A documentary that has been making the rounds in church circles is now available to consumers--Beyond the Gates of Splendor. It tells the famous story of the five missionaries who went to Ecuador in the '50s to evangelize the Auca/Waodani tribe and were murdered, a story made popular to many through Elisabeth Elliot's account in Through the Gates of Splendor. I bought the DVD and watched it last night. Since I have spent many years in video and film production, I know how difficult it is to make a creative documentary about a topic without a lot of archival footage. This production company did a good job with the production values.
When the documentary ended, however, I felt unsatisfied. The gospel had been gutted from the story. It wasn't even clear that the Waodani had become Christians or had established churches of their own. An airplane of their own, yes. But pastors or elders? Not so much. Puzzled, I got online and looked for reviews that would help me understand this editorial choice. Christianity Today ran a review earlier this month that only lightly touched on this concern. So I kept digging around. A CT April interview with producer Mart Green revealed this to be intentional:
Q: Beyond the Gates isn't real in your face with Jesus and the gospel. Was that intentional?
Green: Very intentional. The world doesn't want to hear that kind of stuff, but I think when you tell the story just as it happened, it works. We didn't tell the Waodoni not to say things. We didn't tell them what to say. We just said, "Tell the story."
I respectfully disagree with Mr. Green. I don't think it works. I think it is a puzzling account. You don't have to be coy to avoid being "in your face." There is a wide middle ground where the facts of the gospel's influence on this tribe could have been explained without being pompous or didactic. Green would like churches to show this documentary and then attend the theatrical release of the feature film, End of the Spear, as an outreach. But by avoiding the topic all together, it leaves nothing for the believer to talk about with the unbeliever. The Christian has to fill in all kinds of the back story for the non-Christian, who could simply respond, "Oh, yeah? The movie didn't make any mention of all that. Are you sure you've got that right?" The motivation for such a drastic change among this tribe is only implied, which is a weakness in any production. Motives are important for a compelling story, and as such this documentary falls flat.
I hope the feature film is more confident in God and doesn't shy away from the gospel, but as it comes from the same production group I'm not betting on it. For those who know the backstory from Elisabeth Elliot's perspective, this is an interesting documentary as it is told through another participant's perspective--Steve Saint, the son of Nate Saint who was one of the five murdered missionaries. For that reason, it is definitely worth watching. It is also obviously a labor of love and so I commend all those who financed and worked on it. They could have been doing many other things with their talents and treasure and this was a worthwhile investment. I can also recommend it to others because, as my pastors have taught me to evaluate my entertainment choices, I could thank God for this movie when it was over. But I'm able to do so because I know His part in this account. I'm not sure what or who unbelievers will want to credit when it's over, which is the only--and major--weak link in this production.