At the Foot of the Cross 2008

What is Truth?

I am the documentary man. I am making a fly-on-the-wall documentary about Roman justice, watching Pilate manoeuvring his way through the minefield of Jewish religious politics, land rites, taxation and military infractions. The crew is somewhat irritable because as we were packing up for the festival, an emergency case came up. There's this B list celebrity called Jesus who has made a bit of a splash in town this week and got the authorities rather annoyed and they want Pilate to sanction his execution. Pilate is worried; you can see it as he keeps going out to talk to the leaders and coming in again; it isn't that he's reluctant to execute people, far from it, it's just that there isn't really a charge and that makes it difficult. There is a suggestion - and it's really no more than that - that this Jesus wants to overthrow the Government; which is a bit odd because earlier in the week when the Pharisees tried to tempt him to insult the Emperor he publicly supported imperial taxation. Pilate is talking to Jesus in an unusually quiet and intense way about his aspirations; he says he's some sort of king but nothing to do with the world; a kind of superpriest, I suppose you could say, except that he doesn't seem very keen on priests.

While Pilate goes out yet again, picked up by the external cameras, we mull over the angles: Jesus is a mental case worth a flogging which Pilate can reasonably administer without causing any problems; or he is a vague threat, in which case he can be put into prison until after the Passover break; or he's a real danger and Pilate knows something we don't know, probably picked up from that snitch, Herod's intelligence service; on the other hand, it could simply be that Pilate wants to do the Jewish leaders a favour, though we can't figure out why; or he's frightened, as he often is (in fact he's at his cruellest when he's most uncertain). And it's that last option that seems most likely as he shuttles to and fro between Jesus and the people outside; he doesn't want to kill Jesus because there's no charge; but he's frightened.

Although we are aware of the huge noise outside, it is really quiet in here as Jesus talks to Pilate. He is strangely calm, even serene, in spite of his bruised and bloody face; he is relaxed in his beaten up body. It is not the incongruity but the apparent normality that makes it such good footage; ordinary people doing ordinary things never become boring; it's the forced incongruities of drama, the clever cuts, the obsession with the extreme, that become boring. Pornography and violence are the hallmarks of second rate film makers. This man is, well, ordinary but different. You can't take the camera off his face. It's a trick that you see pulled off but not so well as this by successful political leaders; he's looking at everyone intensely but you feel that he's actually only looking at you.

Jesus says he has come into the world to tell people what is true; and then Pilate, right out of the blue, asks: "What is truth?"

It's not the sort of question that Pilate usually asks; he usually wants to find out what the truth is of a given situation; Romans aren't very good at abstraction; and, I have to admit that all too often it's not the sort of question that documentary makers ask either? What is truth? It's a question that gets blown away by the hysteria, the pressure of deadlines and Pilate's mounting fear. But when we come to edit the film, it's there; it's the most compelling piece of footage; and we don't know what to do with it. The only thing we can do, given that Jesus does not answer, is to go back and look at his life and his teaching to see if that gives any clue to the answer he would have given. It's a bit hackneyed but a flashback might be effective at this point.

What are we to do with Pilate's question, as we stand outside, at the end of the interview, trying to sort out what it means? We have ready access to all the teaching and miracles, the kindnesses and the warnings, so how will we proceed? Well, the art of the film maker is to create an elegant, coherent piece of narrative architecture out of a welter of material. You know how it goes. A scene is set up and if it does not quite work, you order another 'take' until that piece is just how you want it. This is difficult because everything has to come together: the words delivered properly, the right facial expressions, elegant picture composition and a sense of continuity, or disruption, with the preceding and succeeding shots. You can see how all this piecing together can make abstract truth a bit, well, abstract. And when you have got all the pieces you want and put them into some kind of order, throwing hue amounts of material away, you decide that the architecture you had thought of isn't quite right; so you throw some of the carefully edited material onto the floor and you go away and re-write bits of the script and then do some more filming until your stamina or your money runs out. Everything has to be in its neat and tidy place; it is the most contrived form of art.

Handling this flashback is so easy because there is very little choice. There are pictures of Jesus opening his arms to everyone, healing people, making people smile, handing out bread and fish. There's a fair amount of homespun truth about being good to your neighbour and, because he's a Jew, a lot about loving God. We've cut the tricky stuff about Jesus and God as his Father as the audience would find that obscurantist; but the lakeside flashback is simple enough in its impact. But it doesn't answer Pilate's question. In the end, if you go along with Jesus, it's what you do that answers the question not what you say.

As we review the Good Friday shots, it becomes more difficult to work out what to do. Our usual technique of taking and re-taking, of editing and re-editing, is being called into question. We increasingly feel the need just to run the whole thing. We began, as usual, by wanting to present our version of Jesus but that is becoming more difficult. Of course, the difference in Jesus movies is quite natural, it's an inevitable result of our natural inability to handle perfection. Look at Jesus The Movie showing at your nearest multiplex and you will see that each editor has a different take.

Now it seems to me as a film maker that there are two things we can do here. The first, the old fashioned, high art, approach is to take pieces from each of these sets of perceptions and put them together into a multi faceted Jesus; lots of sharp editing for contrast. the other approach, much more modern and risky, is to forget all the characterisation and go back to the original footage and just run it.

While we are weighing up the options, let's take a look at the material for editing. The Jesus of Hurstpierpoint is being squeezed out by two much more powerful versions, Jesus the castigator and Jesus the Choreographer; there is hardly any room for a gentle word or a smile of encouragement. How strange and sad it is that we have resorted to the art of film, resorted to making and re-making. No wonder Pilate isn't sure what truth is. He can't properly get a fix on it. He is so worried by administrative matters that he finds it difficult to sleep and he watches a lot of late night movies and recently they have all been different cuts of Jesus the Movie and he is becoming ever more confused.

Unlike Pilate, we don't watch all these movies; we have made our own and we are very pleased with it. The Jesus of Hurstpierpoint has become an old friend; and, like all old friends, he changes over the years but never beyond recognition. The Jesus who was sympathetic to rebels steadily becomes the Jesus of the solid state and comforter of the elderly. The Jesus of frugality effortlessly morphs into the Jesus of modest comfort. Now and again as the world shakes and shudders, we bring in a new scene of Jesus the Third World prophet and Jesus the protector of the great whale, but the overall shape transforms itself slowly with our lives in such an artless metamorphosis that we do not notice it.

We all suffer from this self centred view of Jesus. This might be rather a harsh judgment on ourselves but we have to ask whether we still retain the wonder, the sense of drama, in our relationship with Him, whether it informs our days and comforts us at night; whether it infuses our kindness and our passions. Conversely, we have to ask whether Jesus has simply become a rather dull, academic documentary, whether He has been taken captive by the militia who bombard each other with Creeds and Confessions, Articles and Covenants. We have to ask ourselves whether, using our own version of Jesus, we could answer Pilate's question.

As an experienced documentary maker, I know you have your own particular problems making honest films, so here is the secret. I will tell you what happened when we were trying to edit our fly-on-the wall documentary of the Roman Justice system. We fiddled around with all the footage except what we had taken of Jesus; somehow you couldn't cut it, you just had to let it run, it was natural and graceful, it was eloquent and economical, it never over-stated or under-stated; you had to take each word, each sentence, each gesture, each scene, for what it was. I know that there might be differences of interpretation but these are not very great if you look carefully at the face, if you listen carefully to the words, if you bring yourself to remember what he did and what he taught. It's difficult if you're an artist but the trick is to try to take yourself out of the equation; it isn't a movie about my view of Jesus, it's a movie about Jesus. As he would have put it; God isn't a concept invented by humanity, humanity is a reality created by god.

This is not the day for re-making but for knowing that there is only one way. Watch with me now, watch Jesus The Movie; uncut.


Heavenly Father, who sent your son to live among us so that we might better learn the truth of your goodness; as he stands humiliated before us, help us through Jesus to recognise the magnificent truth of your goodness and our shortcomings in being worthy of it. Amen.