Heart of Africa 2: Companions will have its premiere at the LDS Film Festival on Thursday, February 25th . CLICK HERE to find out how you can attend.
On July 30, 2013, my friend (Robinlee) and I started a road trip. Our intent was to launch funding for a movie project. That trip would ultimately reach across continents and affect an entire nation: the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
First steps rarely announce their importance. It is only after the journey that we recognize when and where the path began and how other paths converged to create something magnificent.
Robinlee and I traveled across Utah, Colorado, California, and finally made it to Texas, where I was honored to participate in the launch of the Arlington, Texas Genesis Group (meetings designed to strengthen the faith and testimonies of Black Latter-day Saints). For fifteen years, I had worked with Darius Gray—president of the Genesis Group (Utah) from 1997-2003—to tell the stories of Black Latter-day Saint pioneers. The Genesis Group was a part of my family’s life.
After the inaugural meeting in Texas, Bishop Cris Baird gave me a gift—a copy of J. Kirk Richard’s “Blind Man Given Sight” depicting the Savior’s healing of the blind man from the man’s perspective. I gratefully placed it in my suitcase and planned exactly where it would go in my home.
The next stop for Robinlee and me was Indiana, where my youngest son had gone to stay with my oldest daughter. This son was fighting addiction. We had all decided that he needed to be removed from his “triggers” in order to be healed. He was eager to participate fully in his own recovery. It was his journey.
My son and I had a heart-to-heart talk shortly after I arrived. He told me that he felt “haunted” by his sins. My mind went to the gift Bishop Baird had given me—that painting by Kirk Richards, who had grown up one street over from my childhood home. The painting showed a man in process of learning and re-learning to see. The first healing was only partial. The blind man saw “men as trees” (Mark 8:24). The process had to be repeated: divine spittle to remind the eyes of what they were intended to do, and how their gifts could be magnified and perfected.
I described the painting to my son and then got it from my suitcase. I said, “I love it. I have a place for it at home. But if you want me to leave it with you, I will.”
He looked at it for a long moment. “I want it,” he said.
I gave it to him and returned home a few days later with Robinlee.
Three weeks after my return, I answered a knock at my door. There stood J. Kirk Richards, the artist, with a large, framed print of “Blind Man Given Sight.” It was a gift from Kirk and Bishop Baird. It became the focal point of our dining room—which we had created as we repurposed our son’s bedroom. This photo shows the transformation of the dark bedroom into a bright dining room.
My husband and I had served for two years in the Missionary Training Center in a French-speaking branch. I had begun writing to all of our missionaries who were headed to the Congo. Though we were released from the MTC in 2009, I was still writing to them or to their companions, including Aimé Mbuyi, a Congolese companion to one of our elders. Aimé had been in a revolutionary group before joining the Church. I found his story compelling and thought it’d make an excellent film. Though I had made two documentaries with Darius Gray, I had never attempted a feature film, and I was woefully ignorant. Nonetheless, I felt strongly that we should make the movie and, as I’m prone to do, dived into the project with no sense of how much help I would need and where that help would come from.
I wrote a few drafts of the screenplay, based on the many letters I had received from our missionaries, and also wrote grant proposals—some of which came through.
In August of 2014, I went to the Congo with filmmaker and actor Danor Gerald, who would participate in location scouting. Aimé was engaged to be married, and Danor and I arrived in time to participate in the various marriage ceremonies, including the sealing in the Ghana Temple.
When I returned to the Congo in 2016, Aimé introduced me to Congolese filmmaker Tshoper Kabambi, who was attempting to restore the cinema industry in that country. It had been dead for thirty years. Tshoper had already won awards for short films in European festivals, but had not yet made a feature. In 2017, we asked Tshoper to direct our film, titled Heart of Africa.
As we prepared to actually fulfill the dream I had in 2013, I learned how to empower without encroaching, how to catalyze without commandeering. I had not recognized that the film as I had initially scripted it was almost entirely from the American missionary’s perspective. That needed to change.
Darius Gray and I knew how easy it can be to accommodate unrecognized racism in our worldviews. We had had a book signing years before attended by only one person, an emeritus general authority who had once presided in Africa. He was near death with cancer when we met him, but managed to leave his sick bed to be at the signing. We were frankly grateful that nobody else showed up since that allowed us to have a long, personal conversation. He told us he was concerned by some of what he had seen among white missionaries in Africa. He felt that some didn’t whole-heartedly recognize that all of God’s children are of equal and infinite worth. He had witnessed condescending attitudes and casual dismissals of cultural values. He had a black grandson, and wanted to believe that his grandson would not confront the kinds of attitudes he had witnessed in Africa.
I don’t know that we provided much comfort, but this man inspired us. As I began working with Tshoper on making the film truly Congolese—not an American version of the Congo, not something which would dismiss Congolese realities in favor of a western story—my main job was to honor his talents and to abandon my own agendas. I had to trust him completely.
I flew to the Congo at the beginning of the shoot (2018) with a suitcase full of lighting equipment. My brother had gone one week earlier with state-of-the-art cameras. The American actors who would participate took computers with them.
I did not witness the filming. I understood that this project did not belong to me as much as it belonged to Tshoper and his team. My last words to him before filming began were, “See you in a month. Make a good movie.”
We edited the film in Utah (Tshoper taking the lead) and sculpted ninety minutes from nearly four hours of film. Ultimately, we focused on the African missionary’s story and edited out much of the American’s. The final cut was mostly in French and Lingala, with only a bit of English. It was considered a foreign film.
What subsequently happened in the Congo went far beyond anything Robinlee and I could have imagined as we left my driveway in 2013. That little trip across the United States had indeed sent ripples to the DR-Congo.
As the African team prepared for the premiere in February 2020, publicity went into schools. Banners with the announcement of a Congolese film waved above the roads of Kinshasa. The film was referred to as a “cultural revolution” by newspapers there because it signaled the return of movies and cinema.
The premiere in the USA was held on March 11th at Utah’s Megaplex theater (Jordan Commons). Aimé Mbuyi tried to get a visa to attend the premiere, but was denied. He wrote to me on February 5, 2020 that he was disappointed, but that “maybe this is not the right time for me to visit the USA.”
Tshoper, however, was able to get to the States. Aimé filmed a message to be shown at the premiere.
For five days, we had a great run. In fact, we were the top foreign film of the week. On March 18th, however, this notice went out from the Megaplex theaters: With an abundance of caution and in the best interest of our guests and team members, we are temporarily suspending regular business operations of all Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres locations effective immediately.
Theaters were closed. As were airports. Tshoper was stuck with us for the next four months.
And that’s when Heart of Africa 2: Companions began.
We had several hours of unused film which told the American missionary’s story. Tshoper began editing at our home and finished after he returned to Kinshasa.
As I had scripted the American’s story, I had been living through my son’s alcoholism. I had learned that my father’s father had also been an alcoholic and that my dad blamed alcohol for my Grandpa’s early death. I had not known that until 2014. The arc of the American’s story includes alcoholism because of what I was experiencing as I wrote the scenes.
While I was in Indiana with my son in 2013, he told me about being invited to a “21” party, where alcoholic drinks would be readily available. He had declined, stating that he didn’t drink. The response was, “Why? You don’t drink because you’re a Mormon, right?” My son replied, “I don’t drink because I’m an alcoholic.”
That line made it into the film, spoken decisively by American actor Brandon Ray Olive. (Brandon and the actor who portrayed the African missionary, Moyindo Mpongo, became dear friends as they filmed. They continue their friendship now.)
The greater story of this film and its precursor, though, has nothing to do with alcoholism or even with revolutionary groups. It has to do with vision, with seeing WHOLE.
To see “whole” goes beyond recognizing the humanity of those around us—who are not walking trees but divinely created men and women. It urges us to see God in every face and to begin sensing the endless rays of each individual’s glory. Art has an ability to reach people—to urge their sight into wholeness—in ways that sermons and lectures do not. Kirk Richards’ painting offered healing to my son. Art can lead us all to remember or re-imagine our identities and others’. A good film can inspire and even transform its audience members.
We who worked on these films acknowledge that our vision has been blessed. We have some sense of who Tshoper Kabambi truly is. We see a portion of his magnificence. We recognize that God has given him a great mission, which we are privileged to witness. It was especially gratifying when he attended a Genesis Group meeting in Salt Lake City and met my co-author, Darius Gray. That meeting seemed to signal a full circle from the day Robinlee and I started our road trip.
I first saw Aimé Mbuyi in the flesh in August 2014, when he picked Danor and me up from the Kinshasa airport. The next day, I saw him in an elegant suit as he prepared to marry his Steffy. Later, I saw him in his temple robes in Ghana. On April 14, 2019, I saw him at the dedication of the Kinshasa Temple—where he is the facilities manager. In March 2020, I saw his image broadcast in the Megaplex theater as he introduced the film Heart of Africa. I heard his now familiar voice explaining the goals of the revolutionary group he had participated in and testifying that as he developed his faith, his “hatred for the white people turned to unconditional, brotherly love.”
In preparation for the USA premiere of the film, Aimé put these words on his Facebook timeline:
Recently I chatted with one of my former missionary companions, the one who was the most stranger to me, the one who had everything different compared to me: color, culture, background, family-life style, vision, etc., the one I struggled to understand and comprehend but the one I came to love so much, the one who influenced me the most, the one who since then has remained my beloved brother, for whom my heart is more than ever before filled with love. Daniel C. Kesler. I personally dedicate this film to him. He was this missionary with pure heart who could go anywhere in the deepest of Africa to serve the Lord’s children. Daniel was not limited. I was indeed his first black (African) companion and it was not easy to work with me. Our differences first were a barrier between us. We did not build a bridge to overcome them but we neutralized them; they did not exist anymore until today. The message in Heart of Africa is powerful and shows exactly how the Gospel of Jesus Christ can help individuals to love each other without conditions whatever our apparent differences.
Heart of Africa 2: Companions will have its premiere at the LDS Film Festival on Thursday, February 25th, and will start its theatrical run later. A separate conversation about race and the Church between Margaret Young, Darius Gray, and Mel and Carey Hamilton will be available (free of charge) when Companions is released.
Meanwhile, the American part of the team prepares for a September return to Kinshasa, where we will support our African brothers and sisters as they tell their stories.