Q&A with the maker of the film "Saltwater Baptism"
My friend Jared Callahan produced, filmed, and co-directed the experimental The New York Times Opinion Documentary “Saltwater Baptism,” which debuted today. We put together a Q&A about the film and the journey to make it (which is also shared on his blog, A Sacred Imagination).
*The article below contains spoilers, so please watch the film first, which is available HERE*
This film is really an intimate portrait of a person: Santi. How did you come to know Santi?
I served at a church in San Diego for a decade, and over the years met tons of wonderful people. When he was in 7th grade, Santiago Gonzalez IV strolled into our mid-week teen gathering. He was a quiet, tan, surfer-kid with long and flowing golden hair. Santi kept attending youth group through the rest of middle school and throughout high school, where he committed his life to Jesus and was baptized in our community.
There’s a scene in the film where Santi reflects on the moment he came out to his youth pastor. Would you share about that moment from your perspective?
I remember a specific day when he was in 10th grade that I could tell Santi wanted to talk about something deep. It was an incredible moment of honesty and confession. It was also an invitation into this very sacred part of someone’s journey: their sexuality. I remember thinking, “This is a big moment. Don’t screw this up. What does he need from you right now?” I realized two things. 1) Santi seemed afraid that he wouldn’t be welcomed at church anymore. This broke my heart, and so I made sure to communicate that he was loved, and that we were a part of his family. 2) He hadn’t told his immediate family yet, so we worked on healthy ways he could tell his sister and his parents.
It seems like this whole project has been a journey for you. Where did the idea for this project first come from?
I realized during his junior year in high school that the tensions in Santi’s life were complex. He straddles the balance of being Mexican and American, coming from a Mexican family but growing up in the United States. Santi is a flamenco dancer and bullfighter, yet also a stylish American surfer. Santi loves Jesus and identifies as a Christian, while also having same-sex attraction, even though the dominant message from evangelical Christianity is that those identities are incompatible. All these tensions set Santi up for an interesting journey: What does it mean to be Santi?
As far as creative ideas go, I thought it was a good story, but I never pursued the project until six years later. As Santi neared the end of college, I realized that graduation could provide the framework for these conversations. He had the added tension of his first romantic relationship and the idea of being an adult with post-graduate life looming large.
Why did you make this project? How has it impacted your own journey as both a pastor and a filmmaker?
Like many of us, I have felt the tension between the church and the queer community. So I asked myself, “What do I believe? Who am I listening to? How am I engaging?” As a pastor, I’ve studied the Bible, prayed over this, and researched the topic, all while engaging in relationships. I know great-hearted Christians who have differing beliefs about the topic. It’s amazing (and heartbreaking) to me that we boil complex topics to “either/or” answers. As an artist, I wanted to film with Santi to help myself be more compassionate as I engaged the topic of human sexuality. I’m not a naturally empathetic person, so filmmaking for me is an exercise in listening.
Speaking of your vocation as both a pastor and a filmmaker… How do you understand your identity as a Christian and as an artist?
I believe the role of an artist is to ask good questions. Art allows me to see myself and the world differently through engagement with the piece. This is very different than commercial work, which sells you on one specific idea with the hopes of converting your opinion by a specific transactional response. As someone following Jesus Christ, I can follow Jesus’ lead in that when he was asked complex questions (about a variety of topics), Jesus most often responds with questions. If anyone had the right to give declarative answers, it was Jesus! Yet, we have the ability to enter into the journey when we wrestle with the complexities of the human experience.
Therefore, the goal of my film work and my pastoral work are very similar-- to journey with people in a way that allows them to become “more human,” by which I guess I mean that in some mysterious way I’m privileged to help create space for them to be fully themselves, to grow into who God is calling them to be. My past projects have featured an elderly woman, a differently-abled person, and someone from a different political leaning than myself. My current projects follow men battling drug addiction and someone who is dying. By spending time with these people, I am transformed by their humanity and the ways they are experiencing this world differently than myself. By telling their stories, I can honor the journeys of others and see how God moves in, around, and through the world outside of my own experiences.
What was a joy in making this film?
Getting to know Santi’s community! I had known Santi very well through his high school career, but it was such a joy to get to know his amazing friends and roommates. I didn’t know Austin before we started filming, and he has an equally complex and powerful story of choosing Jesus in an environment that in some ways both denies and embraces his sexuality. Getting to know this diverse, vibrant, and loving group of friends is an honor and continues to be my favorite part of the process.
What was a challenge in making this film?
It is a challenge to wrestle with a complex topic, knowing that it can provoke intense and diverse reactions. I wanted to honestly portray Santi’s story, which includes his involvement in church and school. As an ordained elder in Santi’s church and a fellow alum (and pretty big fan) of his college, I love the people in these places, so it was important to me to engage both the story and the relationships with respect. Some people might be challenged by this film, but I hope it presents opportunities to listen, learn, and love. If knowing Santi’s story helps someone reflect on what they believe, then that’s a God-thing.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
I hope the piece provides a short moment of pause in the midst of our busy lives. We wanted the pace of the film to reflect the pace of Santi’s life: busy and hectic juxtaposed against the serenity of being alone in water. The film invites the audience into these sacred spaces with Santi, where a human can be recognized for more than one aspect of their complex identity.
In your faith community, you often end gatherings with a benediction-- which just means bestowing a blessing, giving a good word. Would you send us off with a benediction?
Oh wow, thanks. Yes! If I could give a benediction to you all after seeing the film, it would be, “May the God of patience, goodness, gentleness, kindness, peace, joy, and love teach us to make space. May God reign both over the places where we are uncertain and certain. May our faith transcend the places where we are comfortable and uncomfortable. May our love for God blossom into revolutionary love for ourselves, our neighbors, and all of creation. May we have the courage to listen, and to see all as God sees. Amen.”
Rev. Jared Callahan is a fun, kind, loud, storytelling, redhead, who serves as a pastor to the resident, supporting creative endeavors in the community and youth ministry on the NorCal District. He studied Media Communication and Youth Ministry at Point Loma Nazarene University and earned a Masters in Spiritual Formation from Northwest Nazarene University. Jared worked in youth ministry for 15 years, and now travels speaking at churches, camps, and retreats. Jared also owns People People Media Co, a boutique film production company. In 2016 Jared released his directorial debut feature documentary, Janey Makes a Play, which played at over 20 festivals. He serves as an Atlanta Film Society’s Filmmaker in Residence and debuted his newest short film, American Moderate, on PBS in 2017.