Feature: The Reel Deal Are Adventists Ready to Take on Film?
June 2014 Feature: The Reel Deal Are Adventists Ready to Take on Film?
Story by Beth Michaels and Tim Lale
The same day a huge earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Pacific Union College (Calif.) film student Tim Wolfer wrote a message on Facebook: “Anyone want to help a poor, documentary filmmaker buy a ticket to Haiti?” Twelve hours later, Wolfer had a ticket, and he and a friend flew into the Dominican Republic with backpacks and a video camera.
The two students took a bus to the border and made their way into Haiti. Wolfer spent several days at the Maison Des Enfants de Dieu orphanage, filming a story about how a CNN crew had set up camp there and was reporting on children being flown to the United States and getting adopted out, even though their parents weren’t dead. Wolfer’s striking documentary, Adopting Haiti, is available on hulu.com. Wolfer now owns and runs a filmmaking business in Michigan.
Rejeev Sigamoney (pictured left) grew up in Potomac Conference’s Southern Asian church in Silver Spring, Md., which is where he was asked to write his first play. Then he took his newfound skills to Potomac’s Sligo church in Takoma Park where he started a young adult group. They began putting on comedic sketches, which he says caused him to fall in love with storytelling.
Sigamoney has now been the program coordinator and assistant professor of film at Pacific Union College (Calif.) for the past two years and has one film under his belt, Jesus People, a “mockumentary” that eventually saw a 10-theater release, with more in the works. “I give a lot of my church experience credit for my career choice,” he says.
Wolfer and Sigamoney are a small but growing number of young, creative filmmakers being nurtured by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Does that mean the church is finally becoming a purveyor of messages through film?
READ MORE ARTICLES FROM THE JUNE 2014 VISITOR:
- Underscore: How do we Continue to Engage Members That Need to Worship at Home
- 4 Practices of an Inclusive Church
- Editorial: Acts of Encouragement
- Columbia Union Filmmakers to Watch
- Bulletin Board
A Road Less Traveled
Adventist Church founders and early pioneers frowned on theater attendance and, therefore, set a slow pace toward members’ acceptance of movie entertainment. However, the introduction of VCRs and movies on demand drastically began to alter that stance, and more creative members started to realize film’s influence in conveying messages of faith, hope and a risen Lord. For the past few decades, Adventists who ventured into filmmaking have focused on creating documentaries, video series and shorts.
One of the early Adventist filmmaking endeavors was the documentary series The Seventh Day. In the 1980s, artist Jim Arrabito developed a passion for the history of the Sabbath and conducted research all over the world. After completing a 600-storyboard outline for a video series, Arrabito died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1990. His widow, Pat, went on to finish the research and write a script. She started LLT Productions (Calif.) to create the video series, later produced and directed by Adventist media producer Jeff Wood. They released the first of the five-part series in 2000. By the end of 2013, the series had sold more than 400,000 copies worldwide and been translated into more than 15 languages.
Some more adventurous Adventists made a pilgrimage to Hollywood first before returning to use those talents for the church. Terry Benedict of California directed chase scenes in several Hollywood movies, made dozens of major-market commercials, and wrote and directed the film Painted Hero before turning to the film project most Adventists know him for, The Conscientious Objector, a 2004 documentary on World War II hero Desmond T. Doss, an Adventist born and raised in Virginia.
Melody George, a graduate of the film production program at Southern Adventist University (Tenn.), moved to Los Angeles in 2006 and made several family friendly films, including Marbles With Thoreau (2008) and End It Now (2013). George now works in California as producer/director for Loma Linda University Health’s PBS documentary series Life on the Line.
A fraction is still using Hollywood’s far reach to create more family-friendly and religious films. DeVon Franklin, an Adventist film producer, business executive, motivational speaker and author, is now the senior vice president of production at Columbia Pictures, and worked on the recent success Heaven is for Real, among others.
Paving the Way
Adventists seeking alternative modes of producing and distributing films free of Hollywood’s control have gotten a boost from the start of the SONscreen film festival, co-founded by Stacia D. Wright and Jere Wallack under the auspices of the North American Division (NAD). As it states on SONscreen’s website, “Since its debut in October 2002, the festival has become the destination for established and up-and-coming Christian filmmakers to share their creative work, gain exposure and network with other media and film professionals.”
Wright, a member of Potomac’s Community Praise Center in Alexandria, Va., explains their motivation for the organization: “We saw a gap. A group of young people, the creatives of the church, were being overlooked.” For many years, she says, “the picture that was being painted was that the only way to be relevant to the church was to be a pastor or more traditional form of employment ... but [for those] who wanted to do something different than traditional communication, there wasn’t a platform to showcase their talents.”
Today SONscreen includes the participation of 14 colleges/universities and more than 100 high schools across the NAD. “I’m thankful the NAD saw the vision to embrace it—not that it was a revival or that they were to see baptisms at the end—but they were investing in the future of the church,” says Wright, who retired her lead at SONscreen in 2010. She adds, “Now there are young people who have a renewed respect for the church.”
The Fork in the Road
But, can creative members hired by the church serve the preferences of more conservative audiences, especially when those preferences may be at odds with the needs of the secular audience they intend to reach?
“It’s a tough road,” says Dan Weber, NAD communication director and the new lead at SONscreen. “At the NAD, we want to use film and visual communication to reach people. Film is very, very powerful. We need to utilize that, reaching our own people and reaching outside as well.” He adds, “The challenge for the church is that some people are still threatened by that.”
That was made evident during the recent saga of The Record Keeper, a film series written by Garrett Caldwell, associate director of communication for the General Conference, and produced and directed by Adventist filmmaker Jason Satterlund. It was the church’s first officially known foray into feature films and involved the talents of a number of young Adventists. After church leaders abruptly shelved the series, it raised the question of how far the Adventist Church is willing to go to embrace contemporary filmmaking styles that filmmakers believe are necessary to draw in larger audiences. Shot in a visual and thematic style known as steampunk, The Record Keeper was intended to introduce Great Controversy themes to a young, secular generation.
For the select few who got to test it on this crowd, it was very well received. Pastor Anthony Medley piloted the series at his church, Allegheny East Conference’s Emmanuel-Brinklow congregation in Ashton, Md., which resulted in 30 baptisms. Pastor Bryant Taylor of Allegheny West Conference’s Beacon of Hope church in Columbus, Ohio, presented it to a mixed group of about 85 members and visitors. “It drove them to read more of Ellen White’s writings, and some were pleasantly surprised that the church took such a forward step in presenting the gospel,” he says.
During the final stages of putting together the film, however, church leaders couldn’t come to a consensus on what to do with it. In an official statement, they reported that a biblical analysis brought to light some theological inaccuracies in the series.
Sigamoney, one of the creators and writers of The Record Keeper, proposes, “The church at large doesn’t understand fiction and what it has the power to accomplish. For [these projects], we can’t be there to help the client differentiate between fiction and nonfiction, and we judge these things by different scales.”
Daniel Wahlen, a recent graduate from Southern Adventist University’s film school who also did some work on The Record Keeper, is disheartened by the decision. “We saw it with books and fiction and the radio. Back then it was resisted, and today it’s film,” he says. “There’s still a lot of growing to do.”
However, Wahlen, who attends Chesapeake Conference’s Triadelphia church in Clarksville, Md.,
is encouraged by the growing acceptance of film by various departments within the church. At Southern, he appreciated the support the film school received from NAD Education, Women’s Ministries, Family Ministries and others. It’s that support that gave him the outlet he needed to write and direct his first
15-minute short, The Hideout, which dominated at this year’s SONscreen festival.
An Adventist feature-film genre may yet emerge. In 2006 Southern’s film school produced Secret of the Cave, a feature-length adaptation of Arthur Maxwell’s children’s book from 1920. In 2012 Arrabito released Hell and Mr. Fudge, a full-length film based on the true story of a small-town preacher commissioned to investigate the true nature of hell. The film won a Platinum Award at the 2012 Houston International Film Festival. In 2013 it was screened in more than 80 theaters across the country.
Kevin Ekvall of Washington state attended this year’s SONscreen for the world premiere of his film I’m Not Leaving, which he produced. The film examines the Rwandan genocide of 1994 through the eyes of Carl Wilkens, an Adventist missionary.
Future possibilities include a feature film by Terry Benedict based on Desmond Doss’ heroic war service, already underway. Lloyd Liles of Massachusetts, a 1991 communications/broadcast media alumnus of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., just finished packaging Through Fire, about a World
War II psychological thriller. Sigamoney is writing the script for a film about the life of Jack Blanco, a former Southern professor best known for writing The Clear Word Bible.
For all those seeking to address an audience outside the church, they will need to find widespread recognition the way other independent films do, through film festival screenings, awards and published reviews. But, while these up-and-comers learn the industry and put their own spin on a medium that is dominating Americans’ free time, the best advice might be from Sigamoney: “We need to see that failure is an allowable part of the process of success. … Once someone shows a model that works, the church is [going to be] a lot more willing to embrace it.”