Faithful representation

Jake Mahaffy on religion, authenticity and empathy in Free In Deed.

by Amber Wilkinson

David Harewood as Abe in Free In Deed. Jake Mahaffy: 'I grew up in a religious pentecostal-style environment and then fully de-converted so I’m familiar with the worldview and the language'
David Harewood as Abe in Free In Deed. Jake Mahaffy: 'I grew up in a religious pentecostal-style environment and then fully de-converted so I’m familiar with the worldview and the language'
Jake Mahaffy's third feature Free In Deed won the Orizzonti (Horizons) award for Best Film at Venice Film Festival last weekend. The film tells the story of single mum Melva (Edwina Findley) and her family, particularly, her son Benny (RaJay Chandler), whose severe autism - which leaves him hyper-sensitive and frequently in pain - makes it difficult for her and her young daughter Etta (Zoe Lewis) to cope. Struggling to find solutions from doctors, an unexpected encounter sees Melva welcomed by the church. It is there that she meets self-styled faith healer Abe (Homeland's David Harewood), an encounter that will profoundly change the course of all their lives. Mahaffy paints a melancholic, non-sensationalist portrait of pain, societal failure, isolation and faith gone too far that observes its characters rather than judging them. We caught up with him to talk about it.

AW: Faith plays a major role in the film. In the case of Melva her 'faith' in God seems to be initially inspired by the fact that her faith in secular institutions has been so badly shaken. How important was it for you to balance this failure of institutions such as doctors/hospitals/police with what leads on to her faith in God also being failed in the most awful way.

Jake Mahaffy: 'The process of shooting and editing was my attempt to keep the film from being too literal, too obvious, melodramatic, superficial'
Jake Mahaffy: 'The process of shooting and editing was my attempt to keep the film from being too literal, too obvious, melodramatic, superficial' Photo: Courtesy of Sala Web
JM: This balance is critical. Religion is not a decision for most people. It is like the air that we breathe. Just like paying taxes or attending school are not conscious decisions to be made by most people. They are based on social needs or imposed by institutions without consideration of personal autonomy. People assume those obligations without second thought.

AW: You work with actual churchgoers in your film. How easy was it to get Christians to participate given that while your film is non-judgemental on one level it still shows what can heppen when faith - and people - get pushed to extremes? Did you shoot at actual church services and, if so, what challenges did that present

JM: I grew up in a religious pentecostal-style environment and then fully de-converted so I’m familiar with the worldview and the language. My affinity and communication about the project helped. We’re talking about individuals here, not a faceless mass of Christians. So each person may have their personal, non-religious reasons for participating that I’m not privy to. But I think the rare opportunity to have their faith and belief represented authentically, independent from the larger story, was an attraction for most.

The church-goers I spoke with understand that their prayers aren’t always answered. They understand that thousands more people die from medical malpractice and neglect than faith-based killings each year, but they don’t stop taking pills for their headaches. Being religious is a faith like any other. It’s about having a story that provides one with an identity and place within the chaos of raw experience. Some people have implicit and intractable faith in ‘the system’, the government, the financial order, news media, human progress. These are all just stories.

AW: Although we see people worshipping together at these storefront churches, your camera often shows how they are in isolation rather than acting in unison, can you tell us about this loneliness in a crowd and the emphasis of discordant aspects. You also make interesting editing choices, such as cutting from laughter to much more dark events which emphasise the violence of the moment, did a lot of the shape of the film come together in the edit

Edwina Findley as Melva. Jake Mahaffy: 'We tried to compose shots for negative space and open frames so that the environment is a character itself, not just a backdrop'
Edwina Findley as Melva. Jake Mahaffy: 'We tried to compose shots for negative space and open frames so that the environment is a character itself, not just a backdrop'
JM: The film was certainly recreated in the editing. I spent a year and a half editing the film to try and pull the footage together. Nothing turned out the way I intended. It was devastating. The process of shooting and editing was my attempt to keep the film from being too literal, too obvious, melodramatic, superficial. We tried to compose shots for negative space and open frames so that the environment is a character itself, not just a backdrop. Actor’s performances are always profoundly affected by composition and editing. That’s why cinematography cannot just record actors being emotional. It must have its own visual-narrative logic that goes beyond reverse angles. We tried our best under the circumstances to avoid shot/reverse shot constructions.

AW: Abe remains almost as much of an enigma throughout the film as Benny, although there are hints of a dark past, such as when he says, "I don't want to hurt people no more". You based your story on a real life event, how hard was it to do that, how did you go about your research and how difficult was it to cast the roles given that they are both require such committed and distilled performances.

JM: Basing the film on actual events made it much easier, having references to rely on and maintain authenticity. I met with church and family members involved in the incident. I started filming documentary footage but was eventually closed out. With casting, we just had to find the people willing to take the roles. The film could have gone terribly wrong in so many ways, so finding people who would commit despite the risk was the biggest challenge. Then we changed the characters to match the actors in some cases. That’s just part of the creative process.

David Harewood as Abe in Free In Deed. Jake Mahaffy: 'Basing the film on actual events made it much easier, having references to rely on and maintain authenticity'
David Harewood as Abe in Free In Deed. Jake Mahaffy: 'Basing the film on actual events made it much easier, having references to rely on and maintain authenticity'
AW: There has been an increase in 'faith-based' films lately, do you see your film as a secular response to that and do you worry that there might be a backlash from religious communities?

JM: I don’t see this film as a response to any other kind of movie. It is its own thing, made as a self-sufficient experience. Viewers will eventually contextualise the film based on their own stories and worldview but that’s entirely out of my control. I’m not worried about ‘backlash’ or any other kind of reaction. There is no misrepresentation in the film. There are some movie tropes but there is nothing that can be cited as agenda-driven or shortchanging. It is a film about human empathy and consciousness.

AW: This film took you 12 years to develop - will we have to wait as long for the follow up?

JW: I don’t know any better than you. I have plenty of plans, written screenplays and ideas. But I also have a full-time job. And getting the money and time to make another film isn’t dependent on myself alone.

For more information about the film, visit the official site.

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