'Fight Church': SIFF Review

Fight Church Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of SIFF

Fight Church Film Still - H 2014

An even-handed doc introduces a strange phenomenon and lets viewers draw their own conclusions.

Christians who believe cage fighting can be a Christian ministry explain their position.

SEATTLE -- Wrestling is "one of the only sports mentioned in the Bible," notes one of the testosterone-fuelled subjects in Fight Church, Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel's exploration of Christian ministries built around mixed martial arts. Some might dispute the significance of that citation (and the football players busy thanking God on ESPN might object to its whiff of exclusivity), but as this doc learns, believers have a way of adapting scripture to their personal needs. An evenhanded film that neither mocks its interviewees nor accepts their every rationale, the film engages both secular viewers who see this trend as bizarre and the fighters hoping to explain it to them.

Unlike the recent release American Jesus, which collected oddball Christians from around the country and didn't spend enough time with any of them, this film is sincere about letting its protagonists explain themselves. At least 700 churches in the U.S. have some sort of martial arts program, we learn, and with those numbers comes a variety of personalities -- from Preston Hocker, a high school theater geek who was motivated to take up self-defense after a friend was murdered, then "fell in love" with the catharsis of ritualized fighting, to John Renken, a macho fireplug of a man who laments the loss of "warrior ethics" in today's world.

The latter quickly reveals personality traits that will strike most viewers as clashing with the spirit of Jesus' message. He's a fan of the Crusades, for example, is very enthusiastic about introducing his young children to firearms and hasn't quite digested the whole "turn the other cheek" thing. But more of the men we meet appear able to leave their aggression in the ring and are at least willing to acknowledge the contradictions other people see in their hobby. One speaker says he knows it seems barbaric to outsiders, and at least one, Houston MMA instructor Scott Sullivan, works through his own moral qualms in the course of filming.

Others commit more fully during this period, as when Hocker, aka "The Pastor of Disaster," works to set up a bout with another preacher-fighter, Nahshon Nicks. Hocker feels his opponents in outside fights might be pulling their punches because he's a man of God and wants to test his mettle against another holy warrior.

The film's observation of this fight offers viewers an excellent chance to judge for themselves the relationship between Christianity and this brutal sport. Elsewhere, we follow a New York priest for whom the issue is a no-brainer: John Duffell leads a lobbying campaign in Albany to keep MMA fights illegal in his state. "Cage fighting does not speak of loving one another," he says, disdainful of those who can rationalize their way into any other view.

Production companies: Film Harvest, JungeFilms, iMogul

Directors: Daniel Junge, Bryan Storkel

Producers: Eben Kostbar, Joseph McKelheer

Executive producers: Shreehari Desikan, Chris LeSchack, Dave MacLean, Drew Plotkin

Directors of photography: Daniel Junge, J.R. Kraus, David Williams Lamb, Bryan Storkel

Editor: Bryan Storkel

Music: John Jennings Boyd

No rating, 81 minutes