|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Summer 2009|
The Unitarians’ experience dramatically demonstrates the value of a church as a community. The piece which follows demonstrates the danger of the church as an institution.
ME, JOSEP, AND THE MESSIAH
illo by Kurt Erichsen
I wrote The Branch after taking an 11-year-old Laura to see her first James Bond movie. When we got back home, she began karate-ing (is that a word?) all the furniture, and in the process broke an antique chair.
We were living in Libertyville, Illinois at the time, and I checked the phone book and dropped the chair off at the closest place that repaired antique furniture. An assistant took it, gave me a receipt, and told me what day to pick it up.
When I arrived back to reclaim my chair, I was greeted by the owner, a Hassidic Jew who wore a yarmulke, a prayer shawl, and all the other trappings…and when he realized I had a Jewish last name he commenced to lecture me on all the moral laws I had broken (which was pretty perceptive, considering he’d known me for about 20 seconds), and he kept on, and kept on…and I was polite and accommodating and just inserted a sentence every two or three minutes asking for my chair back, a request he ignored while calling the wrath of Jehovah down upon me if I didn’t shape up. And I kept agreeing and politely asking for my chair. And at one point he used the Hebrew (or maybe Yiddish; I don’t know either language) word for Messiah, and I said that maybe he’d be lucky and still be around when the Messiah finally came and could I please have my chair. And he turned white as a sheet and told me that the Messiah was coming, no question about it, but he hoped he was dead and in his grave when that event occurred, because the Messiah of the Old Testament was no prince of peace, that he was coming with the sword and the fire and would burn the old kingdoms to the ground before establishing his kingdom in Jerusalem.
Well, eventually he ran out of breath and gave me my chair, but I was fascinated by the fear that he, a true believer who had been waiting more than two millennia for the Messiah, displayed at the thought of confronting him. So when I got home I picked up a copy of the Old Testament and read it – really read it – including not only Isaiah but also the Book of Zechariah, which gave me the title of the book I’d already decided to write: The Branch, because the Messiah was supposed to be a branch of the Davidic family tree.
I kept wondering: if he didn’t come during the Inquisition, and he didn’t come during Nazi Germany, just what would things have to be like before he finally made his appearance? And, remembering with the old man said, would we be happy to see him?
I also had to do a lot of research in the New Testament, because about two billion people believe Jesus was the Messiah, and if the people in my book were to accept this Branch, the book would first have to prove to their satisfaction that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. Made for a controversial novel.
I finally got around to writing it maybe 8 years later, and sold it to Signet, which immediately decided to sit on it for a couple of years while they worked up enough courage to print it. The Branch came out in early 1984, and went through four quick printings – not that it was selling that fast, but because Signet initially wouldn’t ship it south of the Mason-Dixon line, and as more areas of the country read favorable reviews and wanted it, they had to keep going back to press. I would guesstimate that all four printings together came to about one printing of Soothsayer or The Widowmaker. I sent copies to Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart in the hope that they’d hold it up in front of a TV camera and announce that anyone who read it was doom to hell, but alas, they never did. It came, it sold some copies, it got uniformly good reviews, and that, I thought, was the end of it.
And it was – until I heard from Josep Guirao. He put through a transcontinental phone call in the late 1990s to explain that he was an independent producer in Andorra (yes, I had to look for it in my Atlas), that he had fallen in love with The Branch, and that he desperately wanted to make it into the movie.
I'd never dealt with a foreign filmmaker before, but The Branch had been in print for a decade, and while I'd had a couple of nibbles from Hollywood, the fact of the matter was that no one was breaking down my door to produce it, so we negotiated a two-year option.
And I didn't hear from Josep for two years. Then he called back to tell me he simply hadn't been able to raise the money for a full-length feature film, but he had an idea: would I have any problem extending the option another year and allowing him to make a half-hour condensation of the story that he could then show to backers and hopefully raise the funds for a two-hour feature. I had sold a bunch of other things to Hollywood, but they were still leery of The Branch and Josep clearly loved it, so I agreed.
Another year passed, and then I started getting the strangest e-mails. He was in Madrid with a copy of the film. The Andorran church had condemned him, and the government had told him that his reward for making such a blasphemous movie was that he would not be allowed to work in the country of his birth for the next fifteen years.
A couple of months passed, and I heard from him again. He was in South America, still with the film clutched tightly in his hands.
Then, just about the time I was wondering if this was all a gigantic hoax perpetrated by some friend with a strange sense of humor, maybe Gardner Dozois or Connie Willis, I heard from him again. He was in Miami, and he was sending me two copies of the subtitled videotape – and sure enough, they arrived a few days later.
And the next time I heard from him, it was with this message:
Just wanted to let you know that the movie was shown yesterday at the festival...people loved it!!!
"The festival" was the South Beach Film Festival in Miami. The film was No Pronunciaras el Nomere de Dios en Vano, which translates as "Do Not Pronounce the Name of the Lord in Vain". More to the point, it was Josep's (very) condensed film version of The Branch.
So who is Josep Guirao and what is this all about? He's graciously allowed me to quote (and edit just a bit) from his web page.
About the script: It is adapted from the novel The Branch by Mike Resnick, regarding the arrival of a new Messiah in the 21st Century. A fictional thriller, full of real information and historical references.
I was advised by the Ministry of Culture of Andorra not to touch the topic of
religion in any script. I therefore decided to write a script in which religion was the
main topic. The presentation of the film was unofficially prohibited; no commercial movie house offered to exhibit it, and they also refused to rent out their facilities. So we had to debut it in an almost clandestine fashion in a theater, with a portable projector and screen. (I myself and the leading male actor put up the posters the night before on the streets of Andorra.) I got some interview spots on the radio and television a few hours before the debut, and a half hour after we opened the doors, so many people had arrived that we had to turn them away.
When the movie was over, the three hundred people that were there stood and applauded for several minutes. It had been a success. The next day, the press was censored and there was no mention of the event, as if nothing had happened. Several journalists apologized to me for not having been able to publish anything, as the orders had come from above.
I wrote this script respecting not only the source material but the opinion of each religion. I held several meetings with theologians and representatives of the Catholic and Jewish religion, and the only thing I did was summarize briefly in 34 minutes their opinions on a topic they have disagreed upon for centuries, the Messiah.
Once this, which was to be the first part of the film, had been filmed, I imagined, based on a solid historical and sociological foundation, how the world would react to the arrival of a Messiah in the year 2046. Therefore, all the data presented in the dialogue between Armstrong and Emmanuel, in what would be the second part of the picture, is very thoroughly researched. Everything, from the different quotes concerning the world's population to who and what the process of recognizing this Messiah would be like, has been calculated beforehand.
I think it is also important to know that the character of Armstrong (Solomon Moody Moore in the novel) borders on paranoia, and that he is, at least for himself, the only god who exists. If he calls a meeting, after capturing the alleged Messiah, it is rather to determine what repercussions killing the Messiah would have on his business.
Neither is it strange that Armstrong's economic power should have gone so far as to buy certain representatives of the Vatican or some rabbi.
The alleged Messiah, Emmanuel, is a Messiah who comes from the street, from poverty, and who has become completely involved in the business of the gangster Armstrong. He has been doing so for some years, and now he is beginning to do the gangster serious harm. The reason he has become involved in such shady dealings – whether it forms part of his mission as a Messiah or if it is just due to his personal ambition – is not known. The audience should form its own conclusions, as with other questions, such as whether he was really the Messiah or not, or whose position was more logical, that of the theologian rabbi or the Vatican representative.
Evidently, in accordance with the culture or the religion of each spectator, he will be more or less in agreement with such different characters. However, these characters leave a series of questions and contradictions between "the history of humankind" and "religion," which will not leave anyone indifferent.
Of course, the excessive amount of information in the movie and the tension created on purpose evidently require a very attentive and predisposed audience. Director's notes: 34 minutes (35mm). A personal challenge in directing actors, filmed in five days (12 hours a day). Actors taken to the limits of their abilities, with continuous dialogue, sound, negative and limited number of takes. Two of the main characters are played by the same actor. The rest of the actors were not available every day, so that many times scenes with dialogue were filmed with only one of the actors appearing on screen, with the director providing answers off-screen. In this movie,
I also play the part of the character Krack.
The ending of the movie was filmed first, to make sure that it could have some interesting camera movement at the conclusion that would give it some rhythm, since otherwise I risked having to have to rush to the ending and go to a fixed camera.
The budget was US$ 4,000. Everyone worked for free and the negative left over from the previous film, Confidencias, was used. The movie was filmed without the permission of the government, so we had to film on private property – in this case, a garage. The problem is that the garage was so small, that we had to come up with all sorts of different ways to represent three different locations, and move everything from the set at every change of scene, so that it wasn't apparent that it was always the same place.
I also chose a very zenithal type of lighting, and a very charged atmosphere.
Because authorization from the government was not obtained, and fearing that they would put a stop to the shooting, I moved up the filming date, and it was shot without previous planning.
After reading the web page, I wrote to Josep to ask if he himself was still in serious trouble in Andorra. Here's the operative part of his reply:
Andorra is now a democracy, and it is in the interest of all Andorrans that we be perceived as such abroad – especially if it continues to be a state in which, of 60,000 inhabitants, only about 25,000 are Andorrans, and the economic and political power of the country is divided among four or five leading families. (They form part of the banking monopoly, the government, and the judiciary.
The government, for its part, also controls the media (radio, television and Internet "domains.ad").
Thus situations are created in which, although it is not evident at first glance, a large network of influence brokers continue to control the system.
It is evident that my point of view differs very greatly from that of the government, as well, of course, as from that of the newspapers belonging to certain politicians or their children.
My current situation is that I have no legal problem residing in Andorra. I never have, because I am Andorran – but in reality living there is impossible because of the following:
I cannot have a business in my name, nor a bank account, credit card or property.
Thus, I cannot rent a place to live or contract for telephone service, electrical service, etc., either ... I cannot legally practice any professional activity and, it is well understood, especially not my activity as a movie director.
A few months ago I informed the Andorran Ministry of Tourism as well as the Ministry of Culture, through the Director of Tourism, Sergi Nadal, that I needed a copy of the documentaries that I made about Andorra (17) for my personal files, in VHS.
This was categorically denied, with allegations that I would never have access to this material which was now their property.
Any guy who suffers all that just for making a Resnick movie is aces in my book.
As for The Branch, it was reprinted in trade paperback by Wildside Press in 2000, and will be coming out again in 2010 from Golden Gryphon Press as part of an omnibus hardcover that will also contain Walpurgis III and 5 short stories containing God or the Messiah. The title for the volume is, of course, Blasphemy.
As for Josep’s movie, the scenes are not taken directly from The Branch, and they leave out most of the plot to present some of the more telling arguments, but then, when did movies ever follow the source material.
Anyway, if you’d like to see it, Josep has posted it on You Tube. Here’s the URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b8XFBVxMgM
Just don’t tell the Andorran government you’re watching it.