This is a story of belonging. A teenage girl finds herself directionless when her parents divorce and her mother lapses into alcoholism. Her time is spent navigating her new life between an empty house where strange men supply her mother with money, and the stability of a home where her father encourages her just “to do well.”
This is the point in the story where some teenage girls would fall into the wrong crowd, their skirts getting shorter with every hour they push their unwatched curfew. Or few, reaching deep into a mysterious well of self-reliance, join a sports team—maybe volleyball, maybe tennis. Others might immerse themselves in their church’s youth group, or get a fast-food job, or take up knitting.
Bible Quiz is the true story of one Tacoma girl that sought to belong in an unlikely place in the midst of her family’s upheaval: on a Bible memorization team. More specifically, drawn there by a boy that isn’t interested in short skirts or playing sports, but instead with memorizing entire books of the Bible. This unique documentary follows two Tacoma teens, Mikayla and J.P., on their journey to the Bible Quiz nationals in Wisconsin.
Bible Quiz is a national tournament of teams picked from evangelical churches from all over the nation. And the film explores what happens when memorizing Bible verses becomes a matter of victory, belonging, and a sense of identity.
Directed and produced by Nicole Teeny, a Gig Harbor native and member of the first graduating class of Tacoma’s School of the Arts (along with the distinction of earning a BFA in film and dramatic writing from NYU), Bible Quiz is not only a coming of age story, but explores what it’s like for some kids to be a Christian in today’s evangelical communities. It is an honest look at some of the ways in which churches get kids to memorize scripture (Tournaments! Trophies! Biblical raps!), and at the subcultures that emerge from the use of those tactics.
If you’re the type that believes that anything can be turned into a competition, then this is the documentary that will prove you right. It also happens to be a great film.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Teeny at Anthem Coffee and Tea to hear her take on the documentary and filming in Tacoma.
RE: I know you grew up in Gig Harbor, but can Tacoma claim you?
NT: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I grew up here and spent all of my formative years here, then came back and made the movie right after school. Also, our film was partially funded by the Tacoma Arts Commission and Artist Trust, which is Washington-based. So, I’d say that the film is pretty through and through Tacoma.
RE: You graduated from NYU and you came straight back to Tacoma to film Bible Quiz?
NT: Yes, actually I almost missed my graduation because we were in the middle of filming and I told everyone ‘There’s a championship that I need to go to!’ But my friends were all, ‘Nicole, you need to go to your graduation.’ So, we ended up working around it and I went to my graduation.
RE: How long did you film for?
NT: Shooting was a little less than a year, which isn’t too long, but we worked on post [production] for a while. Typically, documentaries can take a couple of years, and in particular, we didn’t have that much funding.
Marco Williams [documentary filmmaker and professor at NYU] once told me that in film there is fast, cheap, and good. And you can pick two, but not three. I picked cheap, and I tried to go for good. Also, I worked with two amazing editors: James Codoyannis and Jason Pollard.
[Overall] there was a lot of footage – 120 hours worth of footage – and you can’t even watch that in one week. So part of the process was asking, how do we tell this story – is it even possible to tell – and it does morph a bit? You also have to ask, how do you end a movie that is a real-life story?
RE: Speaking of stories, of all the topics you could have chosen, why one about Bible Quiz?
NT: Well, my brother was a Bible Quizzer – he’s in the movie [Chris Teeny] – and it was always sort of a quirky and interesting culture to me. It’s definitely a subculture, and anthropology is interesting to me. I studied anthropology a bit in school, and I thought it was fascinating because it looks at how our culture influences who we are. So [Chris] is part of this subculture where they all speak in Bible verses to each other.
RE: Kind of like they made a new language?
NT: Exactly! I thought it was a very interesting use of repurposing a text [like the Bible] to use as its own language.
It was actually one of the things I wanted the movie to be about; like how memorization can affect your perception of a text. Ultimately, though, I decided to go with a human story versus a larger intellectual one. Which I think I’m happy with.
RE: Given the topic of the film, it seems like there could have been a lot of room to play up certain stereotypes about evangelicals, but this documentary didn’t do that. It was definitely a respectful yet honest portrayal of the subjects. How do you maintain that balance as a documentary filmmaker when dealing with such distinct communities?
NT: I grew up going to Life Center. And before I went to SOTA I went to Life Christian. So it was part of my personal narrative, even though I’m no longer a churchgoer.
Also, it’s hard to find a stereotype in a personal experience. Everyone’s unique yet we go through these universal experiences [like figuring out a way to be closer to a boy you have a crush on], and we get to see this community through one girl’s eyes.
I think people have said that the film is even-handed, but I wonder if it’s the exact opposite. You know, it’s so not even-handed that it comes off that way.
It’s just one person’s perspective and we’re not trying to pretend it’s an omniscient documentary – the kind that says ‘I know what’s what and I’m going to tell you what’s what’ – this film is about a girl, she doesn’t know what’s what, she’s trying to figure it out, and we’re going to explore with her. Essentially, I think that [Bible Quiz] asks the audience to participate, and insert their own opinions about it.
Teeny is in the process of brainstorming ideas for her next film, a feature-length narrative, as well as a web series.
Nicole Teeny’s feature-length documentary, Bible Quiz, is being screened today as part of the the Tacoma Film Festival, 7:30 p.m. at Tacoma Community College, Building 2.
Tacoma can claim yet another rising star in Nicole Teeny, a talented director not afraid to remember her roots.