The themes of church oppression and abuse at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, and how we can respond

Written by Steve Norton

Although the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a year-round operation, its ten-day film festival, which ran from September 8-18in 2022, is its crowning jewel. Hundreds of thousands of fans and film lovers descend on Toronto’s downtown core while artists from around the world bring their films to express their hopes, fears, rage, and dreams.

Featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities and directors, TIFF has become the largest public film festival in the world. All eyes are on Toronto for ten days a year, with the expectation that it will help uncover the biggest titles and most noteworthy performances of the fall film calendar. For the arts community and many others, TIFF is a landmark part of their calendar year.

And that’s exactly why I think the Church should be there.

Having grown up in the Church, one of the things I’ve seen is that TIFF is often viewed as a frightening place. Because it shares stories that fail to line up with Christian doctrine, the Church often ignores events like TIFF. As a pastor for over 20 years, I can understand. The desire to protect your people from ideas that could be toxic is embedded in ministry.

Yet Scripture reveals that the Church was never meant to remain hidden from the world. To engage the culture with His voice of grace and truth, Jesus was where the people were. He made use of the arts through His teaching, frequently revealing His truth in parables and stories designed to draw people in and inspire questions. He ate with people in their homes and marketplaces, accused of being a drunkard and a glutton for doing so (Matthew 11:19).

One of the most interesting Scriptural examples of engaging in popular society is when Paul sought to reach the people of Athens by engaging in their culture. In Acts 17, he takes time to explore culture and religious beliefs in Athens. Paul sees this as an opportunity, not a threat. By taking time to visit their altars and hearing their hopes and fears, Paul is better equipped to speak about what connects with their hearts. In doing so, he’s able to interact with them more effectively.

TIFF is one of many opportunities for the Church to hear the heartbeat of a culture in a way that feels safe to everyone.

Each story is a cry for the world to be different in one way or another, whether through a comedy or a social- justice-focused drama.

Having seen almost 30 films myself, there were key themes that popped up over and over. In story after story, these films were crying out for people to share their experiences honestly as a way of processing their journeys. The value of truth was prominent as artists shed light on trauma or bared their souls to find healing. Writers embedded their own hurts into their character’s stories.

For many, it was about accepting the truth about their identities. For others, it was about sharing the hurts they’ve experienced in their lives. Films like Bones of Crows, Triangle of Sadness, The Young Arsonists, and Broker, explore issues such as child trafficking, residential schools, male toxicity, grief, poverty, and racial bias as they lean into the pain of a broken world. But one thing was abundantly clear: exposing the truth was important.

Another theme to this year’s festival was also one of the hardest: the Church has done damage. This year, almost one-third of the films I saw included themes of church oppression or abuse. Whether it was the residential schools in Bones of Crows, the psychological damage inflicted upon the LGBTQ community in The Whale,or the injustice against women in Women Talking, it was overwhelming how many stories described the Church as having hurt this generation.

This was easily the most heartbreaking thing to watch at this year’s festival, especially as a pastor. If anything, these honest revelations serve as a reminder that in parts of Christian history, the gospel has been too often wielded as a hammer, rather than a tool of grace and healing.

It’s for this reason that the church needs to be aware and needs to have a presence at film festivals like TIFF. After all, if one wants to truly help others find healing in Christ, we need to be willing to listen with humility (and potentially repentance) before we speak. The opportunity to sit in these stories is invaluable because it allows us to hear the way our message is being heard by the world. Of course, it also means Christians must ask tough questions about the way we interact with those outside the doors of our churches.

After all, how can we speak into someone’s life until we’ve heard their story?

Steve Norton is a Toronto-based pastor, podcaster and writer who loves to listen to what matters to our culture on screen. Having worked as a youth and community minister for almost 20 years, he learned that stories help everyone engage with the world around them. He’s a proud hubby, father (times two) and believes that Citizen Kane, Batman Forever (yes, the Kilmer one), and The Social Network belong in the same conversation.