Of all the films, long and short, at the Hearts and Minds Film Festival, this was by far the best-looking of the bunch. The cinematography, the direction and editing were nothing short of stunning. These were of course cherries on top of a very emotionally-satisfying story that does what the best does, turn tragedy into triumph.
Based on the book "Stepping Out in Faith," this is the story of Luke Everett, the ordained minister who now runs Rancho Sordo Mudo. Rancho Sordo Mudo is a school and foster home for deaf children in Mexico. The film follows Everett from his younger days in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to his decision to take control of the school.
How does a Long Island kid go from the Bible Belt end up in the Valle de Guadalupe running a school for the deaf? This movie basically answers that question. When the producer of this film, James Kirk-Johnson from Strong Tower Ministries, approached TC Johnstone about helping to make this movie, Johnstone said he was blown away by the Rancho Sordo Mudo story. Johnstone, 36, went down to Mexico to visit the school and Everett. Being immediately impressed, he got to work on the script. He planned to adapt Everett's book into a moving narrative with actors and the whole nine.
Strong Tower Ministries, the church behind this production, didn't exactly have the budget for the whole nine. The movie would be mostly donor-funded and put together through the help of volunteers. To cut costs, Johnstone decided to involve Everett and his family who weren't looking for money just to spread the word.
Johnstone made this then movie more like a documentary where Everett and his family would "act" out their own lives. Everett himself would star in some of the re-enactments that are the staples in this film, and I use the word film loosely. This movie was not produced using the traditional 35mm film stock. When I first viewed it, I believed it was. There's a quality, a texture, an elevated look that 35mm possesses, which this movie shares. Johnstone says that he wanted that 35mm look and he pushed for it. The budget or lack thereof prevented the use of the expensive film medium. Johnstone hired a cinematographer to meet the challenge of instead simulating that 35mm look on video, and I can attest that he met and more than exceeded that challenge.
Each frame from beginning to end is gorgeous. Beautiful is merely the baseline for this eye-popping movie. I noticed that the breath of this thing maintains a warm feeling, meaning that each shot embraces warm colors: yellows, oranges and reds, even when those colors weren't dominant in the picture. The movie is sun-soaked. A lot of this is attributable to the HD camera-work with special lens adapters, but Johnstone admits a lot of post-production is to blame as well. He and his team designed and set a color palette. Like painters, they went through and scrubbed the movie to wash its frames with the color scheme Johnstone preferred. With most documentaries, there is several talking heads telling and driving the plot, as mere testimonies to what they saw, experienced, and thought.
Luke Everett is forefront, as he relates his family's problems and perseverance, even despite numerous heartaches. We see Everett recount a problem his family faced with the Mexico school and Johnstone then thrusts us into a re-enactment. For the earlier ones, Johnstone did get actors to play the younger versions of the Everett family. Again, to cut costs, he removed dialogue and just let the power of the actions and images touch us through the screen. Certainly, the actions and images do that. Johnstone put a lot of time into it, and it shows. One particular re-enactment involving a truck carrying much-needed water was so well done that it strikes you like a hard splash.
Then, it strikes you later that Everett himself and his family are starring in the re-enactments. They act out their own lives, which, as a viewer, seems curiously surreal, but their personal involvement somehow raises the emotional and empathetic involvement of the audience in a way that never feels phony or cheesy. It's excellent work from a man who used to do extreme sports films in Colorado. Johnstone has made a movie with such heart and spirit as to be almost heavenly. It is to be a shining example of not only Strong Tower Ministries but of Johnstone's faith-based company of filmmakers at Gratis 7 Media Group.
When I talked to Johnstone, he said the message he wanted this film to convey was, "We all have something to give, most often out of our greatest struggle." This is what Everett's family, particularly his father, was all about. He wanted to give, and his road led to him giving to a group of Mexican deaf children.
He gave a voice to the voiceless there. As you come to see, his doing that, which basically amounted to him teaching deaf children sign language, was him giving them the world. I would pray that this film's message reverberates that when you give, even if it's something small, can still be the world.