What causes faith to be snuffed out like a flickering flame? How do young minds morph into angry avengers, lashing out at a world seemingly indifferent to their needs? Is faith so fragile that it’s doomed to crumble at the first taste of heartache? Or is faith built to withstand such torment, yet requires of us far more than mere reverence?
Those are a few of the provocative questions raised and explored to a considerably satisfying degree by “Little Hope Was Arson,” an absorbing documentary set to open this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, offering its annual array of alternate programming in Park City, Utah. The film marks the feature directorial debut of Theo Love, and is executive produced by Bryan Storkel, who garnered acclaim in 2011 for his own nonfiction portrait of a faith-based community, “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.” Like “Rollers,” “Arson” gets most of its dramatic mileage purely from the strength of the true life story it recounts. What it lacks in filmmaking imagination, it makes up for in startlingly candid interviews, as well as a narrative structure that preserves the suspense for audiences new to the spectacularly unsettling tale.
Within a 40-mile radius in East Texas, ten churches burned to the ground in January 2010, launching an enormous criminal investigation while galvanizing gun-toting citizens of the Bible Belt. A message ominously carved with Joker-like handwriting into a department store stall affirms that the destruction of one of the targeted houses of worship, Little Hope Baptist Church, was an act on arson. The film’s first third is devoted to the manhunt itself, and it also happens to be the least gripping section, marred by an overbearing score and repetitive talking heads. Once Christy McAllister, a Texas Department of Public Safety dispatcher, enters the picture, “Arson” develops a whole new level of intrigue. McAllister’s testimonials are wrenchingly honest, as she discusses her God-fearing conviction in tracking down the perpetrators, only to find that one of them is horrifyingly close to home.
The most compelling material is contained in the film’s second act, as the arsonists’ families provide insight into the convicted criminals’ troubled upbringings. It’s an arresting portrait of how relatable despair can erupt into indefensible violence. One of the young men had his heart broken by a girl he thought God had meant for him to marry. The other was forced to cut his suicidal father down from a tree in the days following his mother’s sudden death. Both men turned their anger at the God they believed had abandoned them, and the churchgoers they deemed intolerant. Though there are superficial echoes here of Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, “The White Ribbon,” which illustrated how a hypocritical community spawned malevolent forces beyond its comprehension, Love refuses to pass judgment on his human subjects, and does little to portray the atmosphere and ideology of the churches themselves.
Instead, we get heartbreaking footage of distraught churchgoers watching several generations’ worth of memories go up in flames. A pastor’s wife admits how she doused her own house with water in a fit of paranoia prior to the arsonists’ arrest. Perhaps the film would’ve benefited from more screen time allotted to the guilt-ridden youth minister who resigns from his post after discovering that the evildoers were members of his own flock. “Getting slapped in the face by your own hypocrisy hurts like hell,” he replies with a lump in his throat. What could the man have done to stop the arsonists from choosing the wrong path? Were they already past all hope? When the arsonists are finally interviewed in the film’s final moments, they emerge not as deranged monsters but as disillusioned outsiders who mistakenly thought they were making some sort of rebellious statement.
Excluding the quote from Anarchist icon Buenaventura Durruti that jarringly concludes the film, Love maintains a refreshingly objective stance throughout, encouraging viewers to draw their own conclusions to the questions raised. In a way, the arsonists’ slash-and-burn mentality is representative of the inarticulate mud-slinging that so often passes for discourse in these divisive times. A life governed by anger is no life at all.