Maurine supplied the text and Scot shot the photographs for this article.
Meet the Mormons opens Friday, October 10 in theaters. Check the website at Meetthemormons.com to find a theater near you where the film may be showing. Help the movie penetrate the markets by going the first weekend or first week it is shown near you.
First Meet the Mormons was going to be shown in the Legacy Theater of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, then that blossomed into becoming a theatrical release opening in 200 theaters, and then that exploded into 300 theaters and the ball is still rolling.
At some point, this may be an international release, so think what that means to the six Latter-day Saints who agreed to share their lives with a camera crew to make what they thought would be a small film. The stakes have gotten higher, and they have just shared who they are in the most up close and personal way with millions of people.
Their instructions with a film crew following them around for at least two weeks at a time? Just act natural and be yourselves. No lines to learn, no clever or humorous moments to set up. They were just followed around by a camera crew to live their normal lives.
As Barbara Niumatalolo, wife of Ken Niumatalolo, winning coach of the football team of the U.S. Naval Academy said, “I forgot they were filming. I’d look up at this big fuzzy thing that was a mike, and think ‘what’s that?’”
So what was it like to have your life become the subject of a big-screen movie? We asked all six and the host of the documentary, stand-up comedian Jenna Kim Jones to take us behind the scenes.
Jenna Kim Jones – The Host
“This movie exceeded all of my expectations,” said Jenna, who signed on early in the process. “The purpose of the movie is to say, hey, this is what a Mormon really is. The people who see the film are going to come away thinking about Mormons, ‘Oh, they are kind of like me. We all want the same things. We want to have a good family. We want to be happy. We want to get through life’s stuff.”
“I think for me,” She said, “it just shows that this belief in Jesus Christ and a belief in this gospel buoys you up. It gives you some foundation of happiness in your life whether life is good or bad. There’s a way we can make it out and through these things because of our faith.”
“The extraordinary stories that we tell in this film are about ordinary people, but, in fact, if you got to meet anybody, you’d find extraordinary things in their life as well.”
She looks forward to being able to send all of her friends to the movie because it is such an easy, inviting way for them to know us. Be in your casual clothes. Eat popcorn and then settle back and watch the big screen.
As the film opens Jenna is on the streets of Manhattan asking everybody she meets what they know about Mormons or what does Mormon mean? “We had all ranges,” she laughed. “We had people who knew pretty much nothing to people who knew so much. We saw varied opinions and reactions.
“There was one guy,” she said, “who said he wouldn’t answer any questions about Mormons until I did some pushups in Times Square.” She did.
Another person volunteered what he knew of Mormons. “I don’t think they are allowed to take pictures of themselves,” he said. Jenna answered, “I’m a Mormon and there’s the camera right there.”
Dawn Armstrong – The Missionary Mom
Early on Director Blair Treu and Producer Jeff Roberts knew that one of the stories they wanted to tell was of a missionary opening his call and the joy and tears that accompanies the send off. They had chosen several families and filmed several mission call opens in their search for the best story.
One of those families was Dawn and Craig Armstrong and their missionary son, Anthony. Jeff had left a message a couple of times on their home phone, and in her busy life, Dawn had not picked them up. Then, as if in perfect orchestration, she finally talked to the producer on Saturday and the crew was there in time to see Anthony open his mission call to South Africa Tuesday night.
In between time the Armstrongs were interviewed. “They asked us about our lives and about our pasts,” and though neither the producer nor director let on, they must have felt they had scored a big win with this family.
Dawn’s story was just so poignant, estranged from her family at 15, pregnant at 16, and devastated until she found the gospel. As if in full circle, the missionaries who taught her the gospel were in attendance the night Anthony opened his mission call to many tears and cheers.
“You couldn’t have staged these real emotions,” said Dawn. “What we showed is what happened. We worked on and off with them for 9 months, and at first our part was 45 minutes long until it was cut back to make a finished film.”
The film crew flew to South Africa as soon as Anthony had left. So they could catch the mother’s farewells at the airport in Salt Lake as well as Anthony’s arrival in South Africa, the crew took a quick flight and Anthony’s flight was an intentionally-long 36 hours.
“This meant,” said Dawn, “that I had to say goodbye to Anthony three hours before I would actually have to say goodbye to him. I also had some friends at the airport who said they would get me a pass to go to the gate so I could be with him until the moment he left. The director said, “You can’t do that. This has to be real. If you know that you have three more hours with him you won’t have the same real emotions and that’s what we need for the film.”
She said, “If I have to tell my son goodbye three hours earlier than I really would have had to if you weren’t here, this better be good. I want to see some of the ‘head cheeses’ of the Church.” Blair was willing to promise anything.
What surprised Dawn was how moved she was by her own story. “So much footage was taken, I didn’t know what to expect. It was very emotional. I wept. My little five-year-old daughter was weeping, too. She said, ‘You were alone for a very long time,’. If she can get it,” said Dawn, “I can see this will touch many lives.”
Carolina Muñoz Marin – The Fighter
The last thing you’d want is for the radiant and delicate beauty of Carolina Muñoz Marin to be punched or kicked in the ring, but that’s the sport she loves. This wife and mother of two from Costa Rica is the three times winner of the Central American Championship in kickboxing and has won second place in the International Kickboxing Federation.
“Just be yourself,” the camera crew told her as they shot footage that would surely dispel any stereotypes about what it means to be a Mormon woman.
“When you’re a fighter,” she says, “the bell rings and I get out of the ring and hug my babies.”
Her husband, Milton, is her trainer, and said, “She loves everyone.” He acknowledges that kickboxing has to be in your blood and it’s not for everyone, but for her it is a kind of family legacy with her father and grandfather both involved in boxing. “She’s not afraid to go into the ring,” he says.
For them, kickboxing is a kind of metaphor for life and living the gospel. “We never throw in the towel,” Milton says. When she is in the ring, I am in the corner and her job is to hear me and obey what I’m telling her. In the same way, in our lives, we have the best corner we could have. The Spirit is in the corner, and if we obey that voice we are going to be OK.”
Milton said, “We have learned that we never throw in the towel, and that’s the same for life. In marriage, in raising children, when you get cancer or you are alone, never throw in the towel. Just wait for another round. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.”
Carolina said, “You always have a chance to fix the mistakes you make.”
Ken Niumatalolo – The Football Coach
This Head Football Coach for the U.S. Naval Academy wasn’t available, but his wife, Barbara and daughter, Alexia took us behind the scenes of the film.
Alexia said that growing up a lot of people knew about her Dad, so they automatically said, “You must be so proud of your Dad and all of his football accomplishments. But I am proud of him as a father, and the way he treats my Mom. He really puts us first. The world sees the football side, but they don’t see the other side.”
Barbara said, “Most people can’t imagine that. He actually puts his role as father and husband ahead of that other title. It is important to him to go to church and magnify his calling, whatever that calling is. It is funny to have him go from the big football boys that is so important to the world to teaching little children in primary, but how important is that to help little children follow Jesus Christ. That has eternal implications.”
Barbara said that at first it was intimidating to have a film crew following them around, but very quickly they all became like family and they forgot the camera was there. “Really,” she said, “We had the easiest job because we didn’t need to do anything but be ourselves. They took a lot of footage and we had no idea what would be in the movie until we saw it.
“We really didn’t realize what kind of scale this movie was going to turn out to have,” said Alexia. “It has become a responsibility for us as well. We represent our family, but we represent the Church as well. We are so happy to think we could something for the Church that has done so much for us.”
She was surprised how emotional she felt when she saw her family’s story portrayed. “My brother had some tears coming down,” she said. “We thought others would have awesome stories, but it surprised us to learn that our story was remarkable, too. You don’t get to see your own life from that perspective and see the bigger picture. We have a loving family. We have the gospel. That is the emotion we felt.”
Jermaine Sullivan – The Bishop
Jermaine Sullivan’s story as a young bishop with a growing family in Atlanta will surprise viewers who are unfamiliar with a world of volunteer clergy. “It was just us, living our lives,” his wife Kembe said. “The part that is so wonderful is that we are not acting; we are just taking our kids to the park.”
Jermaine said, “With all these cameras, I get nervous. I have never done anything like this, but you get used it. By day three I’d say, “Mike me. I’m just going to take a walk over there.”
With a camera crew of about 10 people and big lights in the backyard, their neighbors said, “What’s going on at the Sullivan’s house?” Jermaine answered, “We’re not famous. We are your neighbors. I’ll bring your lawn mower back tomorrow.”
Kembe said, “It’s such a blessing being in this movie and that Heavenly Father has entrusted us to take on this role. We prayed, ‘Let’s do it well and do it the way you want us to do it.’”
Since their family was filmed, Jermaine, the bishop, has now become Jermaine, the stake president. He said that people viewing this film will certainly note the diversity in the Church and “I think diversity is good. There are so many types of families, races, and cultures in the Church. But unity is even better. In the ward where I served, the majority were African Americans and another 40% of other races. With diversity there’s a chance to bump up against each other. God’s creation is naturally diverse, but there is beauty in our being in unity with one another.”
Gail Halvorsen – The Candy Bomber
During the Berlin airlift Gail Halvorsen dropped candy to the children, and in Meet the Mormons, footage of those long-ago events is shown, because in addition to being a philanthropist, he was also a photographer. As a result, you are there with him and can see those forlorn children who were hungry, standing behind the wire fence. The story becomes all the more real.
He said he had never been very far from home when he was called to serve in Germany, so he took a camera with him, determined to capture the scenes on film. Later, National Geographic gave him a big 16 mm camera and he continued taking footage.
He hadn’t planned to become the famous candy bomber. “In fact,” he said, “I didn’t want anybody to know about it because I dropped candy attached to little parachutes without permission.”
He said, “I met these children at a barbed wire fence in Berlin. They were friendly with American soldiers because they had been told what East Berlin was like under Soviet control.” They told Gail, “You can fly in here now because it is summer, but when it is winter, it will be harder to get in here. Just don’t give up on us. Someday we will have enough to eat, but if we lose our freedom, we will never get it back. Because they didn’t have it, German children knew more about freedom than American children did.”
After talking to them for some time, Gayle turned to leave and got about five steps away and “just as clear as a bell the Holy Ghost said, ‘Go back to the fence.’” He realized that not once, not by voice inflection or body language had any of the children asked for food or anything.
“The children were so grateful to be free, they wouldn’t lower themselves to be beggars for something as extravagant as chocolate. I reached in my pocket and had just two sticks of gum. I wondered if I offered these when there were so many children, if there would be fights or bloody noses. Instead, I stuck the candy through the fence and they divided up the gum and for those who didn’t get gum, they tore up pieces of the foil wrap. Kids who received that just held it up to their noses to catch the smell of that.”
“I’ve got to do something about it,” he determined. It began with his putting in his chocolate and gum rations for the week and talking a couple of buddies in to doing the same.
That was the beginning of a story that has reverberated through the decades and changed his life. “Service is the bottom line to happiness and fulfillment”, he always says.
Bishnu Adikari – The Humanitarian
Bishnu Adikari is from Nepal, a country near the bottom of the list economically. For him the suffering and poverty of others is a call to action, and he is working (with CHOICE Humanitarian) in an entire region that includes 100,000 people in 20 villages to lift families out of extreme poverty, estimated at living at or below $1.25/per day. He is also the recently released Branch President of the Kathmandu branch.
To film Bishnu required a new level of muscular energy and stamina from the film crew. Bishnu’s work is in mountain top villages, many of them inaccessible except by foot. The crew lugged equipment up steep roads, slept in a tent and had their good will tested in an environment that was sometimes very tough. To capture some footage they had to fly by helicopter.
The Nepali’s are generally smaller people, so Bishnu laughed, “To us, they were all tall and big people with cameras. When they came into our tiny kitchen, they were hardly moving around.”
He said his family decided to take the invitation to be in the film because he hoped that someone around the world would be impressed by how his family was converted and “through our story someone else’s life will be changed.”
Now that they are featured in a movie, are they stars? He said, “We are regular, simple Church members and in the eye of the Lord, we are equal to everybody. We do not consider anything special about us. At the same time, it is a privilege to be part of this initiative.”