Theo Love’s documentary Little Hope Was Arson, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday night April 6 at 10pm (check local listings), explores a chilling series of connected arson fires set in East Texas in 2010, all involving churches, and does so with an open mind and an open heart to all involved. The case ignited the largest criminal investigation in East Texas history and had repercussions felt far and wide, from church patrons and pastors to the families of those eventually arrested for the crime, and made national news. [Read more here.]
“A fascinating story told with deep insight, Little Hope Was Arson finds that both fire and forgiveness burn in different ways,” wrote Kevin Jagernauth in The Playlist.
An award-winning short filmmaker, this is Love’s first feature documentary. He took time out to talk to us about what led him to want to explore this crime in full, and the challenges of doing so on film.
What led you to make Little Hope Was Arson?
I was born in Thailand and spent my entire childhood living in Christian missionary communities. Faith was obviously an enormous part of my life, but when I moved to the US at age 18 I realized that my religion had never been defined by the four walls of a church. As a filmmaker, I am always on the lookout for stories that ask difficult questions and when I saw in the news that 10 churches had burned in the buckle of the Bible Belt, my head was instantly swimming with questions. On top of the obvious mystery of who would commit these crimes and why, I was most interested in how these communities of faith would respond to such direct attacks and how they would define themselves when their buildings were destroyed.
Were you interested in forensics and criminal investigation before the making of this film and what did you learn about that world while making it?
Before Little Hope I had never been into CSI or anything like that, but after spending so much time with investigators, I have become a big fan. Investigating a crime is like storytelling, except you start at the end with no idea who your main characters are and have to move backwards to put the pieces together.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
As a first-time filmmaker, every challenge was my biggest challenge yet. This story had a lot of moving pieces and many different perspectives: law-enforcement, churches, firefighters, local community, families of the arsonists, and the arsonists themselves. Apart from scheduling interviews with members of each of those groups, our biggest challenge was choosing which perspective to hinge the story on. On the surface, this is a film about arson, but when we laid out all the pieces we found that the heart of the story was community.
I heard a piece of filmmaking advice once, I can’t think of who said it but it went something like this, “You won’t know what your film is about until you finish making it.” That is the beauty and struggle of making a documentary. You begin with a list of questions and mysteries remain until the last frame fades to black.
Also, we had a lot of issues getting access to the Texas prison systems. They aren’t too friendly to indie filmmakers.
And how did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film, the families, the investigators, the church folks and others?
Trenton Waterson (producer) and I spent months on the phone, writing letters and even flew from Los Angeles to East Texas to sit and drink sweet tea with everyone in the film. Because the events were so recent, their emotions were still very fresh so it was important for us to earn their trust as friends before we could pull out the cameras. One way that we softened the usual distrust of “Hollywood filmmakers” was our commitment to tell the story from an East Texan perspective with no narration or filmmaker presences in the film.
What was the reaction to the film from both Daniel and Jason’s families? And from the churchgoers and law enforcement depicted in the film?
I had the opportunity to show the film to most everyone in the film and, to my surprise, there was an overwhelmingly positive response. I had more than one churchgoer describe the film as therapeutic closure to this whole ordeal. My hope is that East Texas would continue to learn from these events and turn their words of forgiveness into actions. Daniel and Jason are both serving life sentences in prison but they will be eligible for parole. I would love to see every one of those 10 churches show up for their parole hearings.
What did you learn about the East Texas area that makes it a unique place?
It is simply gorgeous. I met some of the friendliest and most generous people in East Texas. I would move there in a heartbeat, but I still don’t know if I would join one of their churches.
What are your three favorite films?
Was there anything about (Errol Morris’s documentary) Thin Blue Line you were mindful of while making your own film?
I absolutely adored his visual style. He mixed talking head interviews with re-enactments in a way that made you feel like you were living inside the minds of the subjects. I wanted to get the facts of our story straight as well as open up a discussion about the role of church, but in order to do that in an entertaining way, I borrowed much of his cinematic approach.
What sort of discussions would you ideally like people to have after they watch the film? What impact do you hope Little Hope will have?
I love discussing religion, but I have found it difficult to find a positive way to approach it without sounding like a salesman or on the opposite end, a persecutor. What was once meant to bring people together has now become something that divides. I would love for people of all walks of faith to be able to discuss their religion openly without judgement. When we stop listening to different perspectives we put up walls and often hide behind them.
Religion is often a taboo subject around the dinner table let alone on TV and film and yet we still see churches on nearly every street corner and feel the effects of faith in politics, justice, and morality. Something that plays such a huge role in our society deserves to have the dust blown off of it and re-examined through storytelling. I hope that audiences will walk away from this film excited to discuss aspects of faith in a new way.
Was there anything you would’ve liked to have included in your film but just couldn’t make the cut?
The scientific aspect to the investigation was very fascinating but was largely cut out in favor of the more emotional side to the story. One example is the use of hand-sanitizer as a fire accelerant in the arsons. Unlike gasoline, hand sanitizer is made up mostly of alcohol, burns clean and leaves almost no trace. Most churches have large quantities of hand sanitizer because of their nursery and childcare programs so this proved even more difficult to trace the arsonists who never had to buy any materials to aid in their crimes. Since these crimes, ATF has since changed their training to include hand sanitizer as an accelerant! [Editor’s Note: See our side story on arson investigation methods.]
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
[Mild spoiler ahead:] There are a few scenes in the film that give insight into the origins of a “church arsonist.” It is tempting to categorize each character as a hero or a villain but as I was sitting with the arsonist’s father, my heart broke for the supposed “villain.” His father told the story of his suicide attempt from a tree in their back yard. His son, only a teenager at the time, rushed to save him and held his father’s dangling legs until his sister could come and cut the rope from his neck.
What projects are you planning next?
Ironically enough, I am working on another true Texas crime story. I can’t give out too many details just yet, but my next project will be a scripted narrative and will tackle some of the same themes as Little Hope but on a much larger scale.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
It is not as hard as you think. People like to talk about how difficult filmmaking is to make themselves feel more accomplished, but the truth is that making something is a much bigger hill to climb in your mind than it is in reality. If you want to be a filmmaker go out and make a film. It is as simple as that! Making a GOOD film is the difficult part, but you can worry about that later.
Also, a piece of practical advice. Put deadlines on yourself. Unless you know when it will get done, it won’t.