Whether one comes away from this film moved, disturbed, or angered, Robert Orlando has set a new standard for scholarship and artistry in biblical documentaries. I am grateful to Robert Orlando for recently taking the time to answer a few questions regarding what went into the making of A Polite Bribe.
An Interview with Director Robert Orlando
By: Rev. Jefferey J. Bütz, S.T.M.
Whether one comes away from this film moved, disturbed, or angered, Robert Orlando has set a new standard for scholarship and artistry in biblical documentaries. I am grateful to Robert Orlando for recently taking the time to answer a few questions regarding what went into the making of A Polite Bribe:
Let’s start with a very basic question. Why did you choose to make a documentary on the Apostle Paul?
I would say I chose to make the film, but it also chose me. The desire to study Paul began at about 17 years old, but this project was probably most sparked by 9/11, and my relationship to Alan Segal at Columbia University. It was further fueled by the Passion. As one reporter wrote about the film, “it could be considered a Michael Moore response to Mel Gibson’s Passion.” I think he meant that I was deconstructing the myth of traditional Christianity, or at least the accepted or official version.
Why did you title your film “A Polite Bribe”? If one does not know this film is about Paul, it sounds like an action/adventure movie or a crime drama.
The plot of the film or “through line” is based on the little known collection that took place between Paul and Jesus’ original followers including his brother James. Paul’s agreement to raise a collection from the Gentile Churches temporarily bought the concession of the Jewish Christian party to allow him to preach a “no law” gospel to Gentiles. I recently interviewed Candida Moss of Notre Dame for my film and she made it the clearest when she said that “Gentiles had to pay a price to enjoy the privilege of being part of the Jewish Movement.” Though the agreement blows up on Paul, later, it was the key to what held together the agreement that allowed Paul to spread the Gospel to the Gentile world. His Gospel, in opposition to the other Apostles, is what became the Christianity we know today.
It is interesting that you mention the crime drama. The film is shaped like a crime story in that it begins with Paul, who is writing the final lines of his Letter to the Romans, and makes these bizarre pleas to the Roman Christians to pray that he is not killed by the Jews in Jerusalem; also that his own brethren accept his collection, which is also fraught with danger. It raises some very intriguing questions… Knowing what happens later in Jerusalem, it does raise an interesting ”riddle,” if you will, much like a crime story? In much of my thinking, I was treating Paul’s visit to Jerusalem with the gold as a crime scene? A who dunnit? Without the interception of Rome, Paul would have been killed. Instead he became an isolated prisoner. How did this happen, that one of our greatest Apostles in the final days of his life would wind up alone and defeated, in a jail cell? Definitely worth a narrative investigation!
The tagline for your film sounds very controversial: “How one man’s bribe created a world religion.” Care to elaborate before people see the film?
As I mentioned, Paul’s Gospel message was not the same as the other Apostles (James) in that it fundamentally opened the Jewish Christian perspective to the remaining world without a necessary conversion to Judaism. And after the Jewish War (with Rome), in 70AD, wiped out most, if not all, of the earlier Jewish Christian movement, it is the Pauline Gospel that survived to become the Christianity we know today.
Or “the bribe” that created the temporary movement, after the rejection by Jesus’ followers, and the Jewish War, in the end, “created” the Christian religion. We can discuss or even argue how much of the bribe or collection was persuading the others and how much was not, but it is an historical fact. It was part of the agreement that kept the Christian movement alive.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of your film for the average Christian, is your revelation of the fact that there was an ethnic clash at the root of Christianity. Peter and Jesus’ brother James and the other apostles remained thoroughly Jewish in their faith and practice, while Paul took Christ’s message in a quite different direction in his mission to the Gentiles, which resulted in a lot of animosity and opposition between Paul and James and Peter. The traditional picture most Christians have of harmony and cooperation between Paul and the other apostles is actually a fictional picture according to your film. Do you think the church has engaged in a “cover-up” or a whitewashing of how Christianity actually began?
As a filmmaker looking to tell the most accurate and compelling story, I am not taking one religious side or the other. If I was reporting on the Bosnian war or the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Kashmir, my choice of stating the conflict in ethnic terms does not require any stretch of the imagination or force one to take sides in the matter. It is not a move from Judaism to Christianity as a superior religion, but a look at how one man would define that move outwards from his ethnic origins. Paul’s life, absent of the ethnic conflict with the Jewish Christians, and Jews (non Messianic), simply does not make any sense. As a storyteller and historian, I could not tell you who he was absent this central conflict. It defined his Gospel. It defined his identity, and ultimately was responsible for most of the major turning points of his life.
The fact that Luke is trying to show a continuity and harmony to the earlier development of the Christian religion should make any one curious and even suspicious. There is simply no evidence of that in Paul’s Letters. Moreover, Luke mentions the entire Journey of Paul and the final trip back to Jerusalem, but leaves the collection out?? The story only makes sense if Paul is bringing the collection. So, yes, this seems like some kind of cover-up. The harmony is pure fiction. It played well against the heroic tale (Aeneid) he was trying to depict. Paul’s gospel was the source of great hostility, a conflict that lasted his entire post conversion life. Also, it was what in the end got him killed.
This film presents a lot of very controversial information about Paul and the beginnings of Christianity that scholars are well aware of, but the average person is not. Why do you think this material is important for everyone to know?
I describe my process from research to film creation as pulling the story “kicking and screaming out of academia.” I am still amazed about how few people actually know these basic facts, including Bible reading believers. It is also how you approach the research and facts that does determine the outcome, right? If you are looking for the Bible to be only a source of inspiration, you will find what inspires? If you are looking for historical facts regardless of inspiration, you might find a different result. And, if you are looking to take those historical facts and collect them into a new narrative, you have “A Polite Bribe.”
Have you yet received, or do you expect, protests from any religious groups when your film goes into general release?
I’m sure there will be? But, I’m not sure on what grounds? I come from a Catholic background and have spent years of my life as an Evangelical and Mainline Protestant, and have spent a considerable amount of time researching Jewish perspectives, many embodied in what is called the “New Perspective.” I know the paradigms for each of these belief systems and have been a believer myself, so it comes from a real place. I don’t have an axe to grind or chip to knock off and I was never a fundamentalist. What I have done is pursued as best I could, through a life journey and seven years of production, that included 30 scholars, and a lot of blood sweat and tears, a narrative that is considerate of ALL the factors I have stated.
Rather than using actors, you chose to use a unique form of animation for you movie. What went into this decision?
As I began using graphical storytelling in the creative process, I realized that I was creating a new world, not just illustrations for commentary. I thought the story I was telling was new, so it should live inside a new environment that would be new also. The film is more like a dreamscape and the scholars more like my Greek choir. They are amazing! I have so much respect for their work and insights, though some needed a little prodding.
We were out to say AND experience something completely new on a subject that should be well known but instead was covered up. Now, the style helps deliver this tone and the impact of digital fine art, though in part a throw back to a Caravaggio or others, is a new representation. A new vision, in narrative AND in the graphical world, if you will.
In the end, I am a filmmaker, and a storyteller, who happened to be some one who also spent decades fascinated by this story. Story as a way of communicating truth is older than the Bible itself. Therefore, you can say I have done my homework and found – what I believe to be - a more compelling “unofficial” story!
Thank you, Robert. I feel you have done a great service for both believers and non-believers in objectively and even-handedly bringing forth material that is well known to scholars but has been little known to the layperson. I wish you much success with this important film.