By Heidi Thulin
On Field Media
Late in 2011, Africa Inland Mission’s eight-man production team, On-Field Media (OFM), heard a calling from God. They were challenged to create a piece of media that would stir the heart of the African church towards greater involvement in missions. “The African church is inspiring in so many ways—its vitality, size, and diversity,” Mike Saum, the film’s scriptwriter, explains. “But in terms of mission, it’s been called a ‘sleeping giant.’ [We wanted] to help Africa become a major force for world missions. We didn’t want to make a movie; we wanted to start a movement.”
After researching their audience, OFM quickly realized that because Africans come from a rich oral storytelling background, long-form drama was likely the most effective way to teach and touch the hearts of Africans. However, for the five years of their team’s existence, OFM had focused on producing short documentaries—nothing over twenty minutes long and nothing with a full cast of scripted characters. Producing a full length film would be a daunting undertaking.
With a budget of about $70,000 from generous donors and mission partners like Wycliffe Global Alliance and backed by lots of prayer support, the team set out to do it. Mike spent six months developing the script. As a teacher at Scott Theological College in Machakos, Kenya, he was uniquely equipped to understand and address some of the familial, tribal, financial, and theological barriers that kept many African Christians from becoming missionaries. He also worked alongside a Kenyan screenwriter who further adapted and contextualized the script. “We worked extremely hard to make sure [the film] wouldn’t be received as a foreign film,” The Distant Boat’s director, Andy Brown, explains. “We wanted everything about the movie—the characters, the dialog, the pace—to reflect honest African characters, dialog, and values.”
To further enhance their relevance to an African audience, On Field Media partnered with a local production company called Good News Productions International (GNPI). “They became our closest brothers in this labor,” Andy expresses. In the early stages, GNPI helped with location scouting and the complicated logistics and permissions for filming in Kenya. Once the project entered the post-production stage, GNPI contributed their expertise in sound design and translation work.
In May 2012, at the National Theatre in downtown Nairobi, OFM organized a casting call and hundreds of aspiring actors showed up for the auditions. The highlight of that day was when, just outside the theater, an OFM teammate led a man to Christ. Even before the cameras started to roll, The Distant Boat was reaping a harvest.
Filming began that autumn and wrapped in mid-December. “Production was crazy,” Ted Rurup, the film’s producer, recalls. “I kept track of my work time, and I hit 93 hours one week!” Those months of filming were a roller coaster filled with low points when the production seemed to be falling short of expectations, and high points when the project had an energy of its own. “All during [the filming] process,” Ted continues, “we felt strongly that we were taking part not in something we were creating but in something God was doing and that we were just being obedient. It was this conviction that kept us sane and energetic despite the exhausting circumstances.”
Post-production began in January 2013 and spanned nine months. Editing, music scoring, color grading, sound designing, test screening, more editing. During this time, OFM worked closely with another partner organization called Finish the Task (FTT), a Kenyan group of mission sending-agencies and churches. FTT played a major role in the pre-release church preparation, the film’s distribution, and the follow-up programs like The Distant Boat small group study guide.
In November of 2013, two years after the inception of the film, The Distant Boat screened in a local Nairobi theater and at a large church conference that hosted about three hundred pastors and church leaders from across the country. Every church returned home with a copy of the movie and a renewed vigor to raise up missionaries within their own congregations. “It felt like the beginning of something big,” Ted says, “like things were changing.” And as Kenyans say, “slowly, slowly,” the movement started to take shape.
Shortly after the film’s release, it appeared in a handful of international film festivals, including a prestigious one in Zanzibar. Islam is the sole religion of Zanzibar, but because The Distant Boat had high production quality and treated the Muslim characters with respect, the island was willing to screen a story that encourages people to reach out to their Muslim neighbors. That in itself was a miracle.
In attendance at that festival was a representative of Ethiopian Airlines, who, after watching The Distant Boat, wanted to celebrate this well-done African story and decided to offer the film on their flights. For two months, The Distant Boat was an inflight movie option, and one afternoon, a Nigerian pastor happened to select it. “The Distant Boat is a highly inspired film that God ordained to wake up sleeping missionaries and to raise new ones across the world,” Pastor Elijah writes. He embraced the message of the film and has distributed 500 copies to all the provinces in Nigeria. “Wherever we show the film,” he says, “people are cut to the heart, and there is always a renewed commitment on the part of the viewer to go into the field. For most of us, we believe we have done a lot by staying in the city sharing the gospel. But [this film] shows that there is still a lot to be done, and the earlier we start, the better!”
In Jinja, Uganda, the pastor at Calvary Chapel has also found the film to be a powerful and culturally-appropriate ministry tool. “On October 8, 2014,” Pastor Isaac writes, “we showed the film to 155 African pastors and church planters at a conference. The response was very favorable, with some men challenged to plant churches in difficult areas and to encourage the indigenous planting of churches (without Western assistance or oversight). They saw how they can actually send their own missionaries out. It was inspiring.”
Pastor Isaac has also helped add The Distant Boat to the curriculum of a pastoral training program that teaches nearly 800 aspiring church leaders from all over eastern and central Africa. “Where possible, this film is shown to each class of students before graduation,” he says.
Similar stories have come to OFM from several different countries, including places as far away as Korea and Central America. A missionary in Mexico writes that he works with Mexican youth who are interested in career missionary service. “We show the film in English and have provided Spanish subtitles [for them],” Stu explains. “I am impressed by how many of the cultural issues in Kenya are also faced by the Mexican missionary candidates here.”
OFM has released a film version overdubbed in Kiswahili and is working on another version in French. Those two versions alone will make the film accessible to 250 million more people in 26 different African countries. Isaac Masiga, who has been an instrumental GNPI partner in the overdubbed translations, says, “It is our prayer that this movie will continue to impact the African Church and challenge them to become a major force in the future by sending people to the mission field; for the harvest is plenty and the laborers are few.” But because of the universal truths in the film, other organizations and individuals have taken it upon themselves to create subtitles in languages like Portuguese, German, Dutch, and Korean. The Distant Boat truly has a life of its own.
After the release of The Distant Boat, it became impossible to follow the spread of the film or measure its impact, especially since it has reached farther than anyone on the production team ever imagined. Dan Germo, who worked with OFM’s partner ministry, Finish the Task, says, “It was made to be used as a tool for mobilizers over a long period of time. Hopefully, for years to come.” In the two years since the film’s release, it seems to be just starting this journey. The Distant Boat continues to touch the hearts of the African Church and inspire congregations and individuals to become involved in Great Commission work.
On Field Media will probably never know the full impact of the film, but for all who were involved in its creation, it is a great encouragement to know that the project remains firmly in God’s hands. As Ted emphasized, “We were just being obedient.” What a shockwave a little obedience and a lot of prayer can do!
Learn more about the film and get your own copy at distantboat.com