Little Hope Was Arson is set inside a world that’s far removed—from political progressivism, from religious moderation, from that of the average documentary viewer. Its story unfolds in the heart of East Texas, described by one resident as “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” so the whole cast of characters consists of deeply conservative, even more deeply “traditional” individuals. What’s more, the film is not just observing these folks, but taking on their points of view.
In January and February of 2010, eleven different churches across East Texas fell victim to arson. Christianity holds that a church is made of its people and not its four walls and roof, but that didn’t stop parishioners from feeling devastated at the loss of their places of congregation. These churches may have simply been buildings—fleeting physical objects compared to greater matters of eternal spirituality—but they were buildings that served as linchpins for so many vital memories: weddings, funerals, spiritual renewals, etc.
Structurally, the doc is split down the middle: the first half follows the manhunt for the perpetrators, while the second half covers the fallout once they were caught. While Little Hope Was Arson is short (scarcely more than 70 minutes), its first half is little more than a serviceable episode of Dateline, albeit with slightly more visual panache. In an utterly rote manner, it runs through the series of events surrounding the arsons, exploring much of the detail involved obligatorily, feeling like procedural wheel-spinning. The sense that you’ve wasted your time is driven home once the arsonists are caught and you realize that the investigation wasn’t terribly complicated, all things considered.
While there are multiple interviewees on hand to express their horror at losing their churches, never does the film or the abundance of congregation members elicit a real sense of the communities that have formed around these churches—and that would feel violated by these arsons. Man-on-the-street interviews do little to convey what it’s like to be a part of the whole in a faith community; the arsonists were eventually facing life sentences for their crimes, to give you an idea of how seriously this area takes such “desecration” of sacred property, but without a real contextualization of these feelings, the film runs the risk of leaving its audience with the impression that the stereotypes about overzealous religious types are true.
But once the movie settles into a more personal view, as it focuses on those who were close to the arsonists, it becomes incalculably more engaging. Incendiary even: all of these people—parents, siblings, friends—were blindsided by the revelation that Jason Borque and Daniel McAllister, two young men well-liked in their communities, committed such crimes. Each character is haunted by what they feel they could have done differently, and, given their religiosity, not helping Borque and McAllister was not just a personal failing, but a spiritual one. The neighbors must confront both their self-effacing guilt and their condescending Christian obligation to forgive these two men. In this struggle is the difficult, empathetic lens that the first half of the film is missing.
The movie holds off on talking to Borque or McAllister up until the very end, and bringing them in at that late a stage is a disruptive reshaping of perspective. They do little beyond offer up weak apologies for their actions, and as such, the film gleans no insight into their motives from the scant time it spends with them, nor does it develop them as characters. Keeping the duo an offscreen presence—a symbol of sorts—might have been a better move. It’s more interesting to leave their inner lives to the musings of their loved ones.
Little Hope Was Arson is half an absorbing drama about human beings grappling with the thorny meeting of ideology and reality, and half a slog full of perfunctory true crime beats. The documentary’s true strength lies not in doing what many crime-related nonfiction pieces have already done, but in its focus on what it’s like for a loved one to have committed a crime that shocks you. “What could I have done?” is a haunting question, and it’s where the movie should have placed its heart.
Director: Theo Love
Writer: Theo Love
Starring: Jason Borque, Daniel McAllister
Release Date: Nov. 21, 2014