180 Documentary Review Essay

Jeff Johnson lives a life that many would envy. He’s given up things like a permanent address, family, and material wealth, choosing the “dirtbag” existence that allows him to travel on a whim and seek adventure where he can.

Inspired by old film footage, Johnson embarks blindly on a new adventure, saying “If I don’t get on that boat, I know exactly what I am going home to — if I do [get on the boat], my future is unwritten.”

That’s a jumping off point for “180 Degrees South”, a new movie from Woodshed Films. It is directed by Chris Malloy, a former professional surfer, and it follows a particularly epic adventure of Johnson’s.

Johnson, along with a few friends that join him, attempts to follow the course of a 1968 journey that a couple of his heroes made. Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins left from California, driving south through Mexico, to Chile’s Patagonia region, surfing as they went. Once there, just as the 1968 travelers did, Johnson will attempt a summit in what is now the park Conservacion Patagonica. Specifically, he will climb the peak Cerro Corcovado.

Along the way, Johnson catches boat rides, surfs, mingles with locals and attempts to learn about the struggles of the area. His journey takes him through some amazing places. For weeks, he’s stranded on Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island. While there he meets a beautiful local, Makohe, who joins him on the journey.

“180 degrees South” is not really a surf film, or a climbing film, or even an environmental film, yet it functions as all of these somehow. In a melancholy, yet beautiful and thoughtful way, the film tells a story of true exploration and adventure. True to the experience, the film is a little slow moving, with very little action. However, there is plenty of adventure — broken boats, unexpected layovers, and joyful discoveries mixed with heartbreaking realities. There is a refreshing lack of exaggeration to the film. A few short sections of animated overlay help you imagine what the narrator is thinking.

Jeff Johnson and Keith Malloy paddle in Patagonia

The movie also deals with something that I see as becoming more and more important. The wild places that we enjoy and utilize need to be protected. Currently, the Chilean government is planning to use Patagonia as a resource for power — with plans to build half a dozen hydroelectric dams. At best, it will be a temporary fix with no concern for sustaining the natural resource and way of life. Unlike a lot of environmental films, the message here is presented in a very reflective, non-shaming way.

And the name, “180 degrees South”? Near the end of the film, it is implied that part of the way to undo our current, destructive path is to “turn around and make a forward step.” If Patagonia is “like being in Wyoming or Montana 100 years ago,” as the film states, what can be done to see that it stays that way?

Part of the answer seems to be buying huge tracts of land and fencing it off from development, as Doug Tompkins has done there. Though I think the filmmaker expects the message to be something along the lines of “consume less.” Either way, a slice of the responsibility falls on we adventurers since we are among those who may value wild places the most.

The crew in the shadow of Cerro Corcovado

If embellished action and fast-paced music make up your kind of outdoor film, then skip this one—it was made by a bunch of chill characters. If you like a good story with a message of responsible eco-tourism, beautiful footage, and a great, mellow soundtrack, then I think you’ll enjoy this film. Be warned, though. After watching this film, you may find yourself packing for “destination unknown” and heading to sea on a boat of your own.

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Ray Comfort’s “180” film can be seen at the end of this post.

It’s nicely produced, its conclusion is definitely worth advocating, and some of its methods may be worth emulating. I pray that the Lord will use this film in some way to stop the holocaust of abortion in America and around the world.

I agree with pro-life apologist Scott Klusendorf, who evaluated the film from an apologetics-content standpoint, and concludes with this accolade:

Despite these concerns, the film is worth seeing and Comfort gets huge accolades for his courage in confronting abortion head-on. Say what you want, at least he’s doing something about it and for that I am immensely grateful. Before ripping him, his evangelical critics need to ask themselves what they are doing to stop the bloodshed. Are they taking this holocaust as seriously as Comfort does? I can only pray that one day they will.

I should confess at the front-end that I have mixed feelings about documentary-type films. On the one hand, when done well (here’s looking at you, Ken Burns!) they can be enormously entertaining and a vehicle for learning. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a film expert to know that the genre can be a conclusion in search of a film narrative (here’s looking at you, Michael Moore!). If you ask 100 people a question, it’s easy to edit it down to the 5 people who responded in the way that you wanted. And you can take those 5 people and edit their answers to advance the narrative even further. I say all of that by way of general principle, before diving into any specifics of this film and its editing.

Before even watching this film, it’s interesting to make an observation or two about the intense marketing that is being attempted with the hope that the video will go “viral.” The promotional materials imply that “8 people changed their mind about abortion in a manner of seconds.” Comfort himself toldThe Christian Post that he asked a question that was “so powerful that it not only changed the people’s minds about abortion, and made them do a 180 (degree turn in viewpoint), but it made them do a 180 when it comes to their own eternal salvation.” This suggests a silver-bullet, one-question approach to abortion and salvation, and I don’t think the actual film really bears this out. The promotional materials also refer to the film as being “award-winning,” but I haven’t been able to find thus far what “awards” it has won. [Update: I’ve been told now that the the film, when it was called “Hitler’s Religion,” won the bronze prize in the Religion/Spiritual category of the Telly Awards.] I think overselling a project like this actually tends to work with the public, but for me it creates a bit of suspicion from the get-go.

Comfort’s goal in this project is to change America by God’s grace. Listen to Comfort’s logical progression in the following quote—I added some brackets to identify the point—for how he thinks this film will change America:

We’d like to see this film go viral because [a] if you can change what a person believes about abortion [b] you are going to change the way they vote, and [c] that can change the direction of this nation and [d] this nation surely can be turned back to God. A lot of people have (already) said this will turn the nation back to God with His help.

The desire is commendable but naive, especially if it sees changing of voting patterns as the linchpin. In Comfort’s line of questioning in the film, that appears to be the end-goal.

The film begins with Comfort asking several people “Who was Adolf Hitler?” Most of the interviewees—at least the ones shown on film—don’t know who he is or what he did. At this point I suspect many who answered correctly were edited out. Nothing wrong with that I guess, but it sets up the film in a strange way as if no one in America remembers who Hitler was or what he did.

The ignorant respondents are contrasted with a couple of contemporary neo-Nazis who spew their hatred.

Comfort then runs a thought experiment: It’s 1939, you have a high-powered rifle, and you have Hitler in your sights. Would you pull the trigger? (Respondents—including a man whose family died in the Holocaust—say “yes.” This man goes on to say that he would have not only killed Hitler but all of his friends and all of his relatives!)

Comfort then asks: If it was 30 years earlier, would you have killed Hitler’s pregnant mother knowing what you know now? (Again respondents say “yes.”)

This was a strange part of the film for me. I don’t know how Comfort himself would answer those questions. I suspect he would advocate killing in both cases—but I don’t know for sure. I’m not sure if he is implying a utilitarian ethic on behalf of life, or if he is merely “priming the pump” to get these folks thinking ethically through moral dilemmas related to life. This line of reasoning is never developed and makes the film’s logic seem disjointed.

From here Comfort explains (rightly) that Hitler not only hated Judaism but also Christianity, and he briefly describes some of his horrific acts.

At this point we’re one-third of the way through the 33-minute film.

Now Comfort moves to his third thought experiment: It’s 1943, and a Nazi officer points a machine gun at you, forcing you to drive a bulldozer  toward 100 Jewish families who have been shot. Many of them are dead, but some are still alive. Driving the bulldozer forward would bury them alive. If you do what the Nazi says, he’ll let you live; if not, he’ll shoot you dead. Would you do it? (The response here is evenly mixed, yes and no.)

Now the fourth thought experiment: if the Nazi gave you a machine gun in the same situation, would you just finish them off? This would be more merciful, Comfort says. (Again the response is mixed.)

Comfort for the first time raises the issue of abortion. Observing that his interviewee seems to value human life, he asks what they think about it. Most responded that it’s a tricky situation.

Then he asks if it’s a baby in the womb, or when the baby becomes a life. He takes the helpful tactic of making them flesh out their moral beliefs on abortion: Finish this sentence: It’s okay to kill a baby in the womb when ________. He also asks what justifies killing a baby in the womb.

To a respondent who says that she doesn’t know, Comfort rightly responds: If you had the opportunity to detonate a building and you weren’t sure there was human life inside, would you still blow it up?

For a young man who says it’s important to “give it some thought” before an abortion, Comfort asks if he sees that that’s like saying it’s important just to “give it some thought” before burying those Jews alive. (The respondent senses the contradiction.) A few more clips are shown where Comfort circles back to earlier answers: they would give their life to save the Jews but are okay with allowing a baby to die in the womb (which for some reason Comfort calls “the safest place on earth,” despite the statistics on non-elective abortion pregnancy loss).

On the answer of rape, Comfort again asks a good question: Why would you kill the baby for the crime of the father?

To another person Comfort asks when life begins. She doesn’t know, so he asks whether or not she thinks God knows. She thinks he does. Comfort then points out the sixth commandment: you shall not kill. Hitler declared Jews to be non-human, and that’s what you’re doing if you declare it’s not a baby until three months.

Comfort also make the Nazi Germany analogy in response to those who say abortion is okay but they don’t agree with it. It’s at this point that Comfort asks the respondent feeling the contradiction if he is changing his mind on abortion, and he says that yes, it’s definitely making him think.

Two other respondents see the problems when Comfort asks, “Abortion is okay when ______?” and say that abortion is now wrong. A third says he has a valid point.

Two-thirds of the way through the film now,  Comfort returns to Hitler’s view of the Ten Commandments as a segue to his method of evangelism. Unfortunately, the quote from Hitler at 23:23, while something Hitler might have said, is actually from a a novel. (Hitler’s views on Christianity are well-known and can be shown through actual quotes, as Erwin Lutzer demonstrated years ago.)

It’s at this point that Comfort transitions from abortion to his well-known method of evangelism. He asks folks a series of questions: Have you ever lied? (Yes.) What do you call someone who lies? (A liar.) He does the same with fornication and adultery of the heart, taking the Lord’s name in vain, stealing. He also asks if they are good enough to go to heaven, to stand before God on judgment. Most (though not all) suggest they are good enough, and he points out that by their own profession they are lying, thieving, blaspheming fornicators. The line of questioning helps the listener to confront the contradiction between sin and acceptance by a holy God. Comfort then says that Jesus paid the penalty for sins and that we must repent and put on Christ (not just look at Jesus like a parachute but actually put it on to save us).

It’s hard for me not to think here of D.L. Moody’s quip when his ministry methods were questioned: “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” But I think it’s still worth pointing out for those who would like to utilize or adapt Comfort’s method of evangelism: perhaps the most important book to read here would be John Piper’s God Is the Gospel. I get nervous about evangelism results that are mainly motivated by and predicated on avoiding judgment and hell and not also seeing the beauty and glory and joy of Jesus Christ.

Here are my simple big-picture take-aways from the film:

  1. Comfort’s end-goals are commendable and necessary: seeing the logic and horror of abortion and seeing the need for salvation from judgment (even if the latter is relatively one-sided).
  2. Comfort models courage and the power of asking questions. He wisely seeks to make his respondents defend their moral claims. Comfort asks some good questions (especially on rape and in response to those who don’t know if it’s a life in the womb). But he also asks some bad questions: I still don’t know why you’d ask about using a high-powered rife to kill Mrs. Hitler and abort her son!
  3. As evangelicals and as Americans we have been conditioned to get excited about silver-bullet approaches. But there’s no “one question”—despite the buzz—that will turn someone from pro-choice to pro-life in “seconds.” The same is true with regard to salvation.
  4. The conversations in the film are essentially one-way: Comfort asks all the questions, they have to defend their beliefs. This probably works better with man-on-the-street interviews—especially with a microphone and a camera—than in actual conversations and especially in relationships. Again, there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing this. But I think we should be realistic in seeing that asking good questions is a transferable tactic—the “silver-bullet” interview-style dialogue probably is not.
  5. I’m concerned that the way in which Comfort backs someone into the corner morally and logically may be good for reaching quick decisions, but I’m not sure it really equips them to understand the ultimate issues, especially when they are confronted with an intelligent pro-abortion advocate. I think that the tactics developed by Greg Koukl and Scott Klusendorf—which may not produce as many ostensible 180’s—will produce more lasting fruit.
  6. To quote Klusendorf again: “Thank you, Ray Comfort. I’m thankful you care enough about abortion to do something about it. I’m grateful for the resources you personally invested to make the film. I’m glad you take abortion seriously.” Amen. I am virtually certain the film will not change our country. But if the Lord uses it to change some minds and hearts—and thereby save some lives—it will all be worth it.

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Ray Comfort’s “180” Film on Hitler and Abortion

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