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How Tell the World, the Biggest Adventist Movie Ever, Got Made

Tell the World, the largest media production in the history of the church, has just been released to coincide with the October 22 anniversary of the Great Disappointment. Filmed in a pioneer village with a cast of nearly a hundred professional actors, the movie tells the story of the beginnings of the Adventist church. Chester Stanley, former president of the Australian Union Conference, talks about why he wanted to make the film and how it all started.

Question: Tell the World, a major film about the beginnings of our church, has been released. How can people around the world watch it?

Answer: The General Conference officially released Tell the World on Sabbath, October 22,  The film is available as a digital download in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish — and the good news is that it is free! 

The version that initially is being offered is comprised of six episodes, but it will also be available as a regular movie.  We have also developed 23 minis – these are short clips that cover specific topics/events/characters as presented in the film.  The minis will be great for pastors and teachers.  For example, all the material that was shot regarding the Sabbath will be together in one mini. To create the minis we, have pulled together footage from the film, footage that was not used in the final edit, and in some cases, we filmed new material.  

To assist the deaf and hard-of-hearing, we have incorporated closed captioning.

The film will also be available on DVD in the North American Division and the South Pacific Division. The General Conference is committed to making Tell the World available everywhere. The official Tell the World website is telltheworld.adventist.org.  The film is up on YouTube and again is available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English. 

The film was a long-held dream of yours, I understand. As president of the Australian Union Conference, you were able to sponsor its filming and production. Where did the idea first come from?

It was an idea that I had been mulling over for a year or two, but I can’t remember any Damascus-road experience — just a growing conviction that it would be a great thing to tell our story via the medium of cinematic historical drama and to make it available to the world church.  I started to bounce the idea off people at every level of the church, and all agreed that it should be done.  So there was a lot of enthusiasm.  

I remember sharing the idea with Mark Finley, and he really encouraged us to go ahead although he did remind me of the pitfalls of movie-making and advised me to remember that film making is not for the fainthearted!  That warning has hung around in my head for the last few years and helped us to make sure that we did everything as carefully as we could. You only get one go at these things.

What made you want to tell this story?

The issue of the church and our identity is a matter that I have often reflected on.  As it ages, any organization needs to be very careful that it does not forget its reason for being. That is so true for our church. We must not forget who we are as a people and also what we have been called to do.  It is a matter of huge importance for just about everything flows out of the issue of identity. If we lose our sense of identity, that is the beginning of the end. Prior to the development of the film, the Australian Union Conference had chosen this issue as a preeminent areas of focus in our strategic planning.  I think that helped drive my thinking to do something quite special to address this vital issue.

Also I have a love for early Adventist history and simply felt that it was a great story that would make for powerful drama. You think of the drama, the pathos, and the conflict in the story of the beginnings of our church.  Here are a bunch of people who are predicting the end of the world — and on a specific day — and then it doesn’t happen! I mean, that is a pretty good start for a great story!

We were fortunate to have an executive committee that was willing to be brave, and we also had a chief financial officer, Kingsley Wood, who believed in the vision – really good quality movies do not come cheap.  The South Pacific Division and the General Conference were very generous with financial assistance, and so once the finances were in place, we were up and running.

The film is a collaboration between a number of entities, including the Australian Union Conference, the Hope Channel, and the General Conference. Does the General Conference now hold the rights to the film? Do you believe the General Conference is best placed to control the film and its distribution?

Yes, the project was an initiative of the Australian Union Conference. We underwrote the film. established a committee to steer the development of the film, and also set up a small group of advisers to ensure the film was historically accurate — to me this was really important.  For this task, we chose three of the church’s eminent church historians: Dr Allan Lindsay, Dr George Knight, and Elder Jim Nix. We also asked for these men to meet with the screenplay writer to give direction as to what significant events, personalities, and incidents should be incorporated in the film. They read carefully through the screenplay, and because Allan Lindsay resides here in Australia, he spent a huge amount of time working with the director and the writer.

The South Pacific Division Media Centre was the production house for the film.  We all agreed that we wanted the film to be done with absolute excellence. The media centre has lots of talented people, and the place has a fine reputation. We worked very closely with Neale Scofield, then CEO, Kalvin Dever who is now the CEO, and Kyle Portbury who was chosen to direct the film. They did a great job for us, and we worked together well as a team.  As you can imagine, there were many, many meetings of the team, thousands of hours of phone calls, innumerable e-mails, and myriads of decisions that had to be made.  It really was a huge production, and all those involved made massive contributions in terms of time, energy, and expertise. 

The General Conference made an initial financial contribution to the project. Then the day before the General Conference Session in San Antonio in 2015, a large group of General Conference leaders, including President Ted Wilson, had the opportunity to watch the film. They were deeply impressed. After the session, Elder Wilson e-mailed me and expressed appreciation for Tell the World. He said that the General Conference was very keen for Tell the World to be made available to the worldwide church as they believed in the film and its important message. He proposed that the General Conference secure the rights to distribute the film and offered additional financial assistance to secure those rights.  The Australian Union Conference agreed to grant the rights, and then I had the job of drafting a Tell the World memorandum of understanding between the GC and the AUC so that we all would remain friends!

So yes, the General Conference has the rights to distribute the film, but the film remains the intellectual property of the Australian Union Conference. And yes, I do believe the GC is well placed to distribute Tell the World.  The development of the Tell the World project at the world headquarters is cared for by two capable leaders of the Communication Department: the director Williams Costa and associate director Samuel Neves.  The General Conference sees this as a missionary/evangelistic project that will nurture the church and provide it with a fantastic evangelistic resource.  I must commend the General Conference for having a big vision for Tell the World.   

How many languages is the film being dubbed into?

The General Conference has already dubbed the film into Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and, along with English, these comprise the four major language groups of the world church.  Apart from that, the GC has plans over the next three years to subtitle the film into an additional 30 languages.  So Tell the World has become a huge international project. 

Prior to the film’s release, I received e-mails from church members in many parts of the world, asking if I could send them the screenplay so that they could translate the film into their language and so hasten the process of dubbing and subtitling.  It has been quite amazing how the news of the film has gone out around the world and to hear how keen members are to watch it and share it.

How do you envision the best way of watching the film? Do you advise churches to organize screenings, show the film in sections, followed by discussions, something like that?

I wanted Tell the World to be a film that would not only nurture and inspire church members young and old but that it would also be a powerful evangelistic tool, and, praise the Lord, I believe the film achieves both those goals. Actually, one day at the General Conference Session in San Antonio some of us from the Australian Union Conference and our media centre were invited to meet with a group of General Conference leaders to think about ways we could utilize Tell the World — we came up with a long list!

I think first you need to simply watch the film with your family but be sure to have some tissues available — you will need them!  

People will watch a movie when they might not come to a Bible study. Here in Australia some churches have plans to hire a cinema for a night and then invite friends to come and watch the film with the churchmembers.  It is a perfect way to introduce someone to the Adventist church. And as people watch the film they are subtly but surely introduced to Adventist teachings such as the Sabbath, the Second Coming of Christ, the ministry of Christ in the Heavenly Sanctuary, the importance of scripture, the pre-eminence of Christ, and the love of God. 

Some churches are organizing screenings, some pastors are using the six episodes to run a series of sermons on the beginnings of the Great Advent Movement.

Consideration is being given to developing a number of collateral materials that will help viewers to be able to dig a little deeper, both in terms of our teachings and also our history. Here in Australia members are simply giving it to friends and former members. 

Tell the World is already being incorporated into Bible curriculums for our schools here and in North America.  I pray, if not beg, that our youth leaders will make sure that all our young people get to see the film. Also it has been proposed that every new Adventist believer around the world be given a copy of Tell the World at the time of their baptism — a great idea!  The sky is really the limit in how the film can be used.

I should add that many are thrilled with the wonderfully positive pre-release articles and statements that are being made about Hacksaw Ridge, the movie that tells the story of Desmond Doss.  There is a growing conviction that tens of thousands of Adventists around the world are going to be asked about their faith by neighbours and work colleagues who have seen Hacksaw Ridge.  What a wonderful opportunity to simply offer a DVD of Tell the World – a movie that tells the story of the beginnings of Desmond Doss’ church.

So you are already sending out DVDs of the film? How many DVDs have been produced?

Given that the film was produced in Australia and many here have been anxious to see it, we requested that the General Conference allow the South Pacific Division to have a limited earlier release of the film on DVD. That has happened, and the sales are amazing.  We produced 40,000 DVDs, and the majority have already been sold even though we have not yet heard from our biggest union, Papua New Guinea, with nearly a quarter of a million members!  We are not attempting to make money on the film and are selling the DVDs for $5 to simply cover costs. This has meant that many are buying multiple copies of the DVD — 10, 30, and even 50 —  so that they can give them to friends, neighbors, and former members.   

How much did the film cost to make? How was it paid for?

The film cost close to six-million dollars Australian. 

It was a significant investment, but when you remember that the film will be seen by millions of people all over the world, resulting in many of our members having their faith strengthened and large numbers of people making decisions for truth, I think it is money well spent.  Apart from underwriting the project, the Australian Union Conference contributed around a million dollars. The General Conference and the South Pacific Division were also major contributors, and the New Zealand Pacific Union and the South American Division generously contributed.

I believe that the production team and the director, Kyle Portbury, disagreed about some aspects of the film. What were the disagreements and how were they resolved?

Kyle and I have always been good friends, and we worked well together in the development of Tell the World.  He was out here in Australia recently, and we talked on the phone at some length.  I think that Kyle did an outstanding job directing Tell the World.  He always expressed appreciation that we put our trust in him to be the director of Tell the World as this was his first assignment as a director of a historical drama.  I also know the actors really appreciated him and found him great to work with.

In terms of the editing of the film, after some time, we eventually came up with two cuts. It was decided that the five executive producers would make the call on which cut should be the final cut. We chose the cut that is now being used for the official release of Tell the World.  Kyle felt that the other cut was preferable, but he respected the fact that the producers have the final say. The reality is that both cuts are great, and in the big picture, the differences between the two cuts were minor – after all, both cuts use the same footage. The major difference is that the official cut is longer than the other cut, which uses a different method of pulling the story together.

How involved were you and the Australian Union Conference with the actual filming which was done in an operating pioneer village in Ottawa, Canada? Did you help to choose the cast? Did you supervise the script?

No, we were not involved in the actual filming — we left that to the professionals. As executive producers, we did visit the shoot for a few days, and I went back for a special winter shoot to get some interviews with the leading actors.  

No, we were not involved in the selection of actors for specific roles. That was done by Kyle, and along with Kyle's wisdom, I think the Lord led in this matter. All of the leading actors seem to me to be perfect for their roles.

Interestingly, the screen writer was a Jewish woman, and I was amazed by how quickly she got the feel of the story.  She read a lot, had a good research assistant, met with the historical advisers, and dialogued at length with Kyle.  

Yes, as executive producers, we were certainly involved in going through the various editions of the screenplay.  Our wonderful producer Neil Allan did an amazing job in making sure that our deadlines were strictly adhered to.  We had deadline after deadline in terms of the development of the script —  in fact, the whole of the production process was very professionally done, and consequently, we were able to screen the film at the time of the General Conference Session, which had always been our deadline for the completion of Tell the World.

The pioneer village was a real godsend.  We were originally going to shoot the film in Ireland, but that fell through, and then we found a village an hour’s drive south of Ottawa. It was perfect.  All the buildings in the village were original, authentic mid-eighteenth century and every type of building that we needed was there: a working farm, shops, school, churches, houses and even working flour, woollen, and timber mills. A few scenes in the film were shot in these mills.  Finding this place was a huge answer to prayer. I believe we would not have been able to make the film if we had not found this village.  It would have been much too expensive for us to transport a crew of 140 and the 95 actors and hundreds of extras from location to location. 

When you were developing the film did you have any big ideas or themes that you wanted to get across to viewers?

Yes, we did.  When casting, we had the choice of choosing older actors and trying to make them look younger where needed, or younger actors and ageing them as needed.  We chose to use younger actors. We wanted our young people watching the film to see just how youthful those early leaders were! Hopefully, this will challenge them to realize that God can use them in a mighty way today.  Ellen was 17 when she had her first vision, and James was amazingly young when he was elected to be the president of the church. I think that is a hugely important message for our youth today.

Another big theme that we wanted to stress was that these were a group of people who had a deep and abiding love for scripture and wrestled earnestly with the Bible in order to discover truth. We wanted people to see that our Adventist pioneers were passionate Bible students and believers. These were people who loved Christ and were committed to following him.

Also we wanted all to see the absolutely sacrificial commitment our early pioneers had to the cause of the Great Advent Movement. We need to be reminded of this sort of dedication to the cause. 

And finally and obviously, we want viewers to see the providential leading of the Lord in the life of the young church.  We want people to be able to say: “the Lord was in this thing; this is not of man’s doing.”

What has been the reaction to the film so far?

At the General Conference Session last year, we had a booth associated with the Hope Channel, and thousands were thrilled by the clips and trailer that they saw. It has been exciting to hear reports coming back from members all over Australia – young and old – who have been reminded and touched by the power of the film’s message. Many young people, who had no idea about our heritage, have expressed their deep appreciation for the film and how it has inspired them. Again and again, people tell me that they have been moved to tears as they have watched the film.  I think that one of the major reasons the film has been so well received by so many is that it is telling our story — your story and my story. This is about us and our community of faith. 

Excuse me for boasting just a little, but leaders and media professionals have also been deeply impressed by the film.  For example, Dale Galusha, President of Pacific Press, saw the film while on assignment here in Australia and, upon returning home, wrote to to say: “Truly this film is going to have a positive impact both on members and the public.  It is undoubtedly the most important media contribution to the church this millennium.”  Likewise, Samuel Neves, General Conference associate communication director, said: “The power of this film is unprecedented. I don’t think that we have ever witnessed a project with such power and potential.”

How long have you been working on the film? Now that Tell the World has been made and is being distributed, do you have another project you are working on? Are you retired now?

I believe it has been seven years since we started to first share the idea and take some initial actions at the Australian Union Conference Executive Committee.  Since my retirement as president of the Australian Union Conference late last year, I have been coordinating the Tell the World project. When that is finished, the only projects that I am aware of are a long list of house projects that my wife has been compiling over the last few years!  

Interestingly, the question about Tell the World that I am asked more than any other is: “When are you going to tell the second half of the story?”  The film ends with J. N Andrews going out as our first foreign missionary in 1863. So there is some great material that would make for interesting viewing from 1863 on.

Top photo: Chester Stanley is pictured on set in Canada with actors Teri Rata Loretto and Guy Buller, playing Otis and Mary Nichols.

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