Director Christopher Zaluski Shares Some Valuable Lessons Behind New Film "Theirs is the Kingdom"

Christopher Zaluski

New faith-based film Theirs is the Kingdom is now streaming free of charge on the PBS platform here. Theirs is the Kingdom is a feature-length documentary that follows the rare creation of a contemporary fresco mural by Christpher Holt inside the sanctuary of a small church in Asheville, NC.

This is a painting not of the rich and powerful, but of people battling homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. From first sketch to final brush stroke, the viewer witnesses the difficulties of this ancient artistic technique while also meeting an ensemble cast of rich, complex characters.

Unlike historical fresco paintings that depict traditional religious figures or powerful political icons, this painting features individuals on the fringes of society whose stories are often marginalized and forgotten. Their stories are historically absent from large-scale paintings and portraits, art forms reserved for those who have the means to afford such a luxury.

Director Christopher Zaluski is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist, and assistant professor at Wake Forest University's Documentary Film Program. Theirs is the Kingdom is his feature-length debut. We are honored to be able to catch up with Christopher for this exclusive interbiew.

Q: Christopher, thanks for doing this interview for us. Let's start off with yourself: tell us a little about yourself.

Thanks for having me and for your interest in "Theirs Is The Kingdom!"  I was born and raised in Canton, Ohio but I've been living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina since 2004.  I currently live in Winston Salem where I teach documentary filmmaking at Wake Forest University.  I'm married to my college sweetheart and we have two daughters -- 5 and 4 years old -- so we're always on our toes!  Prior to getting into documentary filmmaking, I was a newspaper reporter.  Also, I'm a very big baseball fan and have been training myself to correctly cheer for the Cleveland Guardians! :) 

Q: Tell us very briefly what is the new film "Theirs is the Kingdom" about?

"Theirs Is The Kingdom" follows the multiyear creation of a traditional fresco mural in the sanctuary of a small church in Asheville, North Carolina called Haywood Street Congregation.  When I say the word "fresco" your mind probably imagines the Sistine Chapel or The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.  But, unlike historical fresco murals that typically depict biblical scenes, this is a painting of actual people in the Asheville community who are battling homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.  

The film follows the rare process of creating a large-scale fresco while also showcasing an ensemble cast of complex characters who are being painted.

Q: What first attracted you to this story?

I was told about the fresco by the subject of a previous documentary I had created.  Before the fresco painting began, there was a funding controversy and that had initially attracted me to the story.  But as I talked with folks associated with the fresco such as Haywood Street Rev. Brian Combs, artist Christopher Holt, and a number of the models being depicted in the painting, I soon realized the story was much bigger than I had originally envisioned.

I had started this process thinking it would be a short film with maybe 5 or 6 filming sessions, but that quickly evolved into a 3-year process and a feature film.  Every time I met a new person associated with the fresco, it piqued my interest and I became more invested in the story.

Q: Being your full length documentary debut, what were some of the challenges in the making of this film?

I've directed two short documentaries prior to "Theirs Is The Kingdom," so I was used to the process of piecing together a film from a lot of footage.  The biggest challenge I faced with a feature-length film, however, was being able to keep the audience's attention during the entire duration of the film.  I had a lot of interview footage that I wanted to include, but I didn't want that footage to slow down the pacing of the film or make it feel boring.  So I really focused on striking a balance between the different types of scenes I was using in order to craft a film that felt exciting and thought-provoking for the entire runtime.

Q: What are some of the highlights for you?

For me, this project was a great example of why I love documentary filmmaking.  I really had to gain the trust of many people and I felt honored to be able to hear - and share - their stories.  The film features 11 people who are painted in the fresco, and each of their stories has elements of heartbreak and hopefulness.

There's one model in particular named Jerry who shares a difficult story of abuse and homelessness.  For me, that's one of the more powerful scenes in the film.

Also, being able to capture the full creation of the fresco mural with artist Christopher Holt was very exciting.  In that sense, capturing the final brushstroke on camera was certainly a highlight.

Q: What are some messages viewers can take home from watching this film?

I think the main message is that we never know what another person is going through or what they might be struggling with.  As such, we really need to limit our judgement and show empathy in our daily interactions.  One of the subjects in the film - Jeanette - recounts a story when someone questions her lived experience and accuses her of never struggling with poverty or homelessness.  Jeanette responds by saying: "You can't say what is 'a homeless look' because a lot of people who are homeless, don't look like they are." 

I think her response is one of the central themes to the film.  We're all fighting our daily struggles - big and small - and so we need to reserve judgement, try to be more accepting of others, and just show more genuine love.


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