It’s hard to imagine two parts of American culture– mixed martial arts and Christianity– that on the surface are more incompatible. Jesus is known for telling his followers to turn the other cheek. MMA fighters are known for turning their opponents’ cheeks for them, with their fists, elbows, and knees. If there’s one existential truth it’s this: humans, especially American humans, are hideously complex. Yet the existence of ministries that embrace MMA still surprises.
Documentarians Daniel Junge (the Academy Award winning doc short Saving Face) and Bryan Storkel (Holy Rollers) are in the middle of production on a documentary about MMA practicing pastors called Fight Church, and judging from the trailer they cut together for their Kickstarter campaign, the film is a clinical look at the lives of this fighting preachers, moral ambiguity and all.
We talked with Storkel via email about the doc, and about why his team has turned to crowdfunding in the middle of production.
Turnstyle: Who are the pastors in Fight Church? Did they start as fighters who became ministers, or is it the other way around?
Bryan Storkel: There are several pastors featured in the film. Paul Burress (one of our main characters) was a pastor’s son. He was raised in the church and was also taught martial arts at an early age. He grew up in an environment that involved Christianity and fighting. Some of the other characters in the film were professional fighters first, and then became Christians, and some are the other way around. We are also planning to film with several UFC fighters that are Christians including Benson Henderson and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
TS: How did you find these guys in the first place? What was your initial reaction?
BS: Our producers, Eben Kostbar and Joe McKelheer recently produced a film called The Hammer. It’s the biopic of deaf UFC fighter Matt Hamill. During the filming, they met a guy named Paul Burress who helped out on the project. Paul told them about his “Fight Church” and they were instantly attracted to the story. As they spent more time with Paul, they realized that he was a very likable, sincere guy and would make a great subject for a documentary. They brought the project to Daniel Junge, who agreed to direct it.
When I was asked to co-direct this film, I didn’t really know what to think about the topic. At first thought, it seemed wrong. How could fighting and Christians go together? If you think about the basis of the Christian faith, it is love; love your neighbor and love God. I thought it was pretty wild that someone could be a pastor and a fighter. I definitely wanted to find out more, and making a film about it sounded like a good way to do that.
TS: How has your opinion of them changed as you’ve been making this doc?
BS: After meeting Paul and spending time with him, I realized that he really was sincere in his faith. He loves God and he loves people. I’m still not sure what I personally believe about the moral aspects of it all. Honestly, I’m not really sure if God has a stance on organized fighting. I think He has bigger/more important things to deal with. It may not even be a moral issue. That’s what I like about the topic though…as I spend more time with the subjects, I’m sure I’ll learn more and probably develop a stronger personal stance.
TS: How much time did you spend with the fighters already?
BS:We’ve been filming off-and-on with them for the last year or so. I became involved with the project about six months ago, so I haven’t spent as much time with them as Daniel Junge, my co-director.
TS: How much is left to shoot and pull together?
BS: We hope to spend another six to nine months filming with the main characters in the film. With documentaries, you are often waiting for your story to develop, so it’s hard to guess an exact finish date. We are eager to finish it as quickly as possible and have quite a bit edited already. Our goal is to finish by next summer.
TS: Why did you turn to Kickstarter?
BS: Kickstarter seems like the perfect venue for this project. Documentaries are growing in popularity and so is MMA fighting. Plus, I figures a lot of Christians would be intrigued by the topic. I love the idea of being able to spread the word about your project to the people that are actually interested in it. I’ve found out about a ton of projects on Kickstarter and backed quite a few. With Kickstarter, you can draw attention to your project in addition to raising the funds. Plus, I love the idea of getting your funding from the audience. They are the ones who you are making the film for, and why not get them involved. We have put a lot of money into the project on our own, and we are a little wary of getting distributors or studios involved at this stage. We want to make sure we maintain creative control on our project and we don’t want to give it away to a studio that wants to tell us how to edit the film because they invested in it. We turned to Kickstarter because our personal accounts have run dry. We need help finishing the film and love the idea of raising the money this way.
Fight Church [Kickstarter, Facebook] closes funding on June 5th and has a long road ahead of them. If they can galvanize both Christians and MMA fans around the project, they’ll be able to keep control of the work they’ve done so far. MMA is particularly hot these days, but there are a lot of doc makers till that field. Can Fight Church’s twist on the genre be the difference between success and obscurity?