Christopherson shared clips from his documentaries and lessons of faith he has learned throughout his film career
In his Feb. 6 Faith + Works lecture “Sacred Subjects: The Sacred Nature of Representation,” Theatre and Media Arts professor Scott Christopherson illustrated the importance of Christlike charity and trust in God in his creative process as a documentary filmmaker.
“Documentaries are art through the lens of human relationships,” said Christopherson, whose films have played at the Sundance and South by Southwest (SXSW) film festivals. Throughout the lecture, he shared clips from his works and the spiritual insights that have informed his career.
Christopherson’s documentaries center around unique and often complex characters that can be difficult to represent both honestly and respectfully. In his BYU honors thesis “Only the Pizza Man Knows” — a deeply personal documentary chronicling his parents’ deteriorating relationship and eviction from his childhood home — Christopherson struggled to understand his parents’ flaws and made some difficult discoveries in the process.
“I love my parents dearly and it was important to me that I represent them in a way that reflected my love,” said Christopherson. “I had to turn to God through prayer to understand how to represent complex human beings in a nuanced way. The only way to truly understand someone is through God’s omniscience. Our language and ability to understand someone through emotion is limited.”
Christopherson also shared his struggles with mental health. Shortly after he began teaching at BYU, both of Christopherson’s parents died within months of each other, and he fell into a deep depression. He found solace and solidarity in Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s 2013 talk “Like a Broken Vessel,” which impressed upon him the importance of vulnerability in documentary filmmaking.
“In my artistic life, I realized that the characters in my films needed to be vulnerable like Elder Holland and dig deeper into what challenged them,” Christopherson said. “My family’s love and empathy directly affected my ability to empathize with and love the subject of my films.”
That empathy has helped him to better connect with his films’ subjects — including Stephen Groo, the eccentric and often difficult filmmaker featured in Christopherson’s documentary “The Insufferable Groo.”
“Steve was hesitant to explore his own demons and we had multiple talks about him being vulnerable and sharing challenges in front of the camera,” Christopherson said. They had a breakthrough when, after Groo’s basement flooded, Christopherson helped clean up the sewage until four in the morning.
“Sometimes you have to wade through the proverbial sewage of long-suffering and patience,” said Christopherson. “Sometimes you have to put the camera down and serve the subjects you’re working with.”
Christopherson also shared clips from his feature-length film “Peace Officer” — a documentary about officer-involved shootings that won the 2015 SXSW Grand Jury & Audience Awards for Best Documentary. While making the film, Christopherson prayed to know whether to include clips that portrayed people at their worst.
“It felt like our representation could dramatically affect the mental health and well-being of a lot of other people,” he said.
Even at times when his portrayals caused controversy, Christopherson felt comforted by the Holy Ghost, knowing that he had done his due diligence by making the Lord a part of his creative process.
“I had to trust in God’s infinite knowledge that he knew best how to represent one of His children. My portrayal of them will always be flawed or fragmented, but I also felt peace.”
Christopherson concluded his remarks by highlighting the importance of prayer in his life, something his mother taught him from a young age. Quoting the Book of Mormon prophet Alma, he said, “‘Ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.’ I really believe this. I think God does care about the minutiae of our lives. He cares about the test you’re taking, He cares about the assignment you’re doing. That’s the God that I believe in and know loves me.”