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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Awarding what matters. On Wednesday night I  attended the 2015 Christopher Awards. First presented in 1949, the prizes are intended, as Christopher founder Father James Keller said, to honor people and media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” The importance of doing so really hit home to me when I was on my home from the event and passed a magazine stand. Featured prominently was the current issue of Entertainment Weekly with words “Meanest, Grittiest, Deadliest” emblazoned across a cover celebrating Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Earlier in the day I also happened to catch sight of a poster promoting Fox’s upcoming fall TV entry Scream Queens which is yet another series about a serial killer, this one located on a college campus. The catchy slogan on the poster read “Pretty Evil. ” I bring this up because in a culture that are “mean” and “pretty evil,” it’s good to have some push back.

As usual, this year’s award recipients were divided into four categories including Books for Adults, Books for Young People, Feature Films and Television/Cable. There was also the James Keller Award which is given to an individual who exemplifies the Christopher motto that “It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” Previous winners of that award have included the likes of Special Olympics founder Eunice Shriver. The night culminated in the presentation of the Christopher Spirit Award which is given for work of particular merit and excellence. With the exception of those latter two prizes, the recipients don’t give thank you speeches — making for a mercifully short presentation that ran about an hour and a half  or so.

The event was hosted by veteran New York City anchorman Ernie Anastas. Presenters included CBS News producer Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson (60 Minutes), Newbery Medal-winning author Joan Baur, film producer Carolyn Jones (The American Nurse) and Fox News contributor/manager of SiriusXM’s Catholic Channel Father Jonathan Morris.

As usual Christophers Director of Communications Tony Rossi and his team selected very worthy nominees and put on a great presentation.

Here’s are some highlights of how it all went down, along with some of my thoughts. Click here to view trailers of the winning projects.

Father Jonathan introduced Ernie Anastas who noted that he has hosted these showcases for several years now. He said that what he like about the Christopher Awards is how they remind us that individuals do have the power to make a positive difference in the world.

Books for Adults winners (presented by Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson)
Fully Alive (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver reveals why people with intellectual disabilities have been his greatest teachers in life, giving him a more meaningful way of seeing the world.
Haatchi & Little B (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books): Wendy Holden’s heartwarming story of A boy with a rare genetic disorder and a disabled Anatolian Shepherd puppy, who was abused and left for dead, transform each other’s lives.
The Invisible Front; Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War (Crown Publishers): Yochi Dreazen’s story of how combating the stigma of suicide and mental illness in both the Army and society becomes the primary mission for a decorated Army officer and his wife.
Jesus: A Pilgrimage (Harper One/Harper Collins Publishers): Jesuit priest James Martin chronicles his visit to the Holy Land and invites believers and non-believers to encounter the Christ of history and the Christ of faith.
A Long Way Home (G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Group): Author Saroo Brierley shares a personal story of getting lost on a train in India at age five, living on the streets for a year, being adopted by an Australian couple, and finally reconnecting with his Indian family 25 years later with help from Google Earth.
Mercy in the City (Loyola Press): Kerry Weber documents her commitment to living out the Corporal Works of Mercy, which led her to volunteer at New York City homeless shelters and breadlines and visit inmates at California’s San Quentin State Prison.

Books for Young People winners (presented by Joan Bauer)

Bauer recalled some of the best advice she ever heard for storytellers: “Always aim at the heart when you tell a story. That’s the bull’s eye that you try to hit.”

I Forgive You (Preschool and up, Pauline Books and Media): Through fun rhymes and colorful illustrations, author Nicole Lataif and illustrator Katy Betz teach children to forgive others like God does and to channel their anger in a positive way.
Maddi’s Fridge (Kindergarten and up, Flashlight Press): When a young girl discovers that her friend’s family is struggling with hunger because they can’t afford food, she comes up with creative ways to rectify the situation. Written by Lois Brandt. Illustrated by Vin Vogel.
Here’s Hank: Bookmarks Are People Too! (ages 6 and up, Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin): Lovable and comical second-grader Hank Zipzer affirms the intelligence and self-esteem of children struggling with dyslexia. By Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver.
Hope Springs (ages 8 and up, Tundra Books/Random House): Though an orphan boy in drought-stricken Kenya is denied water by villagers who fear there won’t be enough for their own families, his kindness and generosity leads him to find a solution for everyone. Written by Eric Walters. Illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes.
Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big, Fat Quitter (Ages 10 and up, Holiday House): With a history of not following through on her commitments, Eliza Bing, who has ADHD, needs to muster up all the determination and inner strength she has to prove to herself and her parents that she can finish a martial arts class. Written by Carmella Van Vleet.

Comment: Note to producers, studios and networks seeking film/TV projects. You could do far worse than pulling from the above list. On the adult side, I personally think Along Way Home and Mercy in the City on the adult side lend themselves particularly well to film treatments. On on the kids’ side of the ledger, Maddie’s Fridge and Hope Springs would definitely seem to have film potential.  I could also envision family-friendly TV series based on Here’s Hank and Eliza Bing. Just sayin’.

The James Keller Award (presented by Father Jonathan Morris)
Recipient: Patrick Donahue
whose infant daughter’s brain injury led him to found the Sarah Jane Brain Project and its spinoff organization the International Academy of Hope (iHope), a New York City’s first school for children with brain injuries. Donahue spoke movingly of his faith, including his prayers to Mother Teresa whose intercession he is praying for regarding what he hopes will one day be the complete healing of Sarah Jane. His own advice for dealing with adversity: “Things work out best for those who make the best of how thing work out.”

In his thank you speech, Donahue also cited the Christopher Prayer (aka The Prayer of St. Francis) as providing his guideposts for how to live a good life. The prayer, one of my favorites too, also provides some good insights for the sort of positive values that storytelling — at its best — can help promote.

Feature Films (presented by Joan Bauer)
The American Nurse (Carolyn Jones Productions): A moving, in-depth portrait of five nurses whose empathy and selflessness lead them to serve those dealing with miscarriage, aging, war, poverty, and prison life.
Selma (Paramount Pictures/Harpo Films): Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faces violence and blackmail while leading peaceful protests to secure voting rights for African Americans.
St. Vincent (The Weinstein Company): A curmudgeonly senior (Bill Murray) who smokes, drinks, curses, and cavorts with a prostitute may not seem like a candidate for sainthood, but 12-year-old Oliver makes a solid case for his neighbor’s goodness.

TV & Cable (presented by Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson)
48 Hours: The Whole Gritty City (CBS News): Documentary explores New Orleans music programs that channel students’ energies in a positive way so they don’t become participants in—or victims of—the violence that surrounds them in their neighborhoods.
The Flash: Pilot episode (The CW): Based on the DC Comics character, Barry Allen becomes the fastest man alive after a science experiment goes awry, allowing him to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a hero.
The Gabby Douglas Story (Lifetime): True story highlights the roles that faith, family, and perseverance played in the gold medal-winning gymnast’s journey to the 2012 Summer Olympics.
POV: When I Walk (PBS/WNET): Filmmaker Jason DaSilva chronicles his own debilitation after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 25 as the love of his wife Alice helps him endure.
Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler: Lourdes (PBS/WGBH):  Documentary follows members of the military injured during wartime who seek physical, emotional, and spiritual healing in the renowned French Catholic shrine.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered for Christmas (Hallmark Movies and Mysteries): From Martha Williamson, the creative producer/writer behind Touched by an Angel, comes the Christmas edition of her series about four heroic postal detectives who try to unite lost mail with their intended recipients. In this episode, they help answer a little girl’s letter to God while dealing with emotional wounds from their own pasts.

Comment: The television prizes were more eclectic this year than 2014 (which included included impressive work but no scripted fare). This year’s winner included two scripted series — which are, hopefully, an indication that the door is opening a crack for mainstream television that tilts more toward idealistic, well-meaning protagonists. It’s unfortunate that the CW and the producer The Flash didn’t see fit to send a representative to receive the award. I, personally, like the show and, IMHO, a Christopher Award is better than an Emmy.

Michael Prupas and Joel S. Rice, two of the executive producers (along with series creator Martha Williamson) did show up though and I had a very good conversation with them. I had spoken with Rice before. It was during my days at the Catholic Channel when he was promoting his 2007 Hallmark Channel TV movie The Note.  I was impressed by how the former social worker deliberately chose projects that uplift rather demeaned. As readers of this blog know, I’m a fan of Signed, Sealed, Delivered.The show, which began it life as a weekly Hallmark Channel drama, currently airs as a series of TV movies on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. The next film (Signed, Sealed, Delivered: From Paris with Love) is scheduled to air on Saturday, June 6th at 9:00 PM (ET). I’m looking forward to it — while also kind of hoping that it resumes weekly production at some point (which, of course, wouldn’t preclude occasional two-hour movie-length episodes). (You can read my previous interview with Martha Williamson here.)

The Christopher Spirit Award (presented by Carolyn Jones)
Recipient:
The ABC documentary series NY Med.
Executive Producer Terry Wrong spoke on behalf of those involved with the production which focuses on the compassionate work done by the medical staffs at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, Mt. Sinai Roosevelt Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital and Newark University Hospital. He said he hopes the program helps inspire kindness and leads other compassionate people to enter the medical profession.

Final comment: It was, overall, a great night that brought deserved attention to the sort of quality projects that often go ignored as the media (as opposed to the audience) drumbeats for every edgier fare. How about a Christopher Network featuring Christopher-endorsed fare. That’s a channel I’d watch.

____

Where Hope Grows opens in theaters tonight (5/15).

Synopsis (from the film’s website): Calvin Campbell is a former professional baseball player sent to an early retirement due to his panic attacks at the plate. Even though he had all the talent for the big leagues, he struggles with the curveballs life has thrown him. Today, he mindlessly sleepwalks through his days and the challenge of raising his teenager daughter. His life is in a slow downward spiral when it is suddenly awakened and invigorated by the most unlikely person – Produce, a young-man with Down syndrome who works at the local grocery store.

Calvin slowly loses the chip on his shoulder as he begins to experience the world through Produce’s eyes. Faith, work, purpose and most importantly family, blossom into Calvin’s life as their friendship develops. The unlikely pair becomes intertwined giving Calvin’s life new meaning and purpose, but unfortunately leads to tragedy due to single decision echoed from Calvin’s past. Cast: Kristoffer Polaha, David DeSanctis, Billy Zabka, Brooke Burns, McKaley Miller, Alan Powell, Danica McKellar, Kerr Smith and Mitchell Grant. Written and Directed by: Chris Dowling
Rated: PG-13

Review: At once a gritty and kind film that will speak to be teens and their parents.  Writer/director Chris Dowling does a great job of telling a meaningful story that comes across as more real than preachy.  As the headline for this post suggests, Where Hope Grows is a pretty good candidate for a 2016 Christopher Award.

The performances in the film all understated and believable. Polaha, as ex-baseball player Calvin Campbell, makes for a sympathetic fallen hero struggling to rediscover his mojo while raising his teen daughter Katie (Miller). His alcoholism doesn’t help matters. Their relationship would have been interesting enough to build a movie on but the true heart of the film is found in the character of Produce (DeSanctis who is excellent in his film debut), a young grocery worker with Down syndrome, whose optimism and faith show helps open up Calvin’s eyes to begin seeing life with a fresh perspective.

While not flashy, Where Hope Grows is the kind of movie that stays with you after the theater lights come back on. It is a well-written, hopeful and intelligent that is Recommended.

Note: I’ll be posting an interview with David DeSanctis soon.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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