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October 3, 2013

Reliving tragedy

Movie made about area church burnings in 2010

Athens — A film that relives the fear and frustration that swept through East Texas during the church arsons of 2010 is set for viewing later this month.

The Focus of the documentary, “Little Hope Was Arson,” focuses on a Van Zandt County church that was set ablaze on Jan. 1 of that year.

Little Hope Baptist Church ultimately held the answer to the mystery that had stumped federal, state and local law enforcement for better than a month. Faith Church in Athens was torched later that same day, followed by Lake Athens Baptist Church and Grace Community Church a few days later.

Producer and Director Theo Love found himself drawn in by the emotion-charged story of 10 houses of worship burned to the ground and the efforts to bring the unknown arsonists to justice. The result is a film that will play at the Hollywood Film Festival on Oct. 19, and gets its Texas premier at the Austin Film Festival on Oct. 25 and Oct. 29.

“Little Hope was the first church that burned, but they didn’t classify it as arson until they found graffiti in a bathroom stall,” Love said. “Someone had scratched the words, ‘Little Hope was arson.’ That was written by one of the arsonists and was a major clue in breaking the case.”

Jason Robert Bourque, 19, and Daniel George McAllister, 21, were ultimately arrested and sentenced for the crimes. It was Bourque, investigators said, who carved the words into a wall at Atwood’s Ranch and Home Store in Tyler.

“When I went out to East Texas to do research, it was amazing to me that a lot of people knew some of the facts, but nobody knew why this happened,” Love said. “The reason we went out to tell this story is because there were questions left unanswered.”

Love has made several films over the past decade, but “Little Hope” is his first feature-length project. He grew up in Southeast Asia as the son of missionaries who served in Thailand, Malaysia and Laos for more than 30 years. That upbringing also figured into his interest in the church arsons.

“We never had church buildings,” Love said. “We went to house churches. My faith was always an important part of my life, but I never had that connection with a church building.”

Love said the church burnings made him seek the answer to several questions. What had prompted the arsonists, who had church backgrounds, to set fire to the buildings? How did the church members react? 

“There are so many deep themes and messages in this horrible crime,” Love said. “I just went out there to explore. The more I learned, the more I thought this is an incredibly interesting and tragic story that would be great for a movie.”

Love found the responses of many of the church members heartbreaking.

“When I went out there and I would sit with people who had been going to those churches all of their lives,” Love said. “I found they had been baptized in that church, married in that church and watched their kids grow up in that church. They had family members buried in the cemeteries. Every single day when we were filming, someone would have tears in their eyes. I realized that these churches weren’t just buildings.”

Love, who co-produced the film with Trenton Waterson, said “Little Hope” will probably be screened in East Texas in early 2014. Anyone who would like to find out more about the project can check the website littlehopewasarson.com, or the Facebook page.

 

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