View Through a Lens

By Ruth Garvey-Williams

Phil Harrison is an award-winning independent filmmaker.  Editor Ruth Garvey-Williams caught up with him in Belfast to find out more and to see what role, if any, faith plays in his art.

After watching his compelling and thought-provoking film The Good Man (reviewed in the last VOX issue), I was delighted when Phil Harrison agreed to an interview.  We had arranged to meet in the Mac Theatre in Belfast’s cathedral quarter but the interview started badly, from my point of view, when I miscalculated the city traffic and arrived late!  

Phil accepted my apology graciously but as I headed off to order coffee, I spotted him walking towards the door. Had I blown it completely?

He signaled that he’d be back in a minute, so I carried the tray to our table.  And that’s when I saw him, camera in hand, capturing the stunning sunset behind St Anne’s Cathedral. The sky was molten lava and the distinctive building was bathed in a translucent pink glow.

If you want to change nations and individuals, you must change the stories they tell.

Fumbling with my phone, I finally managed to snap the view through the glass (narrowly missing capturing Phil in the shot because he was already returning to the café). Taking the photo felt like an intrusion - as if I’d stumbled upon an intimate moment for the Belfast artist and storyteller.

Back inside, Phil chats about how we all see things differently, depending on our background and experiences. Our perspective has a huge impact on what we see. Perhaps like viewing the sunset through the windowpane…!

I’m intrigued to discover how Phil’s work came to be infused with biblical themes.  

“My background is in the evangelical Brethren community in Belfast,” Phil shares.  “But, in my late teens, I moved into a political idea of Christianity after I began travelling in Africa.  Since then I’ve left that behind, too, as I’ve embraced a more radical uncertainty.”

Abandoning his faith was a kind of “trauma”, Phil admits, “Your picture of the world and God is shattering.” A master’s degree in theology (Biblical studies) and literature, marked his journey out of faith - something that he says he did not take lightly.  

“In my rejection of faith, I kept alive a love of the text.  I’ve noticed that the people, who most want to take the Bible seriously, do not take all of the Bible seriously. We all read out of the lens of our histories and context.

“I’d be critical of anybody, atheist or religious, who was uncritical about the stories that we tell each other.  So much of our contemporary culture is vapid and ideologically problematic.”

These “gods” are so deeply embedded that only theological language is powerful enough to tackle them.

Telling stories
Phil came to filmmaking with a background in photography and design but he is, first and foremost, a storyteller. “A Nigerian author describes stories as ‘the secret reservoir of values’. If you want to change nations and individuals, you must change the stories they tell.

“For a while, I was straddling a lot of things: photography, storytelling, even business and entrepreneurship. Film weirdly marries all those things in a way that is absolutely guaranteed never to make you any money,” he laughs.

“So much of our box-set culture is emotionally and politically empty.  I want to make compelling and engaging stories that entertain, up to a point, but don’t allow us to remain comfortable.”

“Film is probably the newest art form,” Phil muses. “It is still finding its feet. We are trying to work out the language of cinema. I think most contemporary films are made for consumers - I hate that idea.  I’m interested in cinema that demands something of the viewer.”

Creating truth
We chat a little bit about the place of faith in art. Phil ponders how “truth” can be created or constructed through the stories we tell.  “My problem with advertising is not that it tells lies but that it creates truth. Once you hear something enough times you start to believe it.”  

“Whether done badly or well, art does the same.  When you watch ‘Homeland’ and you see ethnic stereotyping, it shapes your understanding of the Middle East, or politics, war and violence.”

Despite his personal rejection of Christianity, Phil still retains a respect for the role of faith and has a philosopher’s appetite for questioning and exploring.

“Everyone has gods,” he says.  “A god is not what you believe in, it is what you worship. Somebody somewhere has authority. Right now, that authority seems to be situated in the market and in the state. These “gods” are so deeply embedded that only theological language is powerful enough to tackle them. In an ironic twist, it is the task of Christianity to kill these gods!”

The problem of shame
People become defensive when they are trying to protect themselves from one another.  At the heart, is the problem of “shame” - a very “anti liberal concept” which cuts people off from one another, Phil suggests!  

“The Christian idea is more redemptive - we must embrace our own brokenness.  That opens up the possibility of a genuine encounter with the other, if we can bare ourselves.

“I think so many of the questions around faith are distractions.  They are questions about what you believe. The questions most of us are wrestling with are closer.  ‘What is it that I can’t give up? What am I most defensive about?’  Usually, when we hold to certain positions, it is about us being unable to [be vulnerable],” Phil adds.

It is this “stripping bare” that informs Phil’s latest project - a trilogy based on Dante’s Inferno.   And he’s already planning another trip to Africa, this time to shoot a documentary around the issue of football and identity. 

I leave in a pensive frame of mind... What lenses do I look through and how does that affect my relationships? How often do I fall for the “truths” of advertising, the media and art without stopping to question the value systems on which they are based?  And how can Christianity “kill” the gods of power and money that Phil described?   

Although we look through different lenses, I feel profoundly grateful for the opportunity to meet an artist who made me think.  Thanks Phil!