The new film The Grandfathers, launched at The National Religious Broadcasters Convention (NRB) in Nashville and was awarded second place in the NRB TV Showcase for best documentary. The documentary is a motion-graphics film about a young man’s struggle with his complicated heritage and has been awarded The Dove Foundation seal of approval. It completes a trilogy produced by EthnoGraphic Media (EGM) that includes End of the Spear and Beyond the Gates of Splendor. These first two films, also from award-winning director Jim Hanon and producer Mart Green, tell the unforgettable and inspiring story of the killing of five missionaries by a stone-age tribe deep in the Amazon jungle. The impact of this tragic event lives on today in families of these slain men as well as among those responsible for their deaths.
The Grandfathers showcases both the burden and benefit of the Saint family’s legacy. Jesse Saint, Steve’s oldest son and Nate’s grandson, was not raised among the tribe like his father. He struggles to find his place under the weight of the memory of a famous grandfather he never knew and a heroic father he does not fully understand. Jesse travels to the jungles of Ecuador with his family and gradually forms a special bond with Mincaye, one of the tribesmen who took part in his grandfather’s murder.
Q&A with Film Director Jim Hanon regarding The Grandfathers
Q. The Grandfathers completes a trilogy, beginning with Beyond the Gates of Splendor, and End of the Spear the second film. EGM’s one word synopsis of The Grandfathers is “Heritage”. What does that word mean to you?
A. We all draw some of our identity from our past and where we came from, both good and bad. We didn’t choose our parents, our grandparents or our ancestors and whether we like it or not they shape and influence us to greater or lesser degrees. Sometimes they represent something we need to rise above and sometimes they represent something we need to attain to and honor. But, here’s the deal, we don’t move into a healthy future without reconciling our past. Jesse Saint lived under the shadow of his martyred grandfather Nate Saint, and he struggled with coming of age into his own identity. I love the story of The Grandfathers because it was the man who killed Jesse’s grandfather Nate Saint that was the most influential in helping Jesse understand and appreciate his grandfather Nate. This process freed Jesse to find his own identity and to reconcile his heritage.
Jesse came to know Mincaye as a grandfather even though he was one of the warriors that speared his grandfather Nate. He also came to know many of the Waodani as his family. In doing so Jesse became a part of the Waodani heritage. He saw that the younger Waodani did not want to be known as Waodani because in Ecuador the smaller indigenous tribes are treated as third class citizens. The Waodani are known in Ecuador as having a fierce history in spearing each other so none of the young Waodani want to be painted with that brush. After Jesse’s grandfather Nate was killed the spearing within the Waodani dropped by 90%, which fascinated anthropologists all over the world. This is significant because it means that although the Waodani have a history of violence, they have a heritage of reconciliation. Jesse saw that the young Waodani did not understand their heritage any more than Jesse understood his own, and this helped Jesse come to terms with himself and his faith. So many times memories have to be redeemed in order for us to be healthy, and this was Jesse’s inner journey in the film.
Q. What was your first impression of the Waodani, in particularly Mincaye?
A. When I ended the three-day journey to get to the Waodani camp in the heart of the amazon basin I thought there were few people on earth that I might have less in common with. However, I was wrong. I found that they were better listeners, observers and students of humanity than most any one I’d ever met. They read body language, attitudes and subtext more clearly than any book. Because they live in very hard conditions and have a healthy respect for death, they have a powerful zest for life. In the case of Mincaye, his zest for life erupts into laughter that is nothing short of infectious. After a few moments with him I thought, “There is no way this guy ever killed anybody.” He is one of the most freed souls you might ever meet. That’s the most remarkable thing about Mincaye. He is what he believes. If Waengongi (their name for Creator God) sees him well and he sees Waengongi well then he can take anything life throws at them in the confidence that the will go to Waengongi’s house when he dies. The Waodani are a very poor people by any western standard, but in this regard they are far richer than many westerners ever attain.
Q. Creating this film The Grandfathers must have been an amazing adventure to capture the story on film, describe for us a few of the most memorable stories of filming.
A. Anytime you see Jesse and Mincaye joking around with each other it is a memorable moment. Since it happens a lot I guess there is a lot to remember. Once you know the genuine love and respect they have for each other it collides in your mind with the brutal history of Mincaye spearing Nate Saint and his friends. It is both freeing and awkward. It goes against every eye for an eye memory you have heard about and experienced. And it represents what you hope is true at the very core of your being, that redemption is possible.
Limonchocha is a jungle town bordering Waodani territory with a small runway on top of a ledge. The problem is the runway is too short to actually take off from so you get just enough airspeed to clear the trees and the fall from the ledge is what makes the plane fast enough to actually fly. I can’t see that method becoming part of the US air transportation system anytime soon.
Swimming and bathing in the Currada river is kind of a joint activity, which gets you as clean as brown running water can I guess. It was memorable to have the kids explain that we were in a piranha hole. The Waodani eat monkey, and sometimes it was the only food, so we gave it a go. Everything was an adventure so why should eating be any different?
Several of the Waodani from the group who speared the five missionaries in 1956 are still alive and it was quite an experience to hear about the event from their perspective. Each of them were interviewed separately and they all told of seeing “foreigners like lights in the sky” and of hearing music after they had speared the men and climbed the ridge. I wasn’t expecting this. You have to understand that I don’t think it is something they would make up or lie about. They have no reason to. I believe that they believe they saw and heard beings like lights in the trees, and when they experienced this they thought they had done something wrong. I had no sense of whether the audience would believe or not believe them, but it is their experience in their words and it has bearing on their journey so I placed it in the film.
Q. How has working on this trilogy affected you?
A. At the very heart of it, working on the trilogy has adjusted and enhanced how I think about family. I try to be objective as an artist and filmmaker when exploring each story and so I had to face what I thought about missionary impact on indigenous culture. There is plenty of historic evidence that missionaries have been used either willingly or unwillingly to open the door to indigenous cultures and the results end up being an exploitation of the resources and rights of the indigenous population at best and a massacre at worst. I can’t imagine this being what Jesus intended, and I don’t mean to imply that this is always the case by any means. Yet, since it has been the case in enough instances it must bear scrutiny. The question I carried with me while making the trilogy was, “When does it work to reach an indigenous population, and when is it healthy instead of negative?” The answer for me is found in thinking of the whole process as family. The gospel, as Jesus lived it, is intended for the benefit of those who receive it and not the gain of those who share it. Rachel Saint, Nate’s sister went to live with the Waodani after her brother was speared and she lived with them all her life. She became part of their family and they became part of her family. Their pain became her pain and in some ways her hope became their hope. Nate’s son Steve and grandson Jesse became intimate members of the Waodani family group that speared Nate. As such they learned about the problem of dependency, which is created when a hunter-gatherer tribe assimilates to the civilization that encroaches them. They feel the same pain the Waodani feel whenever they are exploited. Just as you and I would for any of our family members that we love. Most importantly, they never made the mistake of loving what they were saying more than who they were saying it to.
In some ways Steve became seen as combative with the traditional missionary community because he went native if you will. I think we are all supposed to go native when it comes to being family. A family member doesn’t require you to change before they love you. A family member accepts if you believe differently than they do as long as you offer acceptance in return. When a person lives love contemplated in Christ in this environment it doesn’t hurt the people around them. It doesn’t take away from them; rather it has the opportunity to add to them. In the case of the Waodani a small group ended up becoming Christians, and these were mostly from the family group that speared the missionaries and with whom Rachel Saint lived her life. At the same time the overall homicide rate within the tribe dropped by 90% in just a few years. I think it can be rightly argued that this, at least, is a benefit to Waodani culture.
EGM shows their films on college campuses so I expect that a lot of young people will have the same questions about missionaries that I have just shared. In some cases it will be a barrier for the film to even be shown. I hope that the message of love and respect can overcome this and that the journey of a warrior becoming grandfather to the grandson of the man he killed can be seen for the remarkable story that it is. Mincaye will tell you that he is better for it. And in this exchange there is a key to healing the wounds of the past that have happened to many indigenous populations, and families for that matter.
Q. The film describes how the Waodani people became dependant upon the Saint family. Tell us about is being done now to help them.
A. When the Saint family became aware that their Waodani family was becoming dependent on their help they corrected their actions. They left their home in Waodani territory, returned to Florida and Steve Saint founded ITEC, Indigenous peoples Technology and Education Center. The basic thrust is to empower indigenous cultures with both the technology and education they need to become self-sufficient and to be able to engage with outside cultures on more equal footing. This includes basic dental training, first aid and medical support as well as innovations of western technology for indigenous use.
Steve and Jesse were looking for an opportunity for some sort of industry that young Waodani could get their start in so they opened a builder assist shop in Shell Mera. Builder assist shops help people who want to build their own airplanes. Shell is where Nate Saint lived and the shop is a few blocks from his old house. I show the shop in the film along with one of the Waodani who works there.
Q. This film is targeted for people 18-25 but I know people of all ages will be interested. What do you hope is the result of people watching The Grandfathers?
A. There is a rich history of experience and heritage that grandparents give. I hope that the film allows the older and younger audience a shared experience that celebrates and affirms them both.
I hope the question of heritage hits home. We need to remember and heal our past so that we take the best of it into the future, and leave the rest behind. Jesse saw that Nate died in order for his family to grow. This is not the most comfortable price to pay, but Jesse said it best in the film, “I wouldn’t want grandpa Nate back if it meant losing my relationship with Mincaye, Kimo and Dyuwi.”
There is a lot of healing and reconciliation needed in many indigenous cultures everywhere, just as there is within many families. I hope that the journey of the warrior Mincaye and the coming of age Jesse can give hope to the healing process and start the kind of restorative conversations that are needed.
Q. I understand that the first two films are available on Hulu, what has been the public response?
A. End of the Spear was in the top ten most watched movies on Hulu the first week it was released. Beyond the Gates of Splendor was in the top fifty. Probably the most gratifying comments came from people who thanked Hulu for including films that affirm faith.
Q. How can churches and ministries utilize these amazing films?
A. You can get screening kits with a public license to show the films from Outreach. www.outreach.com
You can get information and backstory on the films at www.egmfilms.org For personal viewing End of the Spear and Beyond the Gates can be ordered on Netflix or Blockbuster, and personal copies can be purchased at www.mardel.com or www.amazon.com