By now many of you may be aware of Robert Orlando’s new film on the Apostle Paul, A Polite Bribe, as well as the stir it has caused among the online blogging community. Not too long ago I included a brief announcement about the film’s screening in Kansas City, and there was some good discussion in the comments section regarding the documentary’s content. A few days ago I got the opportunity to interview Robert about his inspiration and hopes for the film. -Joshua Paul Smith
JPS: What is the central thesis of A Polite Bribe? i.e. What is the film about?
RO: A Polite Bribe is the story of the Apostle Paul and the money (collection) he needed to persuade Jesus’ brother James in Jerusalem of his Gentile mission. The collection plot leads us into the tumultuous life of Paul, which, I still think remains little known to mainstream Christians.
JPS: How did you get interested in this subject to begin with? What served as your inspiration?
RO: I was raised Catholic and in my early teens, I had an encounter with a group of Evangelicals who were anti-Catholic. They forced me to dig more into my own faith, but also into the bible in general. Though I did not agree with all they proposed, I did appreciate their hunger to know the scripture. It also helped me to discover Paul and his letters. At this point, my search was largely feeding my spirit of devotion. I would eventually join the Evangelical church and move onto worship in a mainstream Presbyterian community. Years later, it was only outside of the religious or even academic circles when I studied Paul as a filmmaker and story analyst that the deeper understanding began to emerge.
JPS: There has been some hype surrounding the film hinting at its controversial nature. What’s all the fuss about?
RO: The controversy seems to arise only from those who assign private motives to my making of the project, which are unfounded. The accusations are usually that I, as a filmmaker, am trying to sensationalize the story to sell tickets or that I hand picked the scholars that would support the story, which also could not be further from the truth. Frankly, taking that approach would have saved me a lot of time and trouble rather than trying to maintain an independent vision.
JPS: The film features a pretty impressive list of well-respected scholars. What brought them on board for this collaborative project? What was it like working with some of the most renowned biblical scholars and theologians in the world?
RO: My preliminary interviews go as far back as 2003-2004, which arose largely as a result of my relationship with Alan Segal at Columbia. At the time, he and others had appeared on some high profile TV specials including PBS and Peter Jenning’s Jesus and Paul. With those initial interviews, I was able to create segments for promotional content offering insight into the film for future interviewees. In 2005, I was able to schedule a marathon weekend with figures like NT Wright, Dominic Crossan, Paul Achtemeier, Daniel Boyarin, Pamela Eisenbaum, etc during the annual Society of Biblical Literature in Philadelphia. After Philadelphia, there were some key interviews captured in NY with Philip Esler, and in San Francisco with Bart Ehrmann and Amy-Jill Levine. In the end I had interviewed 30 scholars for over 50 hours across the religious spectrum.
JPS: Is there a singular idea or premise that you hope your audience gains from the film? What lasting effect do you hope to achieve in the minds of those who watch it?
RO: While I don’t want to tell anyone what to think or how to feel in advance, I hope the audience comes with an open mind and heart. As a filmmaker I am not “making theology” and I am not taking a for-or-against perspective, but exploring a fascinating story through the use of narrative. As for a lasting effect, on a level of pure entertainment, I hope they would come to recognize the extraordinary nature of Paul. Beyond that, I hope they might admire his courage that changed the world! Perhaps a characteristic not just for geniuses like Paul, but for that man who always wanted to raise his hand in Sunday school and never did. Or the woman who always thought she should start a new business and never did. In summary, to see Paul as a model of an independent thinking person who knew how to live out his thought.
JPS: You have noted elsewhere that A Polite Bribe is “not a religious film.” But the content of the documentary obviously relates to religion. How do you hope the film might influence or change how some Christians think about or interpret Paul in the context of their faith?
RO Again, I can’t change the fact that I was raised Christian, but I did not set out to make a film that had a particular theological perspective. As I mentioned above, my perspective was reached largely though my lens as a filmmaker and storyteller, along with my ability to analyze narratives. I guess it did not hurt that I studied Pauline literature for over 20 years, but most of the books stayed within the older theological framework or were promoting a political agenda.
JPS: The film features a lot of impressive artwork. Did you create these pieces for the film yourself?
RO: Along with being a filmmaker I was also a graphic artist. Though I don’t do the work on my own any more, I have a team. In this case, part of our team worked from Rome Italy, and the rest from our post-production facility in Princeton NJ and NY. The artwork followed 5 steps from the initial sketches and coloring to the final painting and lighting. I had also been developing a technique of layering that gives 2D images the depth of a 3D world. http://apolitebribe.com/about-the-film/artwork-from-the-feature/
JPS: What was that creative process like?
RO: The creative process was very challenging because of the start and stop nature of the film. A Polite Bribe began as a “spec” piece so that meant at times, doing what I could with the limited funding until I could find more funding – much like a cherry picker seeking the crops. Eventually with my company and the help of my business partners, we were able to get the film done in a way that holds up against the production value of the major networks.
JPS: What inspired your visual depiction of Paul and others featured in the film?
RO: Paul’s appearance is subjective, but there were several factors working on my vision for the man. Firstly, his personality as experienced in scripture. For instance, I always imagined that any man capable of his amount of sheer travel, must have been sturdy on this legs, and perhaps with the hard labor, a bit stocky. There were also the apocryphal descriptions of Paul. Finally, inspiration came from the early paintings of Paul, one of which emerged while I was making the film. For the record, I was not far off from the early century painting.
JPS: You have already put together an Ebook featuring a lot of the artwork and claims of the film.
RO: Yes, the ebook was a way to present the story’s basic riddle about Paul, his collection, and the reason for Why (he would) Turn Back? We were using the much rougher versions of the artwork. There will be a REDUX version with the final paintings of the EBook on ITunes before the DVD release on April 15th, 2014.
JPS: From your website, it appears that you are also in the process of publishing a lengthier book addressing the subject of A Polite Bribe in fuller detail.
RO: My book has already been completed and we are making the final touches with Amazon. It has also been critically reviewed by several well-known Pauline and New Testament Scholars (http://apolitebribe.com/orders/) including Gerd Ludemann, who wrote…
“Robert Orlando combines the best traditions of historical criticism with an astounding knowledge of the history of research to provide an in depth look into Paul that I have not seen in scholarship during the last decades. I recommend His book, A Polite Bribe, with the utmost enthusiasm. A book where scholars and laypersons alike are given the unique chance to meet Paul again for the first time. This truly “new narrative” of early Christianity has my full endorsement.”
JPS: How will this book supplement the claims already made in the documentary?
RO: The Film, through narrative, makes a compelling case for the transformative life of Paul. The book demonstrates the arguments and research for that very narrative. There are few historical figures that require a multi media approach, yet Paul is one of them. He even required his own theme song, “Send Me Father!”
I hope everyone will come out at 7:30 p.m. on Jan 16th at Tivoli Cinemas, Kansas City. (For tickets, go to http://www.tivolikc.com/upcoming.html#polite)