Interview with Vera Farmiga
Interviewed by: Jen Sieker
Source: Windrider Forum
The phone rang.
‚ÄúHi, it‚Äôs Vera.‚ÄĚ
Thus began a charming conversation with actress and director Vera Farmiga, whose film Higher Ground debuted here at Sundance and has been called ‚Äúthe most profound and nuanced exploration of faith I‚Äôve seen since Robert Duvall‚Äôs 1997 Oscar nominee, The Apostle‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúa genuine movie miracle‚ÄĚ by Pepperdine professor Craig Detweiler. High praise well deserved.
It was the ‚Äėnuanced‚Äô part of of Higher Ground that caught all of the Windrider participants‚Äô attention. Vera was gracious enough to speak to me about the inspiration and purpose behind this fair, respectful, and introspective portrayal of Corinne Miller, a woman trying to find a genuine relationship with God and struggling to express herself in a 1970s Jesus People-esque church community.
From the first scene showing the pastor character preaching, through all the worship times, the Bible studies, and the rebukes both gentle and harsh, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. The scandal to come out. The pastor to be exposed as a hypocrite or worse‚ÄĒthe seeming par for films on topics of faith and doubt.
‚ÄúNo way!‚ÄĚ Farmiga said when I expressed this sentiment to her. ‚ÄúI wanted to be reverent, respectful, deferential. Mean, hostile, and contemptuous representations of faith are detestable to me.‚ÄĚ She mentions a deep gratitude for Christianity originating from her lifelong history with Catholicism and many denominations: ‚ÄúTo poke fun at the community is not what the film is about.‚ÄĚ
In fact, Farmiga was attached to the project, based on Carolyn J. Briggs memoirs, This Dark World, as an actress for three years. ‚ÄúI actually tried to remove myself because I started sniffing a tone that terrified me, which was commenting on religion and judging it. But once it was suggested to me to direct, I felt the conviction‚ÄĒin many ways, I felt like I received it‚ÄĒI called Carolyn up in Iowa and we started working from the beginning.‚ÄĚ
Together, actress and writer began to incorporate both of their experiences in Christianity for an audience of believers and non-believers. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a mediation on faith and God, faith and parents, faith and husbands and wives, faith and friends, faith and community, faith and ourselves. When you‚Äôre drawing that portrait, you‚Äôre going to tread lightly, respectfully and carefully. I wanted to be held accountable for that truth and reverence.‚ÄĚ
There were two incredibly memorable moments in the film for me. The very first scene of the character Ethan preaching. As a lifelong Christian and son of a preacher man, I immediately connected to the fact that this guy declaring his love for Jesus at the top of his lungs seemed accurate, even genuine.
‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs authentic is the joy! Joy in its purest form. How can you not portray the authenticity if what Corrine is looking for is authentic faith?‚ÄĚ
True, but what courage it took to make sure that the authenticity came across. It is an incredible scene to be confronted with, either as a Christian or non-Christian, and I felt the same emotional connection with that scene as I would if a character was declaring love for a lover in a romantic drama. Not something that happens a lot in film.
The other scene that struck me is a scene in the boat with Corinne and her friend Annika talking about the spiritual gift of tongues. Annika has it, Corinne doesn‚Äôt, and it troubles Corinne. But was Annika‚Äôs faith and gift real?
‚ÄúAnnika‚Äôs faith, the vitality of it, the depth of it, the rapture of it, is an example of how you can experience faith in the fullest and most honest way. Even though this brand of ‚Äô70s Christianity is somewhat patriarchal and limiting to women in how they express themselves in church, she still finds a way to be herself. There‚Äôs an absolute peace, fulfillment, wholeness that Corinne wants and covets.‚ÄĚ
Farmiga mentions the patriarchal nature of the group, and it‚Äôs portrayed as something that causes problems for Corinne, just as it has for the Church throughout its history. ‚ÄúNot to say that everyone in the group puts women in a box, and I am absolutely not saying that Jesus puts women in a box.‚ÄĚ But it makes for interesting fodder for discussion about church discipline and how to correct behavior that goes against the congregation‚Äôs belief system. What could the group have done differently to deal with Corinne‚Äôs needs and doubts?
‚ÄúThey can really only do so much based on where she is. It depends on Corinne‚Äôs state of mind,‚ÄĚ Farmiga allows. ‚ÄúPastor Bill comes a long way. First of all, he allows her to speak. You should be allowed to voice something that you‚Äôre struggling with.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI‚Äôm not the only person wrestling with issues of meaning, religion and purpose. I‚Äôve had a lot of patience with God, and he‚Äôs had a lot of patience with me. Everyone questions, I think, the way Corinne is questioning. It‚Äôs a universal story, and one that can speak to Christians and non-Christians alike. At points in our lives, there‚Äôs a period of brokenness and then becoming more open, becoming more whole. This is what I wanted to explore for myself on the quest for innocence and a quest for being genuine in all aspects of my life, including faith.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúPeople will project their own journeys onto the end of the film,‚ÄĚ Farmiga continues. While the ending is indeed ambiguous, ‚Äúsome will say that she leaves her faith. But what I‚Äôm trying to say is that she‚Äôs ridding herself of a destitute faith. A bankrupt faith. An impoverished faith. So what happens is for the viewer to decide. I don‚Äôt know. I‚Äôm pondering it.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI hesitate to give people answers because I want people to decipher it themselves and I want the discussion to begin. I think it‚Äôs an obligation of a filmmaker not to give answers but to allow people to ask questions.‚ÄĚ She brings up the Rilke quote. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs what to me is the point of me trying to tell this story, and putting it out there for people to discuss.‚ÄĚ
There is, indeed, much to discuss. Higher Ground will hopefully be released so that discussion can begin, and released to a Christian audience that is not known for its love of questions. If the Rilke quote doesn‚Äôt connect with Christians regarding the importance of faith, doubt, and discovery, then maybe theologian and author Brian McLaren‚Äôs statement will:
‚ÄúClarity tends to put an end to further thinking, where as intrigue makes one think more intensely, broadly, deeply.‚ÄĚ
Thanks, Vera Farmiga, the production team, and the cast for bringing to us such a poignant, remarkable and safe place to ask our questions. Thanks to you for living the questions, for intriguing us with the questions and allowing us to journey together to seek the answers along the way.