21st Century Gospels

Michael Sheen as The Teacher

Michael Sheen as The Teacher

Dave McKean is a man who wears many hats. Artist, film-maker, musician, photographer, his career has skipped across several mediums. First attracting attention for his eye-catching dreamlike covers for the American comic book series The Sandman, he has for years been an in-demand book illustrator, his surreal collages instantly recognisable for their unique style.

In 2005, his Lewis Carroll-esque dark fantasy film MirrorMask marked McKean’s transition into film-making, with the production bearing the distinctive style of his work as an artist, inventively brought to life on the big screen.

McKean’s second film, The Gospel of Us, could not be more different. A visually stripped back, documentary-style film, it records the live staging of an updated version of the story of The Passion, set around the town of Port Talbot in Wales.

McKean and Michael Sheen had travelled to Oberammergau in Germany to see the town’s famous production of The Passion play that has been performed there since 1634. The trip inspired their eventual collaboration.

Filming took place over the Easter weekend in April 2011, with the assistance of 1,000 local Port Talbot volunteers.

In The Gospel of Us Sheen plays a Christ-like figure known only as ‘The Teacher’. McKean filmed the entirety of the event and then edited the footage into a picture that captures the dynamic energy of this unique theatrical production. The plot follows the broad strokes of the Gospels, replacing the Romans with a corporation exploiting the town of Port Talbot and exchanging the New Testament ‘zealots’ for contemporary suicide bombers.

The calming influence of The Teacher initially reduces the tensions between the two factions, but leads to him being targeted by authorities as a threat. In reinterpreting the Biblical account of Jesus’ crucifixion, McKean and local-boy-made-good Sheen aimed at drawing out the enduring resonance of the Passion itself.

McKean was in Sydney to perform his latest piece 9 Lives at the comics art festival Graphic at the Sydney Opera House early last month. The director spoke about the experience of making this unique film.

“I spent a year with it afterwards,” he said, “I came back home with acres and acres of footage and then I sent a message out on Twitter for anyone that was there with their phones or handy-cams or whatever, and wouldn’t mind donating them to the show. Some people sent me stuff, so I had loads of bibs and bobs.”

At a screening of The Gospel of Us in April last year at the Port Talbot Labour Club, Sheen described how sourcing this footage from onlookers’ mobile phones, with the different perspectives presenting, was analogous to the different Gospels inspired by the same singular event.

“The difficulty was trying to make it a cohesive film,” continues McKean, “especially a two-hour film. It was a seventy-two hour project that was live the whole time, and Michael never broke character. It was difficult compressing it and having it make sense, and difficult translating it to a different medium.

“Film has different expectations, it’s a different medium. There are certainly parts of it that I’m really, really happy with and that I think are really, really powerful.”

Unfortunately The Gospel of Us has had limited screenings overseas.

“It was released in England, and obviously Wales because that’s where it was made,” says McKean, “but we just found it very difficult to find sales agents around the world.

“It’s a very strange piece. It’s a shame that it’s not getting a wider release. I know that the producers are still looking for a light out there, so maybe it will get picked up at some point.”

The Gospel of Us is available as a Region 2 DVD from Amazon UK and other retailers.

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