As film makers, television producers and Baha’is, we feel a particular responsibility to directly address the Baha’i principles through the media we create.
Certainly many of the powerful Baha’i stories need to be told; however timeliness and practicability often stand in the way. Our recent experience in the making of a documentary called The Baha’is may illustrate some of these challenges. Watch the trailer below:
Six years ago, as we were approaching the 100th anniversary of Abdu’l-Baha’s trip to North America, our company decided to attempt to produce a film about that historic, ground-breaking visit. We developed our “pitch,” and made an approach to two major broadcasters–one in the United States and one in Canada. Given our previous experience with both broadcasters, we were confident of a sympathetic hearing—however, we also know that broadcast executives receive thousands of “pitches” a year. They are accustomed to making decisions quickly based on what they see as audience salability, as well as the practical viability of the project under discussion. Will the audience “get it” and can we pull together the team and the financing to pull it off?
In the meeting in the States, our broadcast executive went immediately to what she saw as a fundamental story flaw. As with any dramatic telling she wanted to know how the main protagonist—Abdu’l-Baha—was changed by his experience in the West. In story parlance, this is called The Hero’s Journey. Of course we tried various ways of explaining that it wasn’t Abdu’l-Baha who changed–it was everybody else–perhaps America herself! However, without the foundational understanding of who Abdu’l-Baha is, without the back story of Baha’i history, which is a monumental telling in itself, Abdu’l-Baha could mistakenly be perceived as yet another sage or guru.
By contrast, as an example, stories that reference Christ have the advantage of embedded understandings of the station of Christ developed over two thousand years. Whether atheist or believer, westerners generally have at least a passing understanding of Christianity, which allows other stories to be built upon it without have to retell the Passion Story again and again. In the end, though, we had a good meeting, because our consultation with the broadcaster resulted in us reopening our own assumptions about what story to tell.
The Canadian meeting was next. It further emphasized the challenges of the story we wanted to tell. This executive’s question was kindly but frank – “Who is Abdu’l-Bahá and by what authority does he speak? Why should I believe him?”
This consultation then took the turn that set us on a new course. The broadcast executive said “I think, before you can tell the story of Abdu’l-Baha, you need to set the stage with an introduction to the Baha’i Faith – A Baha’i 101.”
A Baha’i 101 certainly wasn’t the direction we had intended and frankly, and was a bit of a disappointment. However our consultation with this broadcaster combined with the previous one made it clear—we needed a new approach.
As is common in our industry, things change quickly. A hot topic manifests itself in a dozen new shows that, before long age and die, as the next hot topic strides onto the screen. We had ample experience of this with our other shows, so it wasn’t a surprise when our new pitch for a Baha’i 101 called simply The Baha’is, entered the broadcaster’s inbox and then sat there–for four years. After numerous follow-up phone calls with promises of continued interest, we finally decided to follow Abdu’l-Baha’s strong advice on perseverance:
Firmness and steadfastness, however, are necessary, otherwise it will continue for some time, but later be gradually forgotten. Perseverance is an essential condition. In every project firmness and steadfastness will undoubtedly lead to good results; otherwise it will exist for some days, and then be discontinued. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 143.
Then unexpectedly, one day we got a call from that same executive, saying that she felt now was the time for our documentary—and did we think we could proceed? Could we? Of course we could–one way or the other!
Keep in mind: a one-hour time slot on a mainstream or cable channel is actually only 45 minutes, leaving room for commercial breaks. With such a short amount of time to say what we wanted to say, we decided that our goal would be to open windows into several key Baha’i themes. We knew we couldn’t go too far into any one of these topic areas, but hopefully viewers would be intrigued enough to pursue further research on their own. Overall, our goal was to move hearts.
It took us six months to put together the financing (most documentaries cost well over a hundred thousand dollars) and to determine who we would film. Consultation with broadcasters and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada and the US had brought us this far, now it was time for production.
From spring to late summer of 2015 we travelled from Toronto to Montreal and Vancouver to Chicago, interviewing Baha’is as they went about serving their communities. Our approach to filming was to do everything we could to ensure authenticity. We didn’t put words in peoples’ mouths; we relied entirely on their own views and perspectives and what we got was beautiful. The footage we gathered was so rich that we went through dozens of edits before finally landing on a version that we thought would best present the Baha’i teachings to a mainstream audience. Meeting these extraordinary people in their day-to-day service was an inspiring experience—these are just a few representatives of the millions of Baha’is serving children, junior youth, youth and adults in communities around the world.
The Baha’is has now aired several times in Canada and we are actively seeking other documentary channels worldwide. The Baha’is is also available on DVD. We have received positive reports from many places, but like any craft or piece of art, it’s impossible to gauge its effect on the viewer long term. We simply hope it will continue to spread the word about this wonderful Faith for many years to come.
The Baha’is is available for streaming in Canada only on VisionTV’s website.
The Baha’is Official Documentary Trailer.
The Baha’is Film Official Website.