Art, Truth and Fiction
I recently had the opportunity to run some questions by Jim Hanon, director of the feature film End of the Spear, due out from Every Tribe Entertainment on January 20. The movie tells the story of a tribe of Waodani, an indigenous people group of Ecuador’s remote Amazon rain forest. It also tells the story of the missionaries who came in contact with them and were murdered by them—and whose family members later befriended them and lived with them. It’s a remarkable and powerful story of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Two years ago, Bearing Fruit Communications released the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor, also directed by Hanon, which tells the same story in a different fashion and for a different audience. Where Gates sometimes feels designed primarily as a cathartic experience for the families of the slain missionaries and the surviving Wao tribe members who participated in the killings, End of the Spear is a fictionalized, streamlined narrative that should play well to audiences previously unfamiliar with the story.
My email conversation with Hanon was so remarkable that, rather than craft an essay around a handful of choice quotes, I’ve elected to run the full text of the interview. Enjoy!
First, congratulations on a fairly stunning feature film debut. End of the Spear is a remarkable accomplishment, especially considering the budgetary constraints and location conditions under which you were no doubt working.
Publicity materials position Beyond the Gates of Splendor as "A True Story" and End of the Spear as "Based on a True Story." Now, I’d seen the documentary prior to seeing End of the Spear, and I must confess that I wasn't able to detect much in the way of artistic license. Which aspects of the film's storyline were fictionalized?
JH: The largest difference is in the character of Mincayani, who in reality wasn’t present for many of the events in which the audience sees him. We needed the story to be about his journey, his and that of the young Steve Saint. The question we explored in the film was how Mincayani could kill Steve’s dad, and yet the two of them end up being in a family relationship. This is the question that drew me to the story.
Mincayani’s character is a composite of many of the Waodani, and many events were combined so the journey could fit within a time frame that the audience could follow. We also needed to save Mincayani’s recognition of God’s grace to be the climax of the last act. In reality he chose to follow God relatively soon after Dayumae brought Rachel and Betty into the tribe.
The final scene takes full dramatic license. In reality, Steve Saint told us he never once felt the Waodani needed his forgiveness. Well, so much of the story is hard to believe, that one was way off the charts. We knew forgiveness had to be dramatized for the audience to feel the truth of it, so our scene involves Mincayani and Steve confronting these emotions.
Art illuminates the emotional reality of truth in a way that the facts never can, and film is a visual medium. In reality Nate Saint never carried a picture of his son Steve in his airplane. I put the photo in the plane so Steve would have a presence at the attack, and Mincayani could pull his picture out of the plane after Nate was speared, and the audience would know the story’s question was about Mincayani and Steve.
For the same reason we had Steve call his dad on the radio after the attack, which according to the facts did not happen. But like I said, the facts always fall short of the real picture, and though Nate didn’t carry his son’s photo in the plane, he did carry it in his heart. Steve never called his dad at the attack, but his heart called out to him many times since.
The production design and soundtrack for this film are simply brilliant. You said that “art illuminates the emotional reality of truth in a way that the facts never can.” How did that view of art play into your design for this film?
JH: Art has historically been a means of elevating the soul to God. In and of itself, it has the capacity to communicate beyond the rigors of logic. So in my theology, if a film is called “Christian” then that should also mean it is remarkably artful in every category and dimension. Art reaches out to the viewer; art respects the viewer without compromising itself, and art leaves the viewer better for having encountered it.
The aerial shots are particularly beautiful. Some, even the landing strip on the sandbar, look incredibly similar to the documentary footage in Gates. Were any of these filmed on location in Ecuador, or were you able to scout locations in Panama that served as near-doubles?
JH: Everything was able to be shot in Panama, but I’m very glad that you noticed the authenticity. Steve Saint was actually our stunt pilot, and he landed on a river sandbar in the film that was shorter than what his father landed on in the Amazon. East of the Panama Canal, an incredible expanse of jungle stretches into the Darian rainforest all the way down to Colombia. The only problem was getting clearance for small aircraft in some areas where the drug traffic was heavily watched.
According to publicity materials, the Wao needed to be persuaded to cooperate in the production of Gates. Was that true also for the feature film?
JH: To the Waodani, there wasn’t a documentary and then a movie; there was one group of foreigners standing before them asking if they could tell their story. Either they trusted us, and believed the project was worth while, or they didn’t. And they first said no. Only after they heard about the school shootings at Columbine did they grant permission. They told us they used to live that way, too, and if telling their story to the “northern tribes” would help us live better, then they saw it well that we tell their story.
The Waodani had the most violent society on earth with six out of ten dying at the spears of other Waodani. This meeting made the telling of their story a privileged responsibility that would cover both films.
Have any of the Waodani seen the finished film? And if so, what was their reaction to seeing a fictionalization of their story?
JH: The premiere for the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor was held in a Waodani village deep in the Amazon basin where we used generator power to project the film and sound in a make-shift jungle amphitheater. They watched it again and again and laughed and cried.
The Waodani elders, including three of the men who attacked the missionaries in 1956 were also with us in Panama for much of the filming of End of the Spear. Dayumae was shown some of the footage of the spearing attack and broke down in uncontrollable tears. Three of the missionary widows were also with us, and the reaction from Dayumae reminded everyone in the cast and crew of the remarkable reality of this story.
Mincaye has since seen the entire film, and I think he is the only Waodani to have seen it in its entirety so far. He reacted to the film the way other audiences do, with reflection, with tears, with laughter, and in the end with hope.
An international premiere is being planned in Panama, bringing up many of the Waodani and uniting them with the Embera cast so they can all experience the result of their efforts together. The Waodani, like the Embera, have a deeper understanding of actions, rather than words, showing what a person believes. We’ve screened the film in Hawaii to an indigenous audience and have had a private screening with the Tongva leadership in LA. The best responses to the film, by far, have come from these groups—which is fascinating, considering the friction often attributed to missionaries supposedly opening the door for the rest of the world to encroach upon such indigenous peoples. But I think the openness of these audiences has to do with the genuine journey of reconciliation between Mincaye and Steve, and the emotional truth it represents.
I was unfamiliar with all of the actors who portrayed the Waodani, and was fairly stunned to learn that some of them are Hollywood actors while some are native Panamanians. How did you approach enculturating such a diverse cast in the ways and language of the Waodani in order to achieve such a seamless screen portrayal?
JH: We knew an authentic experience for the story could only be captured with an authentic tribe. Only four of the actors who played Waodani were from North America; all the rest of the sizable Indian cast were Panamanian Embera, including some of the major supporting roles. Our casting director Mark Fincannon is awesome, and he found three Embera villages up the Chagris River for us to work with.
The idea of acting was foreign to them, as it is to most indigenous cultures. To them, you either feel a certain way or you don’t, and the idea of pretending to feel something else, or be someone else, carries the stigma of being deceitful. To overcome that, we brought in some of the Waodani to work with both the Embera and the North American cast members. It was a two week cultural exchange and daily training.
We also had a great movement coach, Kathleen Thompson, to help our North American actors blend their body language with the Embera, and to help the Embera with the basic concepts of acting.
The language barrier seemed insurmountable at first, but ended up working in our favor. I told the Embera through translators that I could not understand a single word that they said—but I could completely understand how they were feeling by reading their emotions. I made a deal with them that I would share with them what their characters should be feeling inside, and then let them know after the scene if that feeling was communicated.
Language was off the table. It was completely about subtext, which at the end of the day is what every great performance is about. We did not have the option of falling back on dialogue to communicate emotion. It was amazing to see the Embera start to believe that they could succeed—and when they saw how much we relied on them, they would try even harder.
Indigenous people in most third world cultures are still treated as second class, and we encountered this in Panama. But we were dependent upon the Embera. We could not make the film without them, and we were telling a story from the Indian perspective. All this made our relationship and the journey very special.
Many audiences will find the message of the film hopelessly optimistic, even though the core story is completely true to reality. As a pastor, I understand that it's the work of the Holy Spirit that makes things possible for God which, for man, are impossible. Yet the movie—even the documenatry—never preaches, so the theology behind the story is never really presented.
JH: A movie should never preach. The medium is at its best when it raises a question of universal interest and explores the question with both its darker and lighter sides. In the end, either something resonates as emotionally true, or it doesn’t, and I really believe the truth can be trusted. I like the quote from Henry Kaiser, “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.”
But is the theology of the story never presented? In a motion picture, what characters say doesn't necessarily make you believe them. The audience only knows the truth about a character from the choices the character makes while under extreme pressure. The old idiom “actions speak louder than words” is at work in the structure of every film, including this one. I think the audience is smart. I think the audience can perceive the theology behind the story—and what’s more, they can experience it emotionally rather than just intellectually. For many, this will cause them to rethink what they hold to be true; for others, this will affirm what they already know to be true.
Yes, you’re right. The theology is presented through the story, rather than articulated verbally. So how do you hope the dynamic of story and faith play out in connection with skeptical audiences (many of which will include Christians, too)?
JH: I think the Christian audience wants to have a deeply satisfying motion picture experience, same as everyone else, and some of the most frequent moviegoers are Christians because we are open to the wonder of things.
This story is unbelievable, and it is true. What that meant for me as a filmmaker was to help the audience connect emotionally to the characters and story, and see how much they could feel the reality of this journey.
Is the story hopelessly optimistic, as you described it? Or is the truth it explores real; and even though the mind can’t fully grasp it, does the heart still wonder at it? Does it raise a question we all think about in the midnight of our soul?
Well, as an actor myself, I would have to suspect that performing in this film had to been fairly transformational for many of these actors.
JH: You would have loved it, and you are correct that it gave an experience few will forget.
We asked Steve Saint to play the part of one of the search party members because we knew the impact it would have on the female actors in the scene, when the search party tells them of the deaths of their husbands.
The actors who played Waodani next to the Embera were challenged to a level of emotional depth that they would not otherwise have achieved. In the scene at Rachel’s funeral, we used all the real Waodani who were with us including three of the men who actually killed the missionaries, as well as three of the surviving widows. There could not have been more authentic tears in that scene than if it were the real thing.
Most of all, every actor has a gift of empathy which allows them to truly feel and therefore truly communicate what a character is feeling. In this way our actors experienced, and vicariously lived, the reality of this story before any one else.
Thanks, Jim. I truly hope this movie finds a wide and enthusiastic audience.