by Scoobie Davis
The Jack T. Chick Documentary
For the last two years, I have been chomping at the bit in my desire to tell you this: I am the first person to do a recorded interview of Jack Chick in over 30 years. Those of you familiar with this blog know that I have a great interest in Jack Chick's work (which has attained icon status at least in terms of popular culture). That interest will be manifested in a documentary film about Jack Chick and his work.
I first met Jack Chick at one of the premieres for his film The Light of the World in October 2003. When I arrived at the church in Orange County where the premiere was held, I eagerly anticipated watching the film and possibly seeing Chick (though I wasn't counting seeing him because of his reputation for avoiding the limelight). I have been to many movie premieres but I have to say that this was, by far, the most unusual.
When I arrived at the premiere, volunteer ticket-takers led me to the sanctuary where there were two large screens where the film would be projected. Before the screening, the head of the Light of the World Foundation spoke. Even though I disagreed with the theology of the film (clips are available here and also on YouTube), I was very impressed with the quality of the paintings for the film (most of which were done by Chick Publications' artist Fred Carter).
After the screening, to my surprise, Chick and Carter was introduced to the crowd of several hundred (we gave them a standing ovation). I was seated about 100 feet from Chick and my first impression was that he looked like an older, thinner Helmut Kohl. After the introductions, the premiere was officially over and people congratulated Chick and Carter. I shook hands with Chick and told him I was a big fan of his work; I also complimented Fred Carter on the painstaking process of doing most of the 360 paintings used in the film.
I had given thought of a documentary film on Chick for quite some time. However, one big hurdle was that he hadn't given an interview since 1975 (The Los Angeles Times tried but failed to get an interview when it did a series of front-page stories on Chick during the height of the Alberto controversy) . However, there were two things on my side:
1) I knew that Chick invested heavily in his film and would probably welcome any help with promoting it.
2) I'm rather resourceful in terms of getting into places I shouldn't be and being in the interviewer's chair with Jack Chick was just another challenge.
I started off by calling the head of the Light of the World Foundation, posed as a fundamentalist filmmaker, and offered to give advice on promoting the film. He agreed so I cut my long hair and put on conservative clothes before I met with him at his office. I gave him some valuable advice based on my own experience in independent filmmaking (For instance, I told him to get the film listed on the Internet Movie Database). One of the other ideas was a documentary film that could possibly be played on public access television. The head of the foundation contacted Chick; a few days later, the head of the foundation told me that Chick prayed about whether to give me an interview for my documentary and apparently God gave Chick the green light because, to my surprise, he agreed to an interview (artist Fred Carter also agreed to an interview ).
Before I go any further, let me discuss the ethical implications of my actions. There are no hard-and-fast ethical guidelines for documentary filmmakers (though recently in International Documentary Magazine, Bill Nichols wrote a thoughtful article calling for a code of ethics for documentary filmmakers. At various film festivals and film seminars, I have spoken to documentary filmmakers who have told me that the most important thing is to get the interview.
That wasn't good enough for me. While journalists are not documentarians, the two groups have much in common. Accordingly, I looked at the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists for guidance. The code states that "journalists should avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story." I think I stand on firm ground when I argue that going undercover was the only way for me to get the interview. Had I told Chick the truth about who I was, my chances of getting an interview would have been nil.
The code also dictates that "journalists should recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy." On the one hand, I respect Chick's desire for privacy and I would do nothing to invade his privacy. However, Jack Chick is the world's most published living author (years ago, it was estimated that he has sold 500,000,000 tract and books--Chick told me that he sells over 130,000 tracts a day so my guess is that the current total is closer to 750,000,000 books and tracts distributed). Chick and his ideas deserve examination--not debunking, mind you, because Chick tracts generally deal with matters of faith. Nevertheless, the Chick tract phenomenon should be looked at from a socio-historical and a cultural perspective.
One overarching principle of the code is that "ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect." Although I disagree with Chick from a theological standpoint, I have no doubt in his sincerity and respect him for taking unpopular views--views that almost cost him his business. I also like Chick as a person and was pleased with his down-to-earth and unaffected manner (e.g., he insisted that I call him Jack). Although Chick has been accused of creating hate literature, I can attest that Jack Chick, in his heart, is not a hater.
I met Chick and Fred Carter for their interviews at Fred Carter's house. Both gave interviews about 45 minutes long. Both men had interesting insights. I won't go any further on this. Wait for the film!