Home EVENTS ‘After Death’ Steps Up The Religion Documentary Game

‘After Death’ Steps Up The Religion Documentary Game

‘After Death’ Steps Up The Religion Documentary Game


(REVIEW) Angel Studios, the Mormon-owned faith-based studio, is having a pretty amazing year. It released the season three finale of “The Chosen” in theaters to wild success, released its first original theatrical film with “His Only Son,” followed by the the box office and cultural phenomenon that was “Sound of Freedom.”

It’s last film of the year, “The Shift,” is a faith-based dystopian sci-fi film about the multiverse based on a popular short film of the same name. When the dust clears, the new front-runner in the faith-based space this year might be Angel Studios.

Now, Angel Studios is trying to stake its claim in the documentary space with this year’s “After Death” and its upcoming adaptation of the book “Live Not By Lies.”

READ: Martin Scorsese’s Faith Shines In ‘Killers Of The Flower Moon’

“After Death” is a rewarding — if imperfect — exploration of near-death experiences for the faithful and the curious, and a hopeful step forward for faith-based documentaries.

A lot less is said about faith-based documentaries than about faith-based narrative films like “Fireproof” or “Jesus Revolution.” And yet, faith-based documentaries are typically made for a lot of the same reasons and have had a lot of the same problems.

These type of documentaries are often made because people of faith believe the mainstream documentaries have a bias against faith-based ways of imagining the world. Yet, faith-based documentaries often don’t feel like they’re of the same quality as their mainstream counterparts — and often feel like they’re made to preach to the choir rather than for anyone.

With “After Death,” it feels like the faith-based documentary is starting to come of age. The documentary explores the phenomenon of near-death experiences as conveyed by scientists, authors and survivors through interviews and dramatic re-imaginings of their experiences. The interviews include New York Times bestselling authors behind titles like “90 Minutes in Heaven,” “Imagine Heaven” and “To Heaven and Back.”

For starters, the artistic quality is a big step up from most faith-based documentaries. The interview sections and docudrama portions are well lit and well edited in the way they go beyond what you have seen on the History Channel to create a definite mood — one that is slightly ominous and solemn without being cold or off-putting. And the images they use to imagine the experiences that the people are attempting to describe are at times genuinely moving and beautiful.

Most important, the subject is tackled in a way that is meant for the curious rather than the choir — whether believers or not. It treats the phenomenon of near-death experiences with an interest that anyone might have approaching the phenomenon. After all, NDEs are a real documented phenomenon, regardless of one’s interpretation of that experience. So making a documentary where you interview people who claim to have experienced them, as well as people who have investigated them, is a good way to educate people on the phenomenon and explore what we know about it.

One of the most interesting interview subjects is Dr. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist and author of the book “Recollections of Death.” As he tells it, he came into the topic as a skeptic in the the early days of the concept of NDE, when their were hardly any documented cases from an academic or scientific perspective. He then started to interview people and wrote one of the first academic papers on the topic, which inspired other academics to be interested in it.

The tracking of this history, just from a curiosity perspective, is fascinating. Among the various interviewees, he’s the most cautious of how he talks about the topic — always making sure he’s saying what he knows versus what he doesn’t know — and what can be speculated against what is scientific. He makes interesting points about what constitutes evidence versus proof and at what point they overlap. At what point is there so much evidence that it is indistinguishable from how the vast majority of people define proof? 

This lack of real skeptics is definitely the biggest flaw in the film. “After Death” would have felt more persuasive if it featured interviews with at least one or two scientists who were unconvinced that near-death experiences are proof of an afterlife. As good as the film is at being for the curious and open-minded, it did feel like creators were stacking the deck rather than giving us the information and trusting us to come to our own conclusion.

Proverbs 18:17 says, “The first person to state his case appears to be right, until the other comes and examines him.” Having multiple voices in a room when you’re making a documentary makes one feel like they’re truly getting a deep dive into the topic and really helps your own case more. That doesn’t preclude you from having a real point of view, but it makes it feel like that point of view is earned rather than contrived.

The reason that secular documentaries are considered “mainstream” and faith-based documentaries “fringe” is that, for better or worse, the religious and secular alike see the secular documentarians as more sincerely investigating the topics they’re exploring. Faith-based documentaries, meanwhile, are coming at the topic with a conclusion already reached. If faith-based documentaries want to truly become the mainstream, they have to earn the same credibility. 

“Send Proof,” a documentary following a man struggling with his Pentecostal background trying to find real evidence of miracles today, still remains the gold standard of people of faith investigating a concern from a faith-based lens while still attempting to be objective. My hope is that more faith-based documentaries will follow suit.

One fascinating element of Angel Studios’ strategy with its faith-based content is making movies that appeal to people of faith without promoting a specific faith. “Sound of Freedom” talked about God, not Jesus. “After Death” is meant to appeal to those who are interested in the afterlife, not just Christians.

For a long time, “faith-based” has been synonymous with “Christian.” And yet, Angel Studios is making massive inroads in the faith-based space by broadening itself to faith generally. This makes sense, as Angel Studios is a Mormon-based company primarily trying to appeal to evangelical Christians.

Will this strategy be successful? So far it has, and there’s reason to believe it will be. As Ryan Burge has pointed out, a growing number of evangelicals see their identity as a cultural marker rather than one limited to regularly attending church. But will Christians eventually reject that strategy and demand to see more explicitly Christian content? We shall see.

A huge part of faith is exploring the deepest truths about the world. Documentaries are a really powerful art form to do that. “After Death” is not perfect, but it is a positive next step toward a world where faith-based documentaries can rub shoulders with mainstream ones.

Hopefully, this inspires others to follow suit so faith and truth can help each other in fuller and more profound ways.

“After Death” will be in theaters Oct. 27.


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