Politics, Faith, and Doubt focus in new film “Strange Negotiations.”

by Will Houk

David Bazan has been making heartfelt, honest, and genuine music for over twenty years now. I first began following him in the early 2000s when he was playing with the band Pedro the Lion. I was instantly drawn to the deliberate and intriguing guitar playing, his intense and thoughtful lyrics, and an overall vibe that was, and still is, incredibly unique. I was an Evangelical Christian, as was David Bazan. Over the last twenty or so years, my faith journey has paralleled his in many ways. I have followed him and found inspiration in his questions and his unswerving honesty.

Last year Brandon Vedder released a film he had been working on for a number of years called “Strange Negotiations.” Brandon followed Dave around the country on tour and shot video of his fans asking faith-related questions and his responses. I had a chance to chat with Brandon about the film, Dave’s music, and the state of politics and religion in America. It’s a film that deals with these profound and difficult issues with a sense of fairness and openness that is rare.

Connection to the Faith

I started off our conversation asking Brandon about his interest in this topic. He has made a number of different films on various topics. The conversation that surrounds Evangelical Christianity is fascinating and multi-faceted. American Christianity is diverse and there are many branches and divisions of the faith. However, American Evangelical Christianity is a very specific incarnation of Christianity. Over the last twenty years or so the movement has become increasingly insular. I was interested in his connection to this subculture.

Brandon Vedder (BV): From the very beginning, it kind of felt like a thing I was uniquely qualified to make. I started my career touring with bands and making live concert films. Then I kind of moved into more like social issue documentaries.

Faith’s always been something that is at the center of my interest creatively. There’s just this wholly unique human thing that can be the worst thing that could ever happen to humans but can also be the best thing that ever happened to humans. Wielded in that way, it’s this kind of superpower. So yeah, when I grew up listening to Dave’s music and then lost track of him around the time most people did.

I was actually finishing up my last film “In Pursuit of Silence” and I was on a long drive and just happened to download some random podcasts and I downloaded one with this comedian Pete Holmes interviewing Dave, and the way that Dave explained his journey, there was a candor and there was like a reverence, it was in a reverent way that he spoke about this journey and where it’s left him. I just never heard anyone talk about it like that before.

We moved around as kids a bunch and had a pretty tumultuous upbringing. So it wasn’t until we landed in a small town in northern California for high school, where the youth group thing started. I was fascinated by the whole thing immediately. I met my wife through it. But you know, it’s been an interesting journey because I’m not a product of Evangelicalism. I was able to cherry pick what made sense to me and culturally what I was interested in.


Politics and Evangelicalism

In the late 1990s and early 2000s in Evangelicalism, there was the “seeker-sensitive” movement. It was, in many ways, a product of Rick Warren’s book, “Purpose Driven Life.” It encouraged churches to use various tactics to get new converts to the faith. This was a time when Evangelicalism was expanding its numbers and there was a growth in what became known as “mega-churches.” At the same time, the movement was becoming increasingly political in nature, focusing heavily on opposing gay marriage and abortion rights. There was, and still is, significant pressure to vote for political candidates that support these issues. My discussion with Brandon turned to these topics as the film chronicles Bazan’s struggle with these issues and his faith.

BV: I think the way that Dave is able to put words to what I thought was so interesting where three-quarters of the way through the film when he’s talking about this and personally reckoning with it, he talks about the fact that, compromising those beliefs and throwing everything out just for whatever it is, whether it’s the Supreme Court vote, or abortion, or whatever, characterizing that as idolatry. This is capital “I” idolatry in the same way that that this culture has warned us against since we’re in Sunday school.

I think that Dave, he has such a specific way of being able to characterize these things and re-process these things in a way that is really important for me in the film, and the way that the film comes off that it’s not this person looking back in with kind of no context and saying how dumb everyone is and blah, blah, blah, like the priority was that.

Dave was going through this journey. We were watching him reckon with his past, reckon with his people that taught him how to be a human being a decent person in real time going against all of that stuff. It’s such a fine line to talk about these big and personal issues. I was kind of, the only reason it worked and the only reason that we were able to get into that stuff was because Dave was dealing with it personally.

Fans at House Shows

Bazan is known for is his personal interactions with fans at his shows. During his live performances, he will pause and ask the crowd if they have any questions. I have never seen another musician do anything quite like this. It is truly remarkable. Having been to a number of house shows and asked him some questions, I was curious about Brandon’s perspective on this and what sort of things the people were asking about at these house shows.

BV: It’s such an interesting thing because I started the first shoot that we did together, was just jumping straight into this house show tour, squarely across the Bible Belt. So it was just thrown right into it, and there’s this really beautiful thing, as you know, since you’ve been to some of these where there’s a kind of disarming nature about being in someone’s home. It changes the rules of the game in terms of going to shows and your potential for interacting.

I saw people bring, in a hopeful way, ready to talk and ready to … they were soft. They were ready … it’s like they had everyone prepared. There were very few people that just showed up trying to act cool and just like whatever. It was like people were locked in, ready to have an experience with Dave.

I think the beautiful thing about that is, most people came in with that preparation, but in terms of what they’ve wanted out of this show, I think spanned such a large gap in terms of like, some people wanted to just be talked to about the ills of Christianity and just how terrible it is for the environment and blah blah blah.

Some people were kind of more interested in seeing the God in Dave still. It’s just such an interesting thing because with an artist like this, so many of these people have grown up with him in their ear. It’s almost like podcasts now, where people, when you religiously listen to a podcast, you feel like, these people intimately and obviously they’ve never met you, but you have this incredible context of these people.

That was really a factor when it came to Dave and his audience not only just hanging out knowing each other, but he had been talking to them through the hardest transitions of their life in a lot of cases. So there was this familial attitude to the whole thing where people were really, really respectful and there definitely were some people really angry with Dave. In a way that they were worried for his soul, worried about what he was. He was kind of proselytizing in these shows, but it was a different kind of anger, very like Christian frustration.

Postscript

I have always appreciated underground and “Indie” projects. One of the things that appeal to me is the “Do It Yourself” or DIY aesthetic. The film embraces this approach. It tells an important and under told story about faith in America and its shifting landscape.

BV: Thanks so much, man. Your kind of support and putting a screening together, that’s what I dreamed about for this film since the beginning, in the same kind of DIY culture as Dave exists in you know, just getting art out there in a way that people can interact with it and hopefully be stirred by it and, taking the initiative and making that happen and giving people in your area that opportunity, it’s just so exciting for me. I’m very appreciative and really enjoyed talking.

There will be a screening for the film “Strange Negotiations” at First United Methodist Church in Carson City from 7-9 pm on Friday, February 21st. Admission is free, donations accepted. Donations will cover the public screening costs.  All extra funds raised will be donated to PFLAG of Carson City. Event page.