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The Kuleshov effect, COVID-19 and the Christ story

May we remember that Kuleshov’s effect is but a shadow of the divine editor’s unmatched ability to splice Christ’s story together with ours in a unique way that invites us to respond consciously, freely and fully to His love.

Ever wondered why you connect emotionally with some movies more than others? It may be due in part to the Kuleshov effect, a technique attributed to 1920s Soviet filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov.

Kuleshov’s insight was that it’s possible to guide viewers’ interpretations of, and emotional responses to, an actor’s expression in a scene simply by changing what the actor appears to be looking at. By sandwiching a clip of a bowl of soup between two identical shots of an actor’s face (face-soup-face) he could suggest hunger in the actor’s expression; if he inserted a shot of a toddler in the same sequence, viewers would interpret the same expression as compassionate. Kuleshov’s technique not only became foundational to cinematic editing, it helped to set editing apart as a defining characteristic of the cinematic arts.

The suggestive power of careful editing on our emotions is enticing because – as marketers, politicians, and evangelists are aware – emotion has a profound influence on human decision-making

Little wonder, then, that Kuleshov’s influence is seen in everything from viral memes to Jesus films. It may even influence our journey through the Christian calendar this season, which will inevitably involve carefully edited productions from increasingly sophisticated digital media creatives in faith communities.

Sunday School plays are being replaced by short films and worship sets have become music videos. Kuleshov’s insights are subtly shaping the Christian experience with new, and often edifying, effects.

We must, however, beware the temptation to put too much faith in editing’s power to generate desired responses, whether for witness or reflection. Film scholars remind us that humans are not mindlessly subject to technique. Viewers’ responses to media products are neither predictable nor even. We react to facial expressions and edited sequences through the unique lenses of our life experiences, biases, personalities and cultural formation. In at least one culture, Judas, not Jesus, has been celebrated as the hero of the Easter story.

Thanks to COVID-19, we will continue to develop new sensibilities and skills with which to mediate and experience the Christ story. Let us also humbly remember that the humans Jesus came for are complex creatures, not blank slates. May we remember that Kuleshov’s effect is but a shadow of the divine editor’s unmatched ability to splice Christ’s story together with ours in a unique way that invites us to respond consciously, freely and fully to His love. It’s what I call a special effect. I am getting emotional.

Dr. Dwight H. Friesen is Sessional Assistant Professor of Foundations Core at TWU. Born in Côte d’Ivoire, Dr. Friesen has lived in multiple countries in West Africa. He has also lived in all the Western provinces in Canada, in Scotland, and has studied and researched in India. He currently resides in Langley, B.C.