and production. Mrs Robinson and Mr Willoughby take the adult roles in the film.

"We wanted something a bit different which changed the direction a little, and brought in the humour," Mrs Robinson says. "It grew from a sketch we did five or six years ago about angels arguing who was going to tell Joseph the message from God, and we thought, 'How can we expand on that?'

"Nick and I write together, and one will have an idea, and the other expand it, and it works very well. We recorded it in one day, everyone had a great time, and we were thrilled with it."

A VERY different entry comes from Canon Taffy Davies, Rural Dean of Macclesfield. The Founding is a beautiful pencil-drawing animation, in black and white - with one notable exception - and silent apart from a musical track. If the style seems familiar, Canon Davies is the erstwhile cartoonist for The Church of England Newspaper.

In this film, craftspeople in a modern-day foundry make a mysterious metal artefact, which is then shipped out to Bethlehem. We see them painstakingly make a mould, fill it with molten metal, and later paint the resultant disc blue. A series of vans and ships carries it to its destination, the greatest obstacle being the Israeli separation wall. Finally, it arrives, and is put in place - and, if you haven't guessed what it is, I won't spoil the ending.

"I was attracted by the idea of the Nativity Factor," Canon Davies says, "but I wince when I see angels, and donkeys, and shepherds, and clouds; so I wanted to do something different. I do my own Christmas cards, and I based the film on one I did a couple of years ago, working back from that image to develop the story.


"It gave me the opportunity to make some contemporary comments about the situation in the Middle East at the moment. I asked someone who's got good connections with the Middle East what the postal address would be for Bethlehem. It turns out it would be something like: 'The Palestinian Autonomous District, via Israel'; so there's the subplot."

Canon Davies says that the drawings took him a couple of evenings, and then his friend Phil Wattis animated them in a couple of hours. "No false modesty, but people say 'How do you find the time to do these things?' It's just spending a couple of evenings away from the pub, really."

BOTH 4six3 and Canon Davies have found that, in entering the competition, they have created a resource for churches. Both have heard from people who saw the video on the competition website, and wanted to use it as part of their carol service - which they were delighted to agree to.

The Potato Eaters' Nativity is an entry by FISH (Friends in Social Harmony), the young people's group at Guiseley Methodist Church, Yorkshire. Using the unlikely inspiration of Van Gogh's painting Potato Eaters, they staged a nativity where all the parts are played by potato puppets, against a backdrop based on the original painting.

"The people who were speaking had to be next to the camera," Becky Morrish, the 15-year-old who dressed and voiced the potato Mary, says; "so other people had to duck behind the stage and control the potatoes. It was a fun thing to do. Everyone enjoyed it."

Joseph finds the hotels are all "wedged" full, and Mary complains she is "roasting" after the journey. "We had a session where we had to think of as many potato references as possible, and then Nick [the Revd Nick Baker] combined as many as possible into a script."

Mr Baker says: "It went from the sublime - chatting about the meaning of Christmas - to 'How are we going to get this across?' 'Potatoes.' 'OK then. . .'"

Other entries in the competition include a superhero live-action comic strip X-Mas Origins; a futuristic science-fiction version Nativity 3001: A space Godyssey; and one told through voiceovers of animals, An Animal's Tale.

There is also Humble Beginnings, in the style of a trailer for a teen-drama movie; and The Chinnie's Nativity, acted by talking chins.

The competition has a separate category for under-16s. In this, you can see A Nativity Told Through Dinosaurs, by Taliesin Coleman; Posh Jesus and Street Jesus, both by Orchard School, Bristol; and The Lego Nativity, by Jacob, Samuel, and Matthew Crow.

To see the films and find out who won, visit www.thenativityfactor.com.

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