Atheist punk rocker and filmmaker Justin Ludwig’s pillars of hardcore are “self-reliance, progressiveness, heresy and hedonism.” So when he found out that evangelical Christians were moshing to the same riffs while praising Jesus, his foundations shook. “I was upset that [Christian hardcore] even existed,” says Ludwig.
He resolved to make a documentary — and his directorial debut — about the Christian hardcore scene. But it was 2008, and the financial crash took a toll on Ludwig’s ambitions to bring his atheist lens down to the southern United States, where this scene is most potent. Though he had some footage, the film sat on the shelf until 2011 as Ludwig let the idea simmer — and its flavour changed.
Ludwig’s atheism is the product of the influence of hardcore on his own strict Catholic upbringing. He believed making this documentary would allow him to re-approach a belief system he had been bemoaning since he rejected it at age 16. “With age and time, it seemed much more appropriate to have a conversational approach and objectively get to know people,” says Ludwig. “With time, I became less interested in the angle I would have taken before when I was younger, a bit angrier and more brash.”
Ludwig set out with “the goal to learn and explore, to meet people and have conversations,” hitting the road and supporting the documentary, titled ChristCORE, out of his own pocket and with the help of co-producer Robin Schlaht, a filmmaker based out of Ludwig’s home town of Regina, Saskatchewan. Ludwig separately toured with two evangelical Christian hardcore bands.
The film depicts the band Messengers, eager newcomers to the scene, on their first tour of the States. It also highlights evangelical powerhouse Sleeping Giant, a band revered not only for sludgy metal core riffs, but for faith healings as well.
“We did not expect faith healings to become a part of the everyday,” says Ludwig. “Every single show, kids would be lined up and there would be faith healings. The first time it happened we were like, ‘Wow, that was kind of intense,’ and then they were like, ‘No, this happens every single day.’ ” While the legitimacy of faith healings may be up in the air, the weight of them is palpable in the film. They range from focusing on more minor issues of soreness and bruising, healings that Ludwig says seemed more like “Reiki or something” to more emotional encounters. A young girl named Emma, blind in one eye, said she could see light and dark through that eye for the first time in years after being prayed over. “In the original cut of the film, I did mention that . . . her eye did not get any better, but ultimately we decided to cut it because it was taking away from the bands and it wasn’t [the goal of the film] to disprove the faith healings,” says Ludwig.
Rewind to 2010. Messengers have made it to Cornerstone, a Christian music mecca in Illinois, where hardcore has taken over the side stages — until this year. The hard core group For Today has a set on the main stage with a sermon to match. “Even feeding the hungry and taking in widows and clothing the poor, as nice as those things are,” says For Today frontman Mattie Montgomery, “are, if not done from a place of relationship with and obedience to God, detestable to him.” He adds, “The news that we have to bring you is that you are on your way to hell right now.”
Ludwig says, “I stand in very opposition to [those sentiments].”
Throughout the film, Ludwig meets a swath of believers, ranging from teenagers on a search for meaning to neck-tattooed evangelical guitarists playing hardcore at the Sunday service. But it was Ludwig’s experience with the two bands he toured with that was the saving grace for his view on the religious hardcore scene. “Some people that I met, who I would call the real Christians of the world, they’re people that aren’t interested in swaying political campaigns or picketing funerals. They’re interested in trying to be Christ-like,” says Ludwig. “That’s just someone who is going to strive to make the world better whether you are rich or poor or cast out on the margins of society.”
The film had its world premiere at the Victoria Film Festival (VFF) on Feb. 4 and will be doing a theatrical run this summer thanks to Canadian distribution company FilmsWeLike picking it up. The hook of the film is the people, regardless of your religious convictions or lack thereof. “It becomes a pretty big leap of faith to do [a film like this], especially when it’s your first feature,” says Ludwig. The summer theatrical run will expose the film, and Ludwig, to wider audiences, opening him up to the criticism and acclaim that come with art that deals with subjects like religion — but perhaps it won’t be as nerve-wracking as it was when he showed it to his Catholic in-laws. “I just hung out in the kitchen and drank the whole time,” he says.