Graduate Theological Union

Student Learns the Power of Activist Filmmaking

Students' Stories: In the Community

Student Learns the Power of Activist Filmmaking

Ryan Parker“Film can engage people at a deeper level than an ordinary sermon,” says Ryan Parker, a doctoral student in the Graduate Theological Union Religion and Arts area who’s focusing on film.

One of the most powerful ways to educate, he says, is through documentaries. Parker, who plans to teach at the college level, decided to take what he learned at the GTU and direct it toward “something practical” with people who want to make a difference. Last October he started volunteering for Active Voice ( in San Francisco, an organization that connects social justice documentary filmmakers with audiences in churches, mosques, and schools as well as civic and political organizations. At Active Voice, filmmakers get help creating a community — through websites and local viewings — that will hopefully lead to sustained involvement in the issues the films present, such as race on Death Row, relationships between immigrant and native-born American Muslims, and industrialized agriculture.

Now working as a project coordinator for a 90-minute film called “Renewal,” Parker is organizing the “Renewal Circle,” a web-based community support network, and setting up pre-screenings for small feedback groups. This documentary, by Marty Ostrow and Terry Kay Rockefeller, presents portraits of environmental activists of multiple faiths. The filmmakers want to know if “Renewal” inspires audiences enough to get involved in stewarding the planet. The GTU has already hosted one screening and another larger viewing is planned for this spring, where Parker hopes to include a panel discussion.

"There’s something about documentaries that allows filmmakers to really get into people’s lives."

“For me,” he says, “Active Voice is a much more effective way of contributing to a social justice effort than working on my own. I see how ministers can augment pastoral care with documentaries that can be educational and even therapeutic. A lot of filmmakers we work with at Active Voice are making a difference in people’s lives. They’re just using a different language than what you would find in religion. There’s something about documentaries that allows filmmakers to really get into people’s lives. By simply watching, we open ourselves up to their experience. We can encounter the other and hear their story in a powerful way.”

Parker says his work at Active Voice has inspired him to move from watching and commenting on films to attempting one of his own. This summer, with the help of friends back home in Mississippi, he’s going to launch his own documentary project. But first, this semester he’s writing a syllabus called “Documenting Change,” about ways to use documentaries to teach.

“What average family has time to take a class in biblical exegesis (a critical analysis of text)?” he asks. “But film is a great, real, storied way to learn about issues such as homosexuality in the Christian church from respected scholars and ministers, as you see in the recent documentary, ‘The Bible Tells Me So.’ With this film, a minister can start a conversation in a congregation and go from there. There are a lot of stories not in our sacred texts that still need to be heard and seen.”