Little Hope Was Arson: Slamdance Review

An intimate portrait of lost faith that’s more a curiosity than a compelling expose.

Christian filmmaker Theo Love investigates one of Texas’ worst series of arson incidents.

Not about to be outdone by tabloid TV shows or serious-minded newsmagazine coverage, first-time documentary feature director Theo Love delves into an infamous East Texas case of serial arson and comes up with some curious conclusions. This faith-themed film will clearly find audiences nationwide, whether via digital or home-entertainment formats.

On New Year’s Eve 2009, the Little Hope Baptist church in Tyler, TX burned to the ground in a mysterious fire that stumped investigators trying to determine the cause. When several more churches end up damaged or destroyed by fires within a 40-mile radius, they begin to suspect that they’re dealing with a serial arsonist, or perhaps more than one.

Investigators from various state agencies join federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in a case that soon becomes the largest ever in East Texas. As the number of arson incidents at churches climbs above a half-dozen by January 2010, the agencies are under increasing pressure to produce leads and suspects, but come up empty-handed in almost every instance, asserting there are few clues and little similarity between the fires, other than their targets. Meanwhile, church communities grow increasingly tense, feeling threatened to the point that some even post members of their congregations on night watches to defend their places of worship.

Eventually a tipster casts suspicion on Daniel McAllister, 19 and Jason Borque, 21 -- former members of a local church. Ironically, McAllister’s sister Christy is a communications specialist with the Texas Department of Public Safety and agrees to assist agents with the investigation of her brother’s suspected crimes. Fresh evidence leads to the arrest of the two young men, who are jailed on arson charges, facing up to five life terms or more if convicted.

In a region known as the “buckle” of the Bible Belt, burning churches is the type of offense that could potentially get suspects shot, so passions are clearly still running high during the period following the arrests when Love, who was raised overseas by Christian missionaries, shot the film. Church leaders, congregation members and investigators are all quite cooperative on camera, sharing their confusion and frustration over the fires.

Members of McAllister’s and Borque’s families are also eager to tell their stories, which frequently delve into an unnecessary level of detail that Love seems compelled to capture. These extended interviews could benefit from judicious trimming to keep the story better focused, although as editor, Love adeptly assembles the larger narrative components of the film.

Christy McAllister’s involvement in the investigation is by far the most intriguing plot thread, rife with irony and conflicted loyalties, but Love doesn’t manage to tease much tension out of her interviews, seemingly content to let her just tell her story rather than more thoroughly examining her motives. More underwhelming however, are the hard-won prison interviews with Daniel McAllister and Jason Borque, neither of whom can provide convincing motives for the crimes they eventually plead guilty to.

Love and DP Nate Larson shoot the film like an in-depth investigative news story, although Love’s sympathies clearly lie with the church-members, eliminating a clear sense of objectivity almost from the start. The film is attractively and professionally packaged however, with accomplished camerawork and editing supporting a narrative that eventually seems to reveal more smoke than fire.

Venue: Slamdance Film Festival, Narrative Features Competition
Production companies: theCollaborate, Goodnight Smoke
Director: Theo Love
Producers: Trenton Waterson, Theo Love
Executive Producers: Bryan Storkel, Tom Waterson, Cindy Waterson, Tom Love, Kathy Love, Will Gauroutte, Joshua Fine
Director of photography: Nate Larson
Music: Michael Lee, Austin Taylor Tirado
Editor: Theo Love
Sales: Submarine, Preferred Content
No rating, 74 minutes