We Believe in Dinosaurs is the title of the handsomely made documentary feature directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, but it’s also a statement repeated by several of the film’s subjects to correct a commonly held misconception about Creationists. The group of fundamental Christians at the center of the film are firm in their belief of Biblical literalism, and are unshakable on the assertion that the earth is only 6,000 years old—a fact apparently derived from simple math and the book of Genesis’ genealogy.
But Creationists, represented in the film by the organization Answers in Genesis (A.I.G), aren’t completely refuting the claims of the scientific community—they’re just altering the timeline slightly. Dinosaurs did exist, they say, though they walked the earth at the same time as man. The Bible, which according to A.I.G is the “ultimate authority,” says that God created all animals on the sixth day, with Adam and Eve arriving on the seventh. So what happened to the dinosaurs then, if they didn’t reign over earth and become extinct millions of years ago?
The film doesn’t ever pose that question exactly, but A.I.G does assert that Noah’s Ark, the giant boat that saved a few chosen humans along with a menagerie of animals from a global flood, did house the dinosaurs as well (though they were most likely juveniles because of the limited space Noah was working with).
We Believe in Dinosaurs tells the story of the creation of “The Ark Encounter,” an 800-acre, theme-park quality attraction and exhibit outside of Williamstown, Ky., that recreates Noah’s Ark with a mission of undoing the “brainwashing” of modern evolutionary science. Spearheaded by A.I.G president Ken Hamm in association with the Creation Museum in nearby Petersberg, Ky., the so-called “Ark Park” became the center of a fierce and highly publicized debate between A.I.G., the inhabitants of Williamstown, and groups like Americans United and the Tri-State Freethinkers, who claimed the project—which was awarded an estimated $18 million in government-issued tax breaks—was in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
Among the more vocal local detractors is David MacMillan, a former Creationist and now D.C.-based law student, who took to blogging about his experience within A.I.G in order to shed light on the group’s tendency to indoctrinate instead of educate. Still Christian today, MacMillan details his struggle within the religious community after embracing a more scientific worldview—his faith was questioned by many of those formerly close to him, because according to A.I.G., the totality of biblical authority is paramount; you believe it all, or you’re wrong.
Another key figure in the “Ark Park” debate is Kentucky geologist and paleontologist Dan Phelps, whose love of the natural world led him to be deeply disturbed by A.I.G’s attempt to dismantle evidence-based science. The film portrays him as an earnest middle-aged Boy Scout type, determined to make the public aware of the threat posed by the Ark Encounter’s seemingly wholesome mission. Phelps, who pens op-eds in the local paper and participates in protests against the state funding of the project, discovered that A.I.G. actively discriminated against non-creationists when hiring for the park’s estimated 900 jobs. Any prospective employee was expected to be a regular churchgoer and required to sign a “statement of faith,” among other things. According to Phelps, A.I.G wasn’t only discriminating against atheists, Muslims, and Jews; the strict requirements would disqualify most Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations as well.
On the other side of the aisle are the Creationists themselves, represented in the film by A.I.G employees and engineers of the Ark Encounter’s multiple exhibits and attractions. Patrick Marsh, who helped design the Jaws and King Kong rides at Universal Studios, is among the lead designers of the ark, and is shown embracing his job not only with artistic enthusiasm, but more importantly as a matter of salvation. Marsh bemoans the state of modern society, recalling a golden past when he was growing up and “everyone went to church…everyone was married.”
That zeal reflects neatly onto the tapestry of our current political climate (the filmmakers go as far as using a clip of Mike Pence dodging a question on evolution from a 2009 cable interview), and We Believe in Dinosaurs offers a cautionary tale by way of Williamstown’s tragic economic fate. Throughout the film, townspeople and local business owners are shown enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of ark tourists, being promised a revitalization of their downtown’s once bustling scene and an escape from financial turmoil. But the story of Williamstown becomes the story of so many poor American cities: nostalgic fires stoke excitement amongst the citizens, but when push comes to shove, promises of a return to a bygone era are nothing more than a smokescreen used by corporate stakeholders and politicians.
Central to this tension is Ken Hamm, the CEO and founder of A.I.G., portrayed in the film as an enigmatic leader and shrewd businessman. He’s shown waffling between characterizing the Ark Encounter as a theme-park-like attraction, meant purely for enjoyment, and revealing his mission to convert and save the hoards of American citizens he believes are heading towards eternal damnation. The distinction is important, because of the aforementioned church and ctate debate. Though there was a legal dispute during construction, A.I.G was ultimately awarded the tax breaks and other state incentives after Kentucky’s election of Republican governor Matt Bevin in 2015.
As filmmakers, Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross handle both sides of the debate with relative fairness, though the Creationist camp does come off as smug and defensive at times—it’s hard to tell if this is due to editing choices or an inherent caution from the subjects. But the creation of the ark by the craftspeople and engineers working on the project is shown as an elaborate and breathtaking feat. The artistry, from the animatronics to the hand-painted, exquisitely detailed dioramas is astounding, and captured by the filmmakers with appropriate respect and distance. This technique actually works in the filmmakers’ favor, strengthening the argument against the rigidity of the Creationists’ particular worldview. So many details, from the skin color of the women on the ark (according to Biblical literalists, everyone on earth is related to the ark-folk), to the size of the animals (baby dinosaurs could absolutely fit, they say), are left up to artistic interpretation that are educated guesses being sold as fact to support a religious agenda.
The human experience is an inherently scientific one, the filmmakers seem to say, and it is possible to have a solid foundation of faith while still embracing a fact-based approach to our lives. As we grow, we tinker with new evidence and integrate our findings into the way we see the world. We Believe in Dinosaurs, in examining the spaces where we have fundamental disagreements, poses a very human question: how much change can be achieved during the span of one person’s life? And in doing so, it becomes a manifesto for personal activism and heroic conviction.
We Believe in Dinosaurs screens Monday, January 27, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with filmmakers in attendance for a post-film Q&A. Get tickets here.
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