(A moment “behind the scenes” on the movie project. Photo by Bess Brownlee. View more pictures from the film project here.)
It’s late afternoon and the sun sits low and orange in the sky. A breeze rustles a grove of palm trees just west of a wide and pristine beach. It’s the golden hour, in a golden place—perfect for a romantic stroll or an inspired moment of quiet introspection. Also perfect, incidentally, for making a movie.
And so on this pleasant afternoon, and quite a few others like it, the cast and crew of “The Distant Boat” invade a little slice of paradise in Malindi, Kenya, to roll cameras and tell a story. Our production team is a flurry of activity. There’s only one scene to film this afternoon, but it will require a massive effort. Time is of the essence. We are losing light.
A passerby pauses at the curious sight. A small crane lifts a camera from behind a row of small sand dunes. Some crew have just dived into the roaring surf with reckless abandon and watertight camera boxes. Two colorful Dhows—African sailboats—are criss-crossing 50 feet off the beach to adjust their position between the sun and the cameras. Radios crackle. Actors take positions. A director raises his arms and his voice above the wind.
“Turn over!” he blares.
The guys running camera and sound call back, “Speed. Speed.”
And in a moment of suspended reality, a battered clapboard fills the frame in front of the lens. “Scene 70, Setup 2, Take 1,” it reads. The clapboard marks the audio and video clips with information to help the editors, and provides an audible spike to later synchronize digital files. But it also marks a kind of boundary between the real world and this one of our own creation.
A hinged, wooden arm snaps shut with a CLAP!
The director, watching keenly through a pair of rock-star sunglasses pauses for a breathless moment, waiting for everything to line up just right—waiting for the scene in front of him to match the one he’s imagined in his mind.
“Anndd Action!” he exhales.
The story unfolds once again. Some motion or conversation or well-rehearsed look of joy or pain is recorded. The actors become the characters, and the setting there on that pristine Malindi beach becomes someplace else. It looks very much like a movie being made, but nothing like a completed film—not yet at least.
A movie begins and ends with a story, but everything in between is a blur. It is as if the written script, once whole and coherent, explodes into a million pieces: shot lists, scene setups, sketches on notebook paper, location contracts, actors to cast, action sequences to choreograph, wardrobe and props and equipment to acquire. And at any point, it’s easy to become disconnected from the whole. A film is shot out of chronological order. Each scene and camera setup captures only a tiny piece of a larger narrative, and the challenge for the crew is to never lose sight of that narrative.
A movie begins with a story, but this particular story began with a question. Some time back, our media team here in Kenya was asked to create a video that would speak to African Christians. What kind of story could we tell to stir the heart of the African church toward greater involvement in missions? What kind of story could we tell that would, in effect, lead to a new movement of African missionaries?
The question slowly led to a realization that we needed a full-length film to address such a broad and complex issue. Our team had never attempted anything on this scale, and so we entered into it with a small measure of inadequacy and a large measure of faith. God opened door after door, bringing along other organizations to partner with us, and local churches to champion the cause. God also provided the funds to start production this past September.
At a commissioning for the film project with local church leaders before we began shooting, one of the pastors stood up and expressed his support and resolve.
“There could be no better time for getting this into action,” he said, “other than this time in which we are.”
Our crew feels the same. It is truly a golden hour for the church here in Africa. They are poised to step up and become a major force for missions on the continent. And perhaps a movie, that has the potential to become a movement, is just the kind of catalyst they need. For the many millions of Africans who remain unreached: living without knowledge of Christ or bound to ancient beliefs, time is of the essence. We are losing light.
We have one more month of filming and then many months of post-production work to do. At some point all of those pieces will come together again, coalesce into a whole story, and be ready to share. It will be a story created for and about Africans, about what it means to be and send a missionary, and why it is worth the cost. Our prayer, of course, is that many of our African brothers and sisters will make it their story.