SXSW Review: Strange Negotiations


Strange Negotiations was a deeply personal and heartfelt documentary, an essay film exploring one man’s crisis of faith. Named after the eponymous album released by Christian/pop crossover band Pedro and the Lion in 2011, it centres on the lead singer, David Bazan. After years with the band he eventually undergoes an erosion of his beliefs, leading him to part with his established band, leave his family and take a solo tour for an entire decade, in a search for truth and belonging. A fellow audience member reacted with “Oh! It was so sad!”, but I didn’t feel that way. To me, it felt like his searching for truth is all of us searching for truth. It was honest, sometimes poetic, often angry, and calculating. Attempting to birth answers from the long expectancy and periods of loneliness, despair, feeling lost, and feeling a longing for something else.

Strange Negotiations
Director: Brandon Vedder

Release date: March 15, 2019 (World Premiere)
Rating: PG-13

Strange Negotiations may be seen as a polemic trying to convey Bazan’s point of view. He may reject the term, but I’d say he becomes almost like a prophet, teaching his own doctrine by reaching out to audiences in their living rooms and preaching his own version of a gospel — one of freedom from the institution (he distinguishes Christianity as a faith to Evangelical Christianity as an institution, as the two aren’t mutually exclusive). I think that people just want something to believe in, to follow: watching footage of people at these small concerts, they’re hanging on his every word. He speaks to what he calls ‘recovering Evangelicals’, which is an interesting way of looking at the topic. In interviews he makes the point that, growing up in this kind of institution or belief system, he was taught to believe that it was an inextricable part of his identity, hence the scale of his crisis as an adult.

What’s also evocative about the doc is the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential elections: it’s framed in such a way that Christian Evangelicals are seen as partially the reason for Trump’s inauguration, leading Bazan to become even more disaffected. The use of news footage pertaining to the crossover of religion and politics, voiceovers and an ongoing narrative stemming from Bazan’s thoughts (rather than being muddied by opinions from other talking heads) worked well, leading to a personal exploration of a difficult time in his life.

It’s intriguing from the point of view of the religious, agnostics and atheists alike, because the principles of losing one’s way and questioning one’s heritage, upbringing, worldview, belief system, are universal themes. I was fascinated that he would be able to express himself so openly on camera. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel a little torn watching this. At the point of filming, he’d been on the road ten years, spending two thirds of every year (or thereabouts) away from his family, travelling solo on the open road. There must have come a point where he felt a sense of responsibility to his wife and two young children — he was missing the most important years in their lives. Towards the end of the doc he does in fact make the conscious decision to take a paying gig that means he can spend more time at home, but I was initially incredulous that it would take the production of a film in order for him to realise this. I understand the depth of his crisis, but I felt as though he could have taken it upon himself sooner to make this change in his life.

I wanted to get on board with his story, however, and I thought that passages where he spoke through a voiceover in order to express his feelings were engaging. They hailed back to his inner lyricist and showed a yearning (consciously or otherwise) to return to his songwriting roots. From footage and interviews, as well as analysis of his early work, it seems that the seeds of doubt had already long since been planted, and it’s intriguing to see him perform songs as young as 13 years old with haunting, often melancholy lyrics — the meaning of which would only truly become apparent later on in life.

Indeed, I think for many who have walked away from, or at least questioned their faith, the documentary has a universality about it that many will be able to appreciate, even if their experience hasn’t been exactly the same. I do feel as though it’s important to be open-minded and to experience life from other people’s perspectives, and that’s what Strange Negotiations captures so well. It’s also a really useful piece in making spectators aware of their own worldview: until it’s questioned, it’s just something we all take for granted. 

One thing I would commend the filmmakers on is their ability to refine the narrative from an undoubtedly wide array of footage. I think that the editing has been used to superb effect, and the sequences in which he experiences flashbacks to (simulations of?) happy memories of his children gives a cinematic quality to a film that could seem to be just the memoirs of a lost soul. The sound mixing in these — swelling to an emotional climax as faces come into focus and smile at the camera, for example — are singularly affecting, and show the entire filmmaking team’s accord: together they are sensitive to the issues, to the journey, and together they use their techniques to marry this with an artistic vision for the piece.

I felt the title was apt because the concept is indeed strange. Of walking away from faith, of choosing a life and a belief system of compromise. This was certainly a brave and honest piece of filmmaking and, in a time where the exploration of faith and thought is often relegated to the sidelines and left in the realm of scholars and academia, the film has brought a piece of cerebral filmmaking to the arthouse circle and will certainly make an impact on viewers of all backgrounds.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.