My Olympic Summer: True or False?

This post courtesy of Luke Miedema, Co-Director of Student Ministries

The True/False Film Festival has come and gone, but one of the 8 movies that I viewed this weekend still hasn’t left my thoughts. (That’s right I saw eight movies in three days. You got a problem with that? I didn’t think so.) My Olympic Summer (directed by Daniel Robin) was shown in The Den on Stephen’s College campus as one of 5 short documentaries.

The film purports to be a biographical account of the director’s parents early in their marriage. At the center of the story is a marriage that appears to be happy, emotionally complete, and faithful, but is in reality falling apart. The director, Daniel Robin, finds a lost letter his mother had written to his father the summer before Robin was born. The letter explains the pain that comes with knowing your husband is more committed to his ministry as a Jewish priest than to her. Absent the love and connection that she craves, she admits to an affair with another man. But the letter is never sent.

The father was named the chaplain for the 1972 Israeli Olympic team in Munich, Germany. In the event that could be considered the beginning of modern terrorism, an organization calling itself Black September killed eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team. The team chaplain was released unharmed. Ironically, the chaotic events of the summer stabilized their marriage and the impending divorce never occurred. This film is Daniel Robin’s attempt to piece together the hidden facts from his parent’s history that never came to light.

Robin does a magnificent job engaging the viewers on an emotional level. I found myself truly hurting for his family throughout their struggles. I’m sure that my feelings were magnified by the fact that the director was sitting directly in front of me in the theater. As I listened to his voice over on screen and watched footage of his parent’s home videos, the man baring his soul was sitting right in front of me.

There is only one problem: The story isn’t true.

One of the real treats of the True/False Film Festival is that the audience often gets to hear from a film’s creator. During the Q&A following My Olympic Summer, Robin admitted that the whole film was a lie: he was the author of the “lost letter” not his mother, his father was never the chaplain for the Olympic team, and there is no evidence his mother ever had an affair.

The obvious question is “why?” Why make up a story about your parents and use old family footage to present a false story as if it were true? And then why submit this fallacious story to a documentary film festival?

Robin explained that the story IS “true” in a certain kind of way. It is a true expression of the emotional brokenness he experienced in his own failed relationship with a woman. In order to avoid being “self-indulgent,” he hid his emotional crisis in an imagined story about his own parents. Robin’s goal was to cause the viewer to feel the same heartache that he’d endured at another time in his life. But here is the important point: According to Daniel Robin, the experience is what makes the story true. Truth is not determined by the historical facts.

The director used his many talents to make the crowd feel what he wanted them to feel. Along with others in the auditorium, I experienced the sadness of his parent’s loss of love and I felt angry when both his mom and dad broke their marriage vows. I experienced great relief at the good news that the father’s life was spared by the terrorists and a sense of hope that that “new” life could change them into “new” spouses who were committed to a better way of living and loving.

Robin’s goal was to take the viewer through the same roller coaster of emotions, the same spectrum of experience that he had once felt. And it worked. I felt it.

This is a quintessential example of a postmodern approach to art.

One characteristic of such art is that the viewer’s reaction actually becomes part of what the artist is creating. For example, my emotional reaction to this film—the spectrum of anger, sadness, loss and hope—is added to the artwork happening on screen and enables the art to continue to develop. In a postmodern paradigm, the piece of art (in this case the movie My Olympic Summer) is never finished being created as long as it is being watched because the viewer’s reaction to it—my subjective interpretation—becomes a part of the art itself.

In postmodern art, it is completely legitimate to make a “documentary” that throws historical, objective truth under the bus of experiential reality. Historical truth is and should be manipulated in order to serve another kind of truth, or another angle on reality.

Speaking about the effects of postmodernism on art, Jerram Barrs, a professor at Covenant Seminary, states, “Literary criticism, consequently, plunges into an abyss because meaning is lost, that is, the notion of objective meaning. Texts are completely inaccessible to us because every reading becomes a misreading. That is what the postmodern theorist says to us – that we can never know what the author originally meant. All we can know is what we read, the meaning we put into the text. Every reading becomes a misreading.” (Apologetics and Outreach transcript Lesson 3, page 4)

This expresses exactly what transpired in that theater. Imagine if Robin, the director, had not been there to tell me what he meant when he made the film. I would have “read” it completely differently. I would have believed a lie. In all fairness, no one could really blame me for my wrong interpretation since my “reading” would have been the most natural. Nevertheless, I would have been wrong. My reading would have been a misreading.

The art does not “stand on its own terms.” In other words, if the film hadn’t been accompanied by an explanation from the outside (in this case, the director’s interpretation after the film), the viewer’s interpretation would not have matched reality.

So, in honor of the True/False Film Festival, “Is his story true or false?” Though the film was original, creative, and well constructed, the truth of the text, in Barr’s own words, “is completely inaccessible to us,” and therefore ultimately rings false.

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