Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

The road to India. In my previous post, I reviewed Not Today, a captivating film dramatizing the plight of India’s Dalit underclass and the ongoing tragedy of human trafficking in India and around the world. I recently spoke with producer Brent Martz, aka the creative ministries pastor at Friends Church in Yorba Linda, about how the church’s efforts to build schools for Dalit children landed him and Friends congregation into the movie business.

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JWK: First off, I enjoyed the film very much. I thought it was really excellent.

BRENT MARTZ: Thank you, John.

JWK: I thought the direction was visually very interesting. A lot of faith-based films are very well-written and well-acted but the visuals tend to be very traditional, sometimes boringly so. I’ve seen very few that display such a unique visual style.

BM: We wanted to engage people on multiple levels. I hope that we accomplished our goal.

JWK: I think you did. I particularly found the way the subtitles were presented — in a very fluid, moving way — to be very fascinating. They made you actually want to read them.

BM: They were not just graphics, right? They hopefully captured the attention and captured some emotion and weren’t just white letters up on the screen.

JWK: How did this film fall into your hands?

BM: I’ve been on staff at Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California for about seven years. I’m the pastor of creative ministries. So, usually that means the Christmas programs, weekend services’ music, those kinds of things…The lead pastor Matthew Cork — who was also my roommate in college so we knew each for 25 years — he said “Why don’t you go to India with me? We’re building schools…I want you to come with me and check on our progress and see what we’re doing.”

I went to India in October of 2007 and really was unprepared for the huge, overwhelming need that there is…The poverty is just so intense. I’ve been all over the world but I really had never seen anything like India before. So, we started checking out the schools that we were building and we were shocked at the difference an education can make in the life of a child — especially for the Dalit people. Some 300 million Dalits live in India who for some 3000 years have been told that they’re worth nothing, that they have no rights, they have no value. To be able to build schools specifically for them…and to see their joy and their appreciation and their thankfulness for being able to be in school was pretty overwhelming.

JWK: Did you approach (writer/director) Jon Van Dyke and ask him to write a script?

BM: He went with us in 2008 on my second trip to India. He was on staff at the church at the time as a media director…We did a 14-minute documentary called Deletes, kind of a play on the delete button on the computer — because the Dalits have been deleted from society.  And then, as a result of that trip, he came up with the story for Not Today.  So, he pitched the story to me. It was great. We had some storyboards drawn up and I went in to pitch Matthew on the concept and before I could even open my mouth about it he said “I’ve been really praying about us making a movie. What do you think about that idea?”

JWK: It all reminds me of Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia which, under the banner Sherwood Pictures, has produced movies like Facing the Giants, Fireproof and Courageous. Like theirs, your church has basically entered into the movie-making business.

BM: We did. One thing kind of led to another and I wanted to find distribution (which) was the most important thing to me at that point. We wanted to make the movie but we wanted people to see it. And so I sent some emails and somehow got connected with Chris Bueno who is with Ocean Avenue Entertainment. Chris Bueno is really involved with Sherwood Baptist…So, we connected with him and he and his wife had been praying about doing a movie related to India. So, it was just another God thing in this journey. So, Chris and his wife Denise became producers. Then Jon and I…started the process. The church got behind us and…Jon did a phenomenal job as the director, truly just did a great job.

JWK: He’s a real talent. I was very impressed.

BM: He did a great job.

JWK: The script was very good too. It reminded of Schindler’s List in that it was about an initially self-interested person finding himself reluctantly — yet freely — drawn into a noble cause.

BM: You know, it’s interesting that you say that. Someone (I spoke with recently) at a screening in New York City mentioned Schindler’s List as well — how, in fact, there are some real parallels. Someone (also) said our character is like St. Francis of Assisi (in that) he leaves a really wealthy life to pursue the poor and the simple life. And that was in our movie as well. Interesting parallels.

JWK: What I also liked about the film was that it was that the dialogue was believable. He had fallen away from Christianity but his parents were still very religious, as was his girlfriend. So, the dialogue dealt with faith but the characters didn’t unnaturally start spouting Bible quotes. Their faith came through in a real way that didn’t seem stilted and forced. You could believe that people might actually talk that way to each other.

BM: That’s awesome. That’s how Jon wrote it how he hoped it would turn out. So, it’s great to hear that from you. In fact, we were in Chicago (for) the Peace on Earth Film Festival…and they told us that they avoided (faith-based) films because (they) could be so polarizing. But they thought our film was a film about a human-rights issue from a faith perspective. That was the biggest compliment. We don’t want our faith to be offensive — although sometimes it can be. We don’t want (the audience) to lose sight of the cause because it’s too wrapped up in stuff that doesn’t seem real.

JWK: How long did that filming process take?

BM: This has been a four-and-a-half-year journey — from 2008 when we first got the green light to today. So, it’s been a long journey. We filmed 21 days in India and about five days in Orange County. So, we did 26 days of filming…It’s been an incredible journey.

JWK: It’s amazing what an issue slavery still is today — and yet people don’t talk about it.

BM: Yeah, astoundingly so.

JWK: Why don’t you think the issue isn’t getting the attention it so obviously warrants?

BM: Well, I think because people don’t (realize) that it doesn’t just happen across the ocean. (Between 14,500 and 17,500 human beings are trafficked into the US annually – US State Department) It happens right here (too). You can hardly open a newspaper or magazine or online whatever without seeing something about human trafficking or human slavery because it is a global issue. And so, for us, we wanted to put a human face on a global issue. When you look at this little girl — Annika is her name — hopefully you will see the reality that this is happening to girls just like her. I have two daughters and that is real to me…It’s happening to girls just like them.

JWK: The father in the movie only sold his daughter because he thought he was improving her life.

BM: That’s what they think. They’ve been duped because 46% of the people know the people who traffic them. It’s an aunt, it’s an uncle or its a friend of the family. They trust these people because they’re family or good friends but what they don’t realize is that they’re doing something that will alter their child’s life forever.

JWK: Is this Friends Church’s first movie?

BM: This is our church’s first project.

JWK: Are you planning more?

BM: I think the jury is out on that. I definitely believe that we’re being able to relate to our culture in a way that we never have before and since media is the lens of our culture I would see us doing more films in the future. (But) there’s been no commitment to that as of now.

JWK: Do you personally have a background in film?

BM: I started doing film in 2006. I did a couple of short films that went to some film festivals and they won some awards which is great. That kind of whet my appetite for the whole film world. So, I hope to do more. It’s a great medium to speak as a culture.

JWK: How about Jon Van Dyke?

BM: This is his first (feature) film, as well.

JWK: The talent of both of you is obvious. The writing, the direction, the production were all very well done.

BM: Well, thank you.

JWK: How did you get John Schneider to do the film?

BM: We just threw it out to his agent. He really liked the script, he liked that role and he was fantastic to work with. So, it was really not difficult. It was pretty easy. He was so professional and a great guy. I’m thankful for the chance to get to know him. He really is a quality man and a total professional. He did just a great job in our film.

JWK: Shari Rigby was in the film as well. She worked with John Schneider in October Baby.

BM: What was interesting was both John and Shari left our film (set) to go film October Baby.  They did those films back-to-back and now (October Baby) has been out for a year.

JWK: Walid Amini who played the Indian father who sold his little Annika into slavery was also very good in the film. Can you tell me how you found him?

BM: We had a great casting agent, Beverly Holloway. She did a fantastic job for us. I don’t know if she knew Walid or knew of Walid but she got him in to read for the part of Kiran and he did a fantastic job. He actually lived in the rock quarry for a couple of days with some Dalit men and families so he’d know what it would be like…So, he took it very seriously.

JWK: Tell me about Persis Karen, the young girl who played Annika.

BM: She goes to one of the schools that we have built in India. I went over to India with a camera. I met with 15 girls and just auditioned them for Jon and then came back and he chose her to play the role. She just did a fantastic job, in incredible job.

JWK: And she’s actually a Dalit girl.

BM: Yes, she’s actually a Dalit girl.

JWK: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the film that I haven’t asked you about?

BM: Opening weekend is so important for films like ours that don’t have a hundred-million-dollar marketing budget. If you’re concerned about human trafficking and you want to do something, the phrase we’ve been using is “Your ticket in is their ticket out” because every ticket that’s bought makes a statement that human trafficking is (a major issue). All the money that’s raised — that we raise through the film — is going back build schools and to free kids in India. So, really, truly, you’re ticket in is their ticket out.

JWK: How many theaters will you be opening in?

BM: We’re gonna be in 75 theaters in the U.S. which is not huge but we’re hoping (for) a strong response from the audience. We have (theaters in) over 100 cities that have requested Not Today…so we’re hoping for word of mouth and just kind of a crazy social media thing.

JWK: I review faith-based films all the time and I do support them but I think yours is really at the top of the pile, quality-wise. It was really well done.

BM: Thank you so much, John. That means a ton as a producer to hear that.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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