Archive for the ‘osama loves’ Tag
We had a little lunchtime sesh for staff at C4 HQ with Jon Ronson talking about his latest film (REVELATIONS: HOW TO FIND GOD) which transmits this Sunday at 7pm on Channel 4. It’s all about the Alpha Course, but not ripping into it or taking the piss, a gentle generous film matched by Jon’s gentle Cardiffian voice-over. None the less insightful for that – just not taking the obvious route, and in that respect very C4. It was commissioned by Aaqil Ahmed, outgoing Commissioning Editor for Religion, who I worked with on Osama Loves last summer and who is heading off for the Beeb, great fodder for the BBC anti-Christian plot conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories are of course very much the territory of Jon Ronson (e.g. The Men Who Stare at Goats) – he summed up the theme of his career in journalism, writing and telly as exploring “bubbles of irrationality”. Reminds me of a protest outside C4 HQ by the Moonies last year – after running the gauntlet through said Moonpeople a colleague of mine gave his definition of a religion – “a cult that got lucky”.
So Jon’s latest film is a look at the Alpha Course, the Evangelical Christian phenomenon that has been attended by an estimated 2 million people in the UK, and 13 million worldwide. The film has unique access to the course as it follows a small group of agnostics as they undergo the ten evening sessions and weekend away. For Ronson, it is the second time he has done the Alpha Course – the first was for a Guardian article eight years ago. Here, he reflects on his experiences with Alpha. He reveals how he was nearly won round, what he does and doesn’t like about the beliefs involved, and why he thinks the course has enjoyed such a phenomenal level of success.
Why did you want to make a film about the Alpha Course in the first place?
JR: The main reason was that I wrote a piece about the Alpha Course eight years ago, and I was really struck by how dramatic and powerful the Alpha small group thing is. That’s the masterstroke of Nicky Gumbel, who created Alpha – his use of the small group. Really dramatic things happen in small groups – like they do in Alcoholics Anonymous. I thought if we could get a camera into an Alpha small group and make people somehow feel unselfconscious, there would be a great film. That was my main reason for wanting to do the film. But also I knew that the weekend away, where people are asked to speak in tongues, is another really dramatic thing to capture, because some people are just horrified by the idea of speaking in tongues, while for other people it’s the moment when they dive into Christianity. It’s a moment of drama that I knew we’d capture and would be fascinating. And finally, I thought the idea of people becoming Christians might seem like a boring subject for people to watch, but I sort of knew that within the context of Alpha you could make a really interesting, dramatic film about becoming a Christian. If we could capture the moment an agnostic becomes a Christian, it would be jaw-dropping.
It’s watching someone’s life change completely in an instant, isn’t it?
Exactly. I think capturing that, and making it something you couldn’t take your eyes off, was something I wanted to achieve. And I think we have achieved it. I think it’s a really dramatic film. As you say, the structure of the course is key to its success.
How does it work? What happens on an Alpha Course?
Basically you turn up, you’re an agnostic, and the reason why you’ve been convinced to go is because you work in a bar and the person working with you is a Christian, and you have big fights about it late into the night, and finally they say “Well, if you’re so interested, come and do an Alpha Course.” So you turn up and it all seems very nice, and there are pretty girls at the door offering you Hobnobs, and then there’s a talk from the vicar, which is a talk that’s been written by Nicky Gumbel. And then you split off into small groups to discuss the meaning of life. And you do this once a week for ten weeks, and towards the end of that time you go off on a weekend away, where you don’t realise until you get there that they’re going to ask you to try and speak in tongues. And within that framework, salvation occurs, with extraordinary frequency.
What sort of frequency? What proportion of people on the course are converted?
Well, it’s difficult to come up with an exact figure, mainly because some people who do the Alpha Course are Christians anyway, so that kind of skews the figures. But from my own personal experience of having done Alpha twice and talking to a lot of people, the figure I came up with was about one-in-eight.
You’ve done Alpha twice? For research purposes?
Yeah. Although the first time it nearly worked for me. I got all swept up. It didn’t happen for me this time, because when you’re making a film you’ve got so many things to think about you don’t get into the sort of hypnotic bubble. But the first time, yeah, we’d just had a kid, and we’d had trouble conceiving him, and I just felt like Nicky Gumbel was kind of talking to me in strange ways. It’s all in the article I wrote at the time. It’s weird, it was such a personal thing that even though I wrote about it all in the article, I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about it. [In the article, Jon recounts how he was thinking about his son, Joel, being a gift from God. Just at that moment, Nicky started reading from The Book of Joel. Jon writes: “In the middle of the night it becomes clear to me that I almost certainly had a message from God, that God had spoken to me through Nicky Gumbel.”]
What kind of people do you get signing up for Alpha? Do they all have certain characteristics in common? Did they strike you as being lost souls?
Well, I think pretty much everybody in the world is a lost soul. There were one or two people in our group who were a bit Richard Dawkins-y, and really just wanted to have a bit of a scrap. I liked them very much as people, but I didn’t really put them in the film, because that’s not really what it’s about. And then there were one or two people who were more lost soul-ish than the others. But as I said, we’re all lost souls in a way, so you can’t really judge people on that. I don’t think you can really generalise about people’s reasons for doing the Alpha Course. I think that makes it very interesting. They all had a genuine reason for doing Alpha, but they were all very different reasons.
You found it quite hard to get a church to agree to filming this documentary, didn’t you?
Yes. We went to see Nicky Gumbel, who liked the original piece I wrote, except for a line about him equating being gay with being a paedophile, which he says I quoted wildly out of context, and to which I say I quoted it entirely within context. But it caused him no end of trouble, as you can imagine. However, other than that, I think he really liked the article. I think he liked me, and I like him, actually. So I went to see him last December, and said I wanted to make a film about Alpha, and could I film a small group at his church. And he said no. He said he felt that a camera would be like a brick wall between an agnostic and God. Not only would it dissuade people from doing Alpha, having a camera there, but the people who did do Alpha wouldn’t do it properly. So I said to him “What if I find a church doing Alpha who let me film?” And he said “Well, if they phone me, I’ll advise them not to do it for the reasons I’ve just outlined.” And I said “What if they want to do it anyway?” And he said “Well, I can’t stop you.” So we went to lots of churches, and they all said no. Whether they said no because they phoned Nicky I don’t know. But then this fantastic church in Oxford agreed to it. The rector, Charlie Cleverly, phoned Nicky, or one of Nicky’s people, and decided he wanted to do it anyway, because he felt that the presence of a camera might actually encourage people to come. And I got the feeling, from speaking to Charlie, that ultimately Nicky wasn’t that down on the idea.
You seemed to like the people you featured in the film, both those doing the course and those running it. Would that be accurate?
Yeah, I do and I did. And that goes all the way to Nicky Gumbel. However, from a sceptical agnostic point of view, I think that the sort of Evangelical zeal where turning the agnostics to God is the all-important thing, and matters more than anything else, I don’t personally like. So I don’t really like the Evangelical zeal of Alpha. But, then again, they would say that that’s what they believe, that if you don’t find God you don’t get salvation, and it’s crucial. So I see that as a fault, but they don’t. But I wanted to make a film that didn’t focus too much on the negatives. I wanted to make a film that was enquiring and gentle and human. I saw it as a film about people.
The Alpha Course, and therefore the film itself, both take a major, dramatic turn on the weekend away. It comes a little bit out of the blue.
Yeah, that was deliberate on my part. I was worried that, in order to sell the film to the audience, we’d need to put something about that at the top of the film, and I was so glad when it turned out that we didn’t have to. I did it that way because that’s the structure of Alpha – they underplay the weekend away in the first few weeks of the course. So people on the course don’t really know what to expect when they turn up for the weekend. I didn’t want the viewers to know any more than the agnostics we’re following would know.
When the moment arrives where people are asked to speak in tongues, it’s a very polarising experience, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. And exactly the same thing happened last time I did Alpha. Some people stormed out in disgust, and said “I thought these people were nice, with their biscuits. I didn’t realise they were like some sort of weird cult.” Which I don’t think they are, because a cult is something much more restrictive. If you leave Alpha, no-one’s going to try and press gang you into coming back. But then, for other people, the speaking in tongues is ‘the moment’ – it unlocks something in their hearts. So it’s incredibly polarising, and that’s fascinating. Especially because the rest of Alpha is so un-polarising.
Do you think, then, that it’s a mistake to include speaking in tongues in the course?
It’s really interesting, isn’t it? Nicky would say “I didn’t make the rules, God makes the rules.” But I think, in a way, Nicky does make the rules. Maybe he just thought at some point that you need to draw a line in the sand, otherwise it’s too wishy-washy. But it’s an extraordinary out-of-the-blue structural thing. Maybe it’s not a mistake. To a lot of Christians it is a mistake, and it’s the thing they don’t like about Alpha. And some Alpha Courses have done away with the weekend away – I think much to Nicky’s annoyance. The weekend away happens three-quarters of the way through the course, but it marks the end of the film.
Why is that?
It’s just a natural climax to the story – and it’s a natural climax to the course too, really. The last few weeks are sort of a bit underwhelming.
You have a Jewish background. Was that an issue at all?
No, not at all. My agnosticism was more of an issue. They kept on getting me up onstage in front of the local congregation, to ask me whether my agnosticism remained intact, and always got really pissed off when I told them that it did! But besides the Evangelical zeal, which I find distasteful, I really liked the people. I think they’re good people, nice, funny, intelligent people who are just doing what they think is best. I certainly don’t look down my nose at them.
When you’re making a film like this, which is very observational, is it difficult to know when to ask questions and when to remain silent?
I think it’s sort of intuitive. I have made mistakes, and I kick myself afterwards, when I’m watching the rushes back and I think “Why did I stupidly say something then? They were about to say something amazing.” But the older I get, the better I am at that. It’s probably the most important part of film making, and in the end it has to be sort of intuitive. You learn from experience. When in doubt, shut up. If you ask someone a question – this is the sort of dark art of interviewing – and then they answer it and you don’t say anything, they’ll feel compelled to fill the silence by saying something else, and the other thing they say might be fantastic. So definitely, when in doubt don’t say anything.
Why do you think the Alpha Course is so successful?
I think it’s so successful because of a mix of two things. Firstly because of the invisible structure – everything from the pretty women serving you food through to the structure of when each thing is revealed every week. And then that dramatic lurch at the weekend away, when it all gets turned on its head. Some people might see it as a mistake, others think it’s the coup de grace. I’m kind of torn between the two.
A lot of people will tune in expecting a polemic, or a knocking film. It’s not, is it?
JR: I could make a knocking film. There are certain things I don’t like. But that’s not so much about the course as about Christianity. But we didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to make a film that was about the human dramas that went on within Alpha. To learn about these peoples’ lives as we went on was just fascinating. We didn’t have a clue about any of them when we started filming – it wasn’t like Big Brother where the producers know everything about the housemates when they choose them. It was so interesting finding out about the people in this film. If you want to make a knocking film, then you lose that human element in it, and we wanted to make a film about people.
AG: For me, that’s the difference between journalism and film-making. A journalist knows broadly what he wants to say and goes out to illustrate it with interviews and other footage. A film-maker knows what he wants to explore and goes out to see what he can find…
[This post was originally published in an edited form on The TV Show blog]
Twitter has been in the mainstream media a lot in recent months. Surgery Live was the second of three experiments by me run out of Channel 4’s Cross-platform Department using this increasingly popular ‘microblogging’ service in connection with television programmes. The experiment reflects the increasingly common habit of ‘Twittering’ whilst watching TV, plugging in to that behaviour in the context of a bold, educative factual television series – importantly a live one.
[Twitter, if it hasn’t crossed your path, is a website from which you can send short messages (of up to 140 characters) to a network of people who are interested in similar things to you or who to choose to follow your short messages or ‘tweets’.]
When I first saw Twitter a few years ago I thought it was the end of civilisation as we know it. I gave myself the identity SurrealThing on the site because I felt at the time the only way to engage with it was as a persona or character, so I decided to be a Surrealist to match the weirdness of the whole concept. I began tweeting about melting watches and the like. Since then I’ve come to see it as a tool in search of a purpose and the three experiments I’ve commissioned (as Channel 4’s Cross-platform Commissioning Editor for Factual) have been about applying the Twitter tool to a worthwhile mission.
The first experiment, early last summer, was Osama Loves which used Twitter to enable two young British Muslims to go in search of 500 people called Osama right across the Islamic world with a view to illustrating the diversity of Muslim culture. Twitter was used in that instance as a means of updating Channel 4 viewers from areas of the world where they couldn’t get online or didn’t have sufficient bandwidth and were forced to rely on mobile to send in their updates or respond to their followers.
Surgery Live – broadcast live on Channel 4 in May – used Twitter to enable viewers to ask questions and discuss live the surgical procedures featured in the series. Viewers were invited to watch a selection of four fascinating operations live at around 11pm each night of the Surgery Live week. From open heart surgery to awake brain surgery to keyhole surgery, the programmes invited viewers to ask questions of the surgeons via Twitter (or email or phone), all filtered via the production team who selected the most interesting questions which were then posed through the intermediary of the presenter, arch-Twitterer Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News. So a matter of seconds between tweet and the question being asked on live TV.
There is of course a long and honourable tradition of surgeons talking and teaching whilst operating and every effort was made to make the Surgery Live questions and answers no more distracting than that normal medical training practice.
So viewers were encouraged to tweet away during the live operations, sharing their thoughts and asking questions. The big difference from the few previous experiments in this area is that this was live TV and you could make an impact with your tweet on the actual TV editorial. Now of course there are echoes of phone-ins and combining TV with forums/chatrooms the best part of a decade ago (notably by Danny Baker on Channel 4) but what this new generation of social media brings is a networked conversation which is global, searchable, tagable and open. In other words, unlike emails, text messages or phones, you can join in a discussion among numerous people from right across the UK and beyond – fellow viewers, experts, medical students, enthusiasts, all manner of interested parties – live and simultaneously.
The online dimension of the project was produced by Windfall Films (who made the TV series) in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust. Included on the Surgery Live website was a section on how to use Twitter, to enable anyone unfamiliar with it to get up and running in under 5 minutes. This is part of the Channel’s ‘digital media literacy’ activities.
The third in this series of experiments is the forthcoming Alone in the Wild which will start life properly on Twitter on 27th June (watch this space – there is some early activity already). It revolves around a British man immersing himself alone in the wilderness of the Yukon for three months.
To get a sense of how the Surgery Live experiment panned out I leave it to the words of our viewers/participants. One measure of its impact was that it ‘trended’ #1, #2# or #3 on Twitter every night – that is, for a while around transmission was the 1st, 2nd or 3rd most popular topic globally. Another is that by the second night, if you googled the word “surgery” the Surgery Live website showed up number 2 of 121 Million results.
philroberts: #slive this could be one of the best models for twitter, live interactive feedback brilliant twitter was a great enhancement to the show
manpreet1: Surgery live on channel 4, and #slive, was a great use of a new format.
bruceelrick: @wellcometrust it was a great success on twitter. #slive now 3rd most popular trend on twitter – pretty great achievement!
J_Dizzle_: just watched heart surgery live on channel 4, twitter questions and updates.. very well done. #slive
mjmobbs: #slive excellent, see you tomorrow, really enjoyed the Twitter and Live TV combination.
Furgaline: What a brilliant way to educate people… #slive
warrenfree: Enjoyed watching Channel4 adoption of twitter to allow us to question the surgeons.. Interesting to watch too #slive
OotSandShaman my question was just asked on @surgerylive! man twitter kicks ass
Sarahgrittin09 #slive good to see social networking sites used for more interesting things like this rather than poncy photos and relationship statuses!
vas_876 @ajd90 Hey, looks like #slive has brought loads of us prospective medics to twitter
mygadgetlife: #slive really C4 a great program made all the more enjoyable with twitter but poor scheduling [some viewers were upset that the live broadcast had to end after its allotted hour]
ellied18: Shame #slive isn’t on for longer… great insight!
wren154: #slive Forget Susan Boyle and all the other wannabes. This programme is showing where Britain’s Got Talent
marcmcg @SurgeryLive please turn SurgeryLive into a weekly series. Most innovative and educational show I’ve seen on TV in a long time.
tweelhouse @krishgm Watching Mondays #slive – totally fascinating. Have a heart condition and helping me better understand what goes on inside me!
Chrissarnowski #slive Thank you Surgery Live; great eyeopener, makes me more determined to pursue my ambitions in medicine…
wisebuddha liking use of twitter integration in a linear tv show good example from C4 in UK more of this in future http://bit.ly/hevJ2 #slive
Update 17.vi.09: Alone in the Wild in Daily Telegraph
My next project, Sexperience (aka Sex Education), has sneaked out quietly into the world…
…in The Sun.
That’s two Sun spots in a couple of weeks (Osama Loves hit that august journal on 23rd July). It’s good to break out from the narrow confines of the broadsheet world from time to time and enjoy the super soaraway expanses of The Sun. Which reminds me, I’m off on hols at the end of the week so no action in these quarters for a couple of weeks.
(Talking of wide expanses, Osama Loves made the evening TV news in Canada the day before yesterday)
Here’s the holding screen for Sexperience (including an indicative video clip) which launches tomorrow
Currently reading Paul’s new book Bringing Nothing to the Party which won my Phrase of the Day the other day with: “the litigious little cunt” – not quite Swift but made me laugh out loud on the Tube in context
Here’s a nice little piece from the new issue of the cracking 4Talent magazine. It’s come along way over the 9 issues to date, evolving out of Ten4 magazine based in the West Midlands to become the nationwide contender it is now. This issue’s gorgeous cover in Burne-Jones colours is designed by London-based Slovakian designer Petra Stefankova, one of the winners of last year’s 4Talent Awards (for which I had the honour of presenting the New Media award).
“I have an upcoming project, codename Sam I Am. I’m busting to tell you about it but I can’t yet [Update SP4 readers: it soft launched today, hence the link]; it’s necessarily under wraps. It’s a very entertaining concept and interactive experience which still manages to convey a substantial meaning – in this case about the diversity of Islamic culture, and the narrowness of most of our experience and understanding of it.
The commission I’m most proud of: The Big Art Mob. It applies new technology and media behaviours to a worthwhile public task: mapping the best of Public Art (from bronze geezers on horses to Banksys) across the UK. Interested people from all around the country and beyond (we’re big in Brazil) are photographing artworks on their mobiles and uploading them to the map, having a good online natter about arty stuff along the way. You can interact wherever you are – I’m particularly proud of the WAP (mobile) site at bigartmob.com/mobile. It’s been nominated for 3 Baftas alongside the likes of the iPlayer and Dr Who, so it’s punching above its weight in true C4 stylee.
In the way that Big Art Mob finds a worthwhile purpose for moblogging (mobile blogging) I want to find missions and purposes for other emerging interactive tools and technologies like, say, Twitter – in itself geek masturbation and possibly the end of civilisation as we know it, with a creatively conceived context perhaps something exceedingly good.
I’ve spent the last 5 years at Channel 4 exploring what public service means in a digital world – from Big Dig to Big Art Project, and one or two projects that don’t even have ‘Big’ in the title like Picture This and Empire’s Children. But Big is important: ambition, scale and impact are all vital.
Cross-platform and interactive media is what’s pumping the nads* of the telly industry right now, and it’s vital to its future. All the creative and entrepreneurial energy is welling up in these areas and Channel 4 is ready for action.”
* [John Bender is absently tearing up books]
Andrew Clark: That’s real intelligent.
John Bender: You’re right. It’s wrong to destroy literature. It’s such fun to read. And…
[examines title] …Moe-Lay really pumps my nads.
Claire Standish: Moliere!