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Present Truth in Visual Arts – A Review of the Conference

It was just a few days ago that Adventist Forum|Spectrum gathered some of the best filmmakers in Adventism for an open debate on present truth in visual media. Guests included:

  • Ryan Bell, senior pastor of the Hollywood Adventist Church;
  • Ray Dabrowski, former communications director for the General Conference;
  • Martin Doblmeier, producer of The Adventists;
  • Ganim Hanna, president of Loma Linda Broadcasting Network;
  • Paul Kim, filmmaker and producer at the Adventist Media Center in Simi Valley;
  • Beatriz Mejia-Krumbein, professor of art at La Sierra University,
  • and Stacia Wright, producer of the SONscreen film festival,

among other directors and filmmakers. Attendees also included active Adventist Forum chapter members and media producers from as far as London, England.

Through the various presentations and films watched some themes and principles emerged as vital in Adventist productions. The first and perhaps most important is that the essence of film making is telling stories. Most attendees would have agreed that the Bible is a collection of true stories where God is fully present in the lives of its characters, to the point that God becomes one of them. However, if God continues to be part of human lives in the present, these true stories also have to be told. That being the case, God is calling artists from across the globe to tell these ‘present truth’ stories through the visual arts.

In practical terms, Martin Doblmeier went as far as stating that the storyteller (filmmaker) needs to become the story. This involves total immersion and often means spending considerable time in the midst of the story. The films shown in this conference were vivid examples of this as Kevin Ekvall, Brian Bazemore, and Melody George spent over 15 months in their respective local churches to become part of the congregation’s story and present it in documentary form.

There are other principles to follow in identifying stories before starting production. For example, the stories have to be authentic. As viewers are bombarded with other media, they attach great value to the time they spend watching anything. This means the stories need to be worth telling. They need to be so powerful that the medium itself is humbled, be it film, paper or canvas. A good principle is to attempt to bring life and sound to the voiceless. In other words, identifying amazing tales that would otherwise not be told.

Additionally, the artist should not be moved by profit or personal glory, but because they cannot rest until they make that story known. La Sierra University art professor Beatriz put it another way: ‘I don’t want to bring candy to the feast table and so when I paint, I don’t do it for money, but simply because I have to.’

The typical scenario for the production of a documentary, drama or general reporting is a producer identifying the stories that ‘have to be told’. In many cases the producer will also be the director and editor. However, sometimes the producer will secure the resources for that production and then find the right director who will engage the actual filming. Either of these scenarios would then involve the director spending considerable time immersed in the story.

Martin Doblmeier added that a documentary director ‘should not enter the story trying to present things exactly as they wish. Expect mystery. Expect surprise. If you open yourself to the story and continue investigating, the viewer will stay with you. Don’t convince; change.’ Others added that ‘people are hungry for stories that inspire them’, so a filmmaker should be open to being the first to be changed, and thus inspired.

Over the course of filming a typical documentary film, anything from 10-100 hours of footage will be gathered. All this material will be analyzed and once the ‘present truth’ element has been defined, the chopping begins. The end result should be a powerful visual presentation that captures the essence of the stories included in it. However, pastor Ryan Bell argued convincingly that depictions of reality that are as sentimentally fictional as a Thomas Kinkade scenery painting fall short of presenting ‘present truth’. Beyond this, true art needs to bring an ‘apocalyptic’ revelation of the whole gospel – the good, the bad and the ugly. This principle could arguably redefine the triumphant presentations that Adventist productions have become.

Another serious challenge identified by the ‘View from Inside the Institutional Church’ panel, formed by Paul Kim, Stacia Wright, Ganim Hanna, and Ray Dabrowski, is that most of the organization’s media resources are being spent on distribution rather than content. This means something like we’re spending over 90% of our investment in technology and less than 10% in the actual content being distributed. Some estimates point to even less (2%) being invested in content development in some parts of the church. If the message is the most important element of Adventism, the production balance sheets certainly don’t demonstrate it.

However, every panelist throughout the event agreed that the new emerging generation of filmmakers and artists promises to reshape the art of storytelling within the next few years. Following this vision, the North American Division established the annual SONscreen Film Festival, which fosters independent Adventist film productions.

The films screened last weekend are a testimony to the potential of Adventist visual arts. The three part series entitled ‘Stained Glass‘ told the story of three very different churches and their journey for two years. Paul Kim was the producer of the series, which had the purpose of encouraging dialog among church leadership about best practices in urban and suburban churches. This was followed by the moving story of Professor Beatriz Mejia-Krumbein entitled Where I lost my innocence. This incredible artist was born in Colombia and now teaches art at La Sierra University. As she answered questions about how her journey progressed and shaped her, attendees were moved by some of her paintings that were scattered around the hotel. Pastor Jared Wright commented on one of her works depicting a poor family, entitled ‘Who are they?’ saying, ‘This painting has pronounced a prayer that I have never been able to put into words.’ He later bought the painting through the silent auction benefiting Spectrum and the Adventist Forum.

The late screening Saturday night presented Tim Wolfer’s documentary, Adopting Haiti, shot on location, right after the earthquake, in which he follows a group of Haitian children who were evacuated to the United States of America in the aftermath of the earthquake. Tim is a senior at the excellent film program at Pacific Union College. The film itself raises some serious questions about international adoption and has already been picked up for distribution.

The last day of the event featured short clips from present and future productions. These included, Seventh-Gay Adventists, a documentary of gay and lesbian Adventists telling their personal stories and the story behind the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC), a group of young Adventist who turned to fundamentalism for their sense of identity. Most people present were profoundly moved by these videos, especially the untold story of gays and lesbians who found themselves in a spiritual desert after being rejected by their faith community.

Although the conference provided an unparalleled forum for open discussion on film and visual media, not much time was dedicated to exploring ‘present truth.’ This is quite understandable. After all, if you gather ten Adventist scholars you will get fifteen definitions of what present truth is! However, if present truth is understood to be both true and present, filmmaking can contribute profoundly. There are hundreds, even thousands of stories that have to be told. Voices that have to be heard. Miracles that have to be seen. Everyday heroes that have to be featured and an all powerful God who has to be known.

Will God raise an army of Adventist story tellers? Filmmakers who are relentless in their art; painters who will brush glimpses of hope; animators who will inspire the world and church members who will support them unreservedly? This event may have been the beginning of a revolutionary discussion. However, it asked more questions than it was able to answer and the discussion has to continue – and it will.


Pastor Sam Neves is Media Coordinator of the South England Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

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