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I would recommend seeing writer and director Mitch Davis’ heartfelt and moving film The Other Side of Heaven 2—Fire of Faith that opens on June 28 on 200 screens nationwide any time you can. Yet there is a reason why you should spare no effort to see it this weekend even if it means getting behind the wheel and driving a bit to make it happen.
The film is a sequel to the first and tells the story of John Groberg, his wife, Jean, and their four daughters as they head to Tonga, where, though he is still a very young father, he will serve as mission president under conditions that are staggering. In the film, which is alternately tense, then faith-filled, then funny, you see an ocean baptism, a priesthood blessing for a dying man, and a cry out to the Lord in prayer for the safety of a child that could not be more personal and pleading. You see undying loyalty between a husband and wife, and parents who go to great lengths to care for and bless their children. In other words, it is the gospel in a story. Yet, not just any story, it is a big-screen, higher budget, knock-out film with actors who know how to make you feel with them.
Mitch has been fired by the idea since he was a young missionary serving in Argentina that one of the most profound ways to share the gospel message is through narrative. As Church members, we long to share the gospel and understand it as our covenant duty to spread the message to the world. We stumble over conversations with strangers and look for the possibility to share something we think is the most important in all of eternity, let alone the world, but sometimes we miss something that is right before us.
Mitch said, “As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have the greatest stories never told. I think that’s a sin of omission for which we will all be held responsible if we don’t repent. Those are really harsh, passionate words, but that is what I really believe.”
“The universal language of the world,” he said, ‘is not English or Chinese. The lingua franca of our planet is Game of Thrones. What I am saying by that is high-production films with narrative content—is what penetrates to every place. Until and unless we engage in having our conversation in that language, we are falling far short of our foreordained missions on the earth in these last days. I know that sounds grandiose and high-faluting, but I believe it is true.
“President Spencer W. Kimball stood up in front of church leaders in 1970’s and asked how many of you here speak Mandarin. Then he said he didn’t see any reasons why the Lord should tear down the Bamboo Curtain or the Iron Curtain if we were not prepared to enter.
“In these days,” said Mitch, he would have to ask, ‘How many of you speak Game of Thrones; how many of you speak Netflix? Those are the languages of our time. It’s not English or Chinese. It is not Russian. It is narrative film content at high production dollar amounts.”
“Media distribution systems are ubiquitous, A Masai herdsman on the Serengeti can watch Game of Thrones on his cell phones. People all over the planet in third and first world countries are all beginning to evolve into sophisticated consumers of media. If we tell our stories in a low-budget, unsophisticated manner, we are not part of the conversation. We’re in the cultural hall speaking to the choir and telling ourselves we are someplace else.
“Yet,” said Mitch, “We have powerful, pointed stories to tell, and we need to be about doing that, and we need to send our stories all over the world.
He said, “We have some of the most rich, colorful, compelling, nuanced history in the world. We have some of the best stories to tell and we don’t have nearly as much to be afraid of as some might think we have. The thing we have most to be afraid of is not telling our stories and not telling our version of our stories. The world is not going to wait forever for us to tell our stories and, if they tell them, they are not going to be flattering versions.
“We’ve seen The Book of Mormon musical and Angels in America emerge. We could say, ‘There’s another version of that story I could tell you.” But we didn’t. We whine and complain about how everybody doesn’t understand us, but we need to offer an alternative. I think we’ve been cowardly.”
Mitch said it isn’t as impossible as we think to send a movie with one of our stories to the world. “We actually have more power than we realize as a people. The US theater is the acid test for filmed motion picture entertainment. If you can compete on that first weekend a film is released, then you have a passport to the world. A distributor reasons that the film did well in America, so I ought to show it in Saudi Arabia or Russia or China or Indonesia.. With 6 million Latter-day Saints in America, if only half of us went to a movie based on one of our stories, we could propel our movies all over the world.”
Mitch noted the impact that the 2004 movie called The Passion of Christ had on film making. He said it was an R-rated, hyper-violent, Catholic passion play, but there was a hunger for the content about Christ. Some Baptist ministers in the south used their church money to rent buses and bus the whole congregation to the theater for their Sunday service. The faith community spoke with a loud voice and we’ve had dozens of faithfaith-based films since. A people who are not allowed to become market are not allowed to become a voice.
He said, “We are currently a voiceless people, because we have not become a market. Our faith is not out there. If the only fact we turn toward the world is an institutional face, we’ve fallen far short of our possibilities as a people.
He said that audiences for movies about Latter-day Saints could become smaller and smaller if we only speak to ourselves in low-budget films of less compelling content.
Yet, he said, “I could also see the exact opposite occurring. If we would get behind our own ideas, if we fully embrace and promote our own ideas inside movie theaters, we could have a voice to shake the earth. We could have a market that could predictably, reliabley propel our versions of our stories across the earth in multiple distribution streams for their profit.
“I am not talking about the directors making money, but that a Muslim film distributor in Dubai can make money telling our story to a Muslim audience in theaters or on television.
“It’s right there at our finger tips,” yet we individually have to make a sound by going to these films about us the first weekend we can. For The Other Side of Heaven 2, that’s now. We go and give our vote that we want big-screen, higher budget movies about Latter-day Saints to be made and widely distributed.
The first Other Side had this wide international distribution, and Mitch hopes that this second one, squeezed in between Spider Man and The Avengers this weekend can also find its place and do its good.
President Monson Wanted This Movie
With Mitch’s bold and expansive vision, the first question I had for him was why a sequel to a movie that came out 20 years ago? He said, “President Monson wouldn’t let Elder Groberg rest, and so he would let me rest until we made it. They really trust the issue of this movie.
“Elder Groberg made it very clear to me, and I thought after President Monson passed away, he would be less insistent, but if anything he was just the opposite. We went to lunch and Elder Groberg said, “It’s time. Let’s do that.”
“But we don’t have any money,” Mitch answered.
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll get it.”
“I don’t know,” Elder Groberg said. “But you are to proceed from this day forward as if you have all the money in the bank. How much money will it take to do the job?”
Mitch mentioned a hefty figure and Elder Groberg said, “Ok, it’s taken care of.”
“How,” Mitch asked.
“I don’t know.”
“He was right,” Mitch said, and the reason why President Monson was so insistent about the movie was because he played a part in the story and knew its power firsthand. His part was played by Russell Dixon, who looked very much the part of that face that is so familiar to us.
The money did come together in very short order and in a miraculous way. While the first movie portrayed a vulnerable, young missionary sent to a remote island where storms flooded roads and damaged homes, and food supplies sometimes did not arrive on time, this film ups the game. Now it isn’t just Elder Groberg’s life and sensibilities that are at stake alone, but he has a wife and children who must cope with this world of new culture, new food, and new adventures for the very first time. As Mitch said, “The peril and jeopardy are amplified.”
Whereas it was Elder Groberg alone who faced a stormy boat ride, now there are little children who can go overboard.
In some ways, this is the story of two fathers—President Groberg and a Methodist minister who has deeply set prejudices against Latter-day Saints. It is a story of pulling apart and coming together as many religions join to fast for the Grobergs when they are in great need.
“It’s a movie,” Mitch said, “about keeping your faith in spite of life’s trials and in the face of adversity by locking arms with people of all faith traditions. The overriding message is let’s just all love together and work together and stop throwing stones at each other.”
Making the Movie
For Mitch, “This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was an excruciating journey.” Three days before he to flew to Fiji to start making the movie, he had a serious skiing accident and blew out his shoulder, leaving his shoulder socket full of bone shrapnel. The doctors wanted to do shoulder surgery right away, but that was impossible, given the schedule. Their warning, “It’s going to hurt a lot.” It did and Mitch relied on pain killer.
Then movie-making itself is fraught with stress and adversity. They say that having little children on a set makes things rough. The same is said for little animals. Mitch said, “This movie had little children in almost every scene and we were working with brand new young actors, and it had animals, things on the open ocean with children and animals and boats.”
They also had two cyclones to contend with. One had hit the week before, flooding most of the island and washing out bridges, and the other came the very day they were supposed to start principal photography. This was a category four cyclone, but they went to their set and began working anyway. The police followed them and asked, “What are you doing?” Mitch answered that they were working. With limited time and budget, there was not time to wait. They tracked the cyclone on their radio and the police stayed right there with them.
The police made the crew go home, after a few hours of work, and they hunkered down waiting for the storm.
Then Area Authority Elder Adolph Johansson, who is a full-blooded Tongan with a Swedish last name, came to give them a blessing in Tongan. When he was finished, he translated for them that he had rebuked the elements.
He also mentioned that he had known Elder Groberg when he was a young missionary and that it had been his grandfather who had given the piece of land for the church when that young missionary asked. Elder Johansson talked of his boyhood memories of Koli-poki (the name they have given Elder Groberg) with such love that Mitch said of Christopher Gorham, who plays Elder Groberg, “I saw his eyes grow wide, thinking, this man really knew my character and really revered him the way this movie portrays.”
While they waited, the storm never came. It did a U-turn, went out to sea, and blew itself out over the ocean.
“This second cyclone really galvanized our crew,” said Mitch. We went full-speed ahead into the storm, retreated to safety together, and then received a blessing together. We learned that it was going to be hard, but it was going to be possible.
“I think everybody who worked on it put their blood, sweat and tears into it.” For Mitch, “I think it is the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Though it is a very distinctive Latter-day Saint story, it speaks to more than Latter-day Saints.” They screened the movie last week at the Fuller Theological Seminary for Evangelicals, Catholics, and Methodists. Richard Mouw who is the emeritus president of Fuller said, “This movie is a feast for the eyes and the heart.”
It is a door opener, allowing people to know Latter-day Saints better. Come this weekend and see why.