The Controversy Over ‘Canaan Land’: Filmmaker Richard Rossi Answers His Critics

An Interview with Writer-Director Richard Rossi on the controversy surrounding his film Canaan Land which is in production and set for a 2018 release. The film stars Rebecca Holden as Sister Sara Sunday and Richard Rossi as Brother Billy Gantry.

Director Richard Rossi

INTERVIEW ABBREVIATION CODE:

IM: Interview Magazine, Victoria Evans

RR: Richard Rossi

IM: Your film Canaan Land has infuriated fundamentalists. You’ve been called a devil, dishonest…

RR: Among other things.

IM: It’s interesting considering the film isn’t even out and they haven’t seen it.

RR: Fundamentalists have a history of attacking things they haven’t seen. They protested Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ even though the protesters when asked admitted they never saw the film.

IM: It’s not the first time fundamentalists have protested you. I read that the notorious hate group led by Fred Phelps, the “God Hates Fags” guy protested you?

RR: Yes, because of our ministry to AIDS patients. He called me a “fag lover.” It was upsetting to my wife and I, and our children who were younger at the time. A friend of mine told me it is a badge of honor to be protested by Phelps and gives me a lot of credibility to the world watching on. I learned that having rigid religious people oppose you is a sign you are following Jesus, because those are the ones that gave Him a hard time. I’m proud that some in the church world, even Christian friends of mine are critical of this project. That’s far better than being an irrelevant filmmaker no one talks about.

Fred Phelps protesting Richard Rossi.

IM: How far along are you in the production process?

RR: We’re almost halfway done shooting. We’d shot most of what we needed that doesn’t include the lead character, Sister Sara Sunday. We finally cast actress and singer Rebecca Holden in the part and it is so exciting to be filming now with her.

Rebecca Holden stars as Sister Sara Sunday.

IM: She starred in the TV series Knight Rider?

RR: Yes.

IM: How is it going?

RR: We just shot our first two days with her and she hit it out of the park. She is perfect for Sister Sara. She’s not only great in the acting scenes but in the preaching she’s an incredible preacher.

Richard Rossi directing the first day with lead actress Rebecca Holden (far right).

IM: Is that unusual that you shot a large portion of the film before the lead was cast?

RR: I suppose so, but not unprecedented. With Gone With the Wind, the search for Scarlett O’Hara was long and had a lot of drama to it, similar to what we’ve been through. A lot of the iconic scenes in that film, like the burning of Atlanta, were shot without the lead actress, Vivien Leigh. Her shots were shot later and added in.

IM: I am glad you cast your lead. I read about many actresses that were considered both known and unknown. I am excited to see Rebecca in the part.

RR: She’s not only beautiful and a great singer and actress, but also very intelligent, grounded, and a strong Christian.

The casting of Sara had rumors of actresses claiming they had the part.

IM: What do you think is behind the attacks from fundamentalists on you and the film?

RR: There is a viewpoint within the fundamentalist religious world that comes from fear. It is a fear-based worldview. They are afraid to critique religion and religious leaders, for fear of God’s judgment or dividing the body of Christ. They hold these televangelists as sacred. I think that in and of itself is a form of idolatry.

IM: Does your film name names, does it attack televangelists that are well known?

RR: It is a work of fiction. It shows dramatically the difference between a sincere Christian minister, Sister Sara Sunday, and a fake one, Brother Billy Gantry, played by me. The names are fictitious. In the interest of full disclosure, I have on occasion, critiqued certain teachings and teachers on my social media, but the film itself is a work of fiction based on my experience in the religious world.

IM: What are some examples of how you were more specific on your social media in confronting specific evangelists, and can you relate to how some of your Christian friends feel conflicted about your Canaan Land project?

RR: I recently did two shows on my radio program about Ernest Angley, a well know televangelist faith healer who had such TV coverage that he was satirized and imitated by Robin Williams, Phil Collins and others. My family and I went to his faith healing services in Akron, a ninety minute drive from my hometown. Courageous ex-members of his church came on my show and told shocking stories of sexual abuse, forced abortions and vasectomies, a dark undercurrent to the benign televangelist faith healer persona on TV. I felt sad because I grew up watching him. I wanted to believe the miracles and ministry were 100 percent real. So I relate to how this is emotionally tough for those who follow these guys. After my Ernest Angley shows, I felt like I did when kids in second grade told me Santa wasn’t real. But Jesus said “The truth shall set you free.” We either speak the truth about what is real and fake, which is the theme of my movie, or we enjoy televangelists like we enjoy WWF wrestling or the Globetrotters, accepting its a show with unreal elements, and enjoying it for entertainment.

IM: How do you believe we can spot the fakes?

RR: As I said in a previous interview on Patheos, the fakes make you dependent. ‘Give us $3000 to learn the gifts of the Spirit. Sow a seed to us to get blessed,’ they say. They aggrandize their personality cult and finances. They increase their stature with titles like Doctor-

IM: Doctor? They aren’t really doctors, are they?

RR: No, it’s usually an “honorary” doctorate, or from a diploma mill. You can tell listening to them for five minutes they haven’t done the study and scholarship to earn a doctorate.

IM: What other titles do they use?

RR: Bishop, Apostle, Prophet. This increases their authority to manipulate. That’s not to say there aren’t some pastors who do the legitimate academic work to earn those titles sometimes. And there are some who legitimately oversee hundreds of churches and are titled as a Bishop for that work. But the frauds are notorious for self-aggrandizing titles they haven’t received legitimately. Watch out for those who put themselves above you. The real ones point to Christ in you. I’m going to publicly challenge the biggest names in religion to repent and give back the money they’ve ripped off from the poor, similar to an important scene, spoiler alert, in which my character Brother Billy repents.

Richard Rossi in character as “Brother Billy” in a scene from Canaan Land.

IM: I read that you have conducted healing services for thousands of people. Do you believe in the reality of healing like Jesus did?

RR: Yes, I’m open to the gifts of the Spirit. The real healings are so beautiful I hate to see it blasphemed by fakes who merchandise the gifts.

IM: What qualifies someone to heal legitimately?

RR: You can pray just like anyone else. The gifts of the Spirit belong to the Holy Spirit. You have this inside you by faith and can be a conduit.

IM: How do you respond to those who are trying to pressure you into not finishing the film?

RR: I will not be bullied into silence by fundamentalist critics and multimillionaire televangelists trying to stop my film. Their criticism is only helping market my movie because people are talking. I refuse to let them define me or my film, I will finish Canaan Land and show it to all of you willing to watch. They help me because they compliment Canaan Land as something worthy of being talked about. And they are helping market it by discussing it and gossiping about me and the movie.

IM: Do you think most faith films, or Christian films, are not talked about outside of the religious subculture?

RR: Yes, they are often ignored.

IM: Why?

RR: Some of my Christian filmmaker friends would say its because Hollywood is evil and anti-Christian.

IM: Do you agree and think that’s the only reason?

RR: No. I don’t agree. I believe it’s because they are not edgy and truthful.

IM: From the footage I saw, your film is definitely edgier than any Christian film I’ve ever seen. I saw you shot at the CIA club, in North Hollywood, considered the most unique and artistic nightclubs in Los Angeles by the LA Weekly. And, I saw the footage of you performing the song with the dancing clowns accompanied by the drummer from the Dead Kennedys and Red Hot Chili Peppers. So this is a film that people in the real world are already paying attention to.

RR: Thank you. I was so blessed to have great artists like Carl Crew from CIA and Dh Peligro from the Dead Kennedys help me.

Richard Rossi jams on guitar an original song he wrote for the film, with Dead Kennedys drummer Dh Peligro to his left.

IM: Why do you think evangelical films are not taken seriously by the larger culture artistically?

RR: Their films suffer from what I call the white hat and black hat approach, like an old B Western with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black hats. The Christians are seen as perfect people ready to be raptured and the non-Christians are evil, self-centered people and God is ready to judge them in fiery wrath. If we’re honest, we know the world isn’t like that. The dualistic framework of dividing humanity into a binary of two camps: the born again believers who are shining and shimmering being conformed to Christ, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit, and on the other side, the wicked liberal unbelievers who are nasty, immoral fleshly wicked people does not correspond to the reality of how things really are, that unbelievers are often nicer people.

IM: Why do you think unbelievers are often nicer?

Whether their niceness stems from nature, nurture, or the light that lights everyone who comes into the world created in God’s image, I don’t know. I value as a core principle everyone is made in the image of God and looking for the light and shadows in my characters I create as a writer and filmmaker rather than discounting and dividing people anymore. I don’t believe in the simplistic dualism of guys in the white hats and in the black hats, and this is why I reject other tenets of fundamentalism, like their conspiratorial view of the world.

IM: You mention the rapture. Why are so many Christian films redoing the same stories, like the Left Behind idea?

RR: That’s a great point. The Christian filmmaking world is infertile creatively. They keep jumping on what seems to be the hot Christian movie trend, like football faith stories, or Revelation rapture stories. Two of the stars of our film, Thom and Maryann Rachford, were pioneers of the Christian film movement, and they made the Thief In the Night series, amazing cult films millions have seen. Many of the end times films since then are mostly derivative and not as good as what they did on a fraction of the budget. And fundamentalist filmmakers attacking me are worried about offending the big ministries with lots of cash that can bankroll them. So some feel they have to distance from me out of fear for their own survival.

IM: Is that why they are afraid of your film?

RR: Perhaps, in part. They are worried my film will shake things up. I would rather be criticized by the modern day Pharisees than be ignored. Artists with integrity will not be ignored. They may be attacked, criticized, misunderstood, but because they challenge conventions, and stir things up, their work is unignored. And this is the opposite of the insipid tripe that is often put out as a faith-based film.

IM: What do you think of the accusation that your film has an agenda or crusade of attacking or criticizing religious leaders?

RR: The people saying that think in a very rigid and myopic way. They attack me as they accuse me of attacking others. They gossip and call me names as they say true Christians don’t gossip and call names. They aren’t bad people. They mean well. But they are biblically illiterate to the fact that Paul throughout the New Testament names false teachers and teachings and warns people not to follow them. If anyone asks WWJD? Remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.

IM: The way you present Jesus seems to interest people who aren’t Christians.

RR: And that is what Jesus Himself said would happen when He is presented as He truly is. In John 12:32, He said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto Me.” My viewpoint is that we must show the real Jesus in contrast to the rigid religious Jesus of fundamentalism. I believe that. I stand for that. Some disagree, but my viewpoint is a valid viewpoint. I can’t change the ideology of those who feel another way. Most of those folks are entrenched in their thinking. Its like a Trump supporter and a Bernie supporter trying to convince each other. Very rarely does one cross over to the other way of thinking. But hopefully the millions who see what I am trying to say will support the film and realize I have a valid point of view artistically, logically, and theologically. I see Jesus much differently than the devotees of televangelists.

IM: So the fundamentalists worship a different god from you?

RR: Yes, it seems that way. And I don’t believe they’re right, so I don’t internalize their judgment. I can’t please everyone. There will always be those who say “Don’t touch God’s anointed. Don’t speak against the billionaire televangelists.”

Critics of the film say Rossi’s writing and prepublicity makes it too clear he views some popular televangelists as frauds.

IM: What is the difference between the real Jesus and the religious Jesus?

RR: The recent hurricanes showed the contrast. Those preaching a false, angry Jesus said the hurricane were God’s wrath at Texans and Floridians. Real Christians got on kayaks and helped the people. The Religious Jesus brings shame. The Real Jesus brings grace. The Religious Jesus brings condemnation. The Real Jesus brings compassion. The Religious Jesus hurts people. The Real Jesus heals people. The Religious Jesus uses people to build the church. The Real Jesus uses the church to build people. The Real Jesus transcends religion. He is not confined or contained by the cages of any one denomination, definition, or dogma. No one can claim Jesus to be exclusively theirs and then exclude others from His universal, unconditional love. Unconditional means there are no conditions. The Bible prophecies that God will pour out His Spirit on all flesh, rather than dividing humanity into a binary of two groups, the in-group and the out-group.

IM: So His unconditional love is even for those who oppose you?

RR: Most definitely. My wife and I met at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a fundamentalist college that led the charge in creating the thinking of some of my critics. We were forbidden to go to movie theaters when we went there. The school was a learning experience, but very oppressive to my creativity with the legalistic rules. They started the Religious Right and Moral Majority. I was indoctrinated in this and once thought like some of my critics. I still have many friends there whom I love.

IM: What do you believe about salvation? Is it through faith? Works? Praying a prayer?

RR: We believe in Christ’s forgiveness for our sins past, present, and future. We remind each other God alleviates guilt and shame, so be gentle with yourself and others. Christ has suffered once for sins, that He might bring us to God. We do not earn our salvation by keeping legalistic rules. We simple believe and receive the truth about what Jesus has already done for us.

IM: This film and I’m sure the interviews and Q/A times at screenings will be interesting and controversial. Do you think it will be an exorcism of your past religious demons?

Yes. Canaan Land is my coming out as a former fundamentalist who can no longer subscribe to the beliefs and practices of my past, in which we were frightened into not criticizing televangelists. I have to oppose their misrepresentation of Christ that preys on the gullibility of the mentally weak. Canaan Land isn’t attacking the beliefs and teachings of Jesus, but those who misrepresent them. I believe in grace for all. There’s a redemptive ending, in which even the narcissistic evangelist running the con is confronted by unconditional love. God loves those who start out with pure hearts and get seduced by money, power, and fame. He wants them to come back to their first love.

IM: What is the best website for the film?

RR: The Go Fund Me site which is http://www.gofundme.com/CanaanLand

IM: Thank you and good luck.

RR: You’re welcome, thank you for your interest.

Richard Rossi directing. (Photo by Jay Gilliland)