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Journey of Faith: A Filmaking Odyssey

Creating a motion picture combines faith with work in a very direct way. Faith, because the creative process never guarantees automatic success; work, because all resources of one’s capacity are stretched—physical effort, mental stress, spiritual reserves, emotional strength, moral determination, and a simple resolve to do what has to be done.[1]

The Team

Peter Johnson assembled a formidable team to take on the task of filming Lehi’s epic journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful. Brian Wilcox was director of photography, “Brian’s commitment to working hard in difficult conditions . . . put him on the team, [together with] his sense of capturing the dramatic moment. He, of course, had great technical skill with the camera, but his ability to capture the unexpected on film would make our documentary memorable. . . . Brian had dreamed of filming in the Arabian Empty Quarter since childhood.” Assistant cameraman, Kelly Mecham, is “a man of wisdom, insight, talent, and skill. Kelly and Brian had worked together for many years. . . . Kelly’s spirit and Journey of Faith Book of Mormonpersonality simply made everyone feel comfortable and reassured. He brought a sense of emotional strength to the team, and we all knew we could count on him regardless of what we might face on any given day.” Travis Allen, “had worked as a sound technician for many years but had broadened his work to include recording sound during the filming process. It was good to have a soundman that also had experience and skill in repairing sound equipment—just in case.” Grip/electrician Justin Andrews, “was also qualified to function as an assistant cameraman, but his primary job was to make sure we had the right gear. He already had experience in filming internationally, and his enthusiasm for this project raised our own expectations. He also had a second assignment for this production—to obtain still photographs of our experience.”

Challenges in Filming: Yemen

Getting to Yemen was hampered by the attack on the USS Cole, which occurred right as the team were preparing to leave the States. It took a while to regroup, but once in Yemen, the capital, Sana’a held endless fascination:

The gate in the wall of the old city was particularly photogenic, but we had no camera crane that allowed us to move the camera through the gate and into the crowd, which was the shot I wanted. We had to improvise. Suddenly a man came by pulling a large cart and we knew our problem was solved. With a few American dollars, we persuaded him to let us use his cart. After mounting the camera on the cart and hiring a few young men to push the cart through the gate into the crowded market, we got the shot and also attracted a large crowd.

The people of Yemen were an exotic site to the team, as the team were to them. Worth remarking was the range of weaponry:

Virtually all the men, especially outside of the city, wore a curved dagger, called a jambia, directly in front at their waist. Slung from a shoulder, they also carried automatic rifles, many of them Russian-made Kalashnikovs. . . . As we moved from the city to the desert, we were joined by a Yemeni military contingent of eighteen soldiers and a couple of military vehicles. One was a Toyota pickup with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the back.

Nahom

I remember as we went down a steep and rocky mountain pass toward the burial place of Nahom, I soaked in the visual imagery. The sense of closeness to that family’s amazing journey was powerful. The account Nephi gives us in the first chapter of the Book of Mormon became vividly real for us. No longer an interesting scriptural story, the reality of their heaven-directed journey inspired us each day.

The burial mounds were all around the team as they filmed in Nahom; interesting was the manner in which the inhabitants were buried, “wrapped in leather with their knees pulled up in a kind of prenatal position. Long slabs of rock were formed into a coffin for the body, and then the mound of rock was built over it.”

After Nahom, they drove to Marib. Home of the Queen of Sheba, the temple at that time was under excavation, Johnson was, “particularly captivated by a base for a statue with a row of ibex heads intricately sculpted around it. Sand from the desert has preserved this fabulous site, which is circular in design and dedicated to the moon god.”

September 11, 2001

Returning to the Queen of Sheba hotel after filming at the temple, the crew were met with the news of the terrorist attacks:

Our deliberation was calm and reasoned. There was apprehension, of course, but no one was in a panic. We felt that our work, which had already been delayed a year because of the terrorist attack on the Cole, was important and that we should try to obtain as much footage as possible while we were there. We were sensitive to the seriousness of our situation and the crisis that the world was now in, but we also felt a calm spirit to move ahead with our work. Our decision was to . . . continue to film. As I crawled in bed that night and watched the unfolding events before going to sleep, I felt at peace and assured that all would be well, but I also fell asleep knowing that our adventure of filming Lehi’s journey had just become much more intense.

The reaction of the crew’s military escort was unanimous in empathy for America and condemnation of the actions of the terrorists:

When I looked at the . . . soldiers, all their heads hung down. The commander saw this and said that they were “embarrassed” to face me. I asked him to tell his troops that we considered it a great blessing to be in Yemen and that it held great meaning for us. A smile came into his eyes and he seemed truly cheered by that. So many misconceptions about America exist in the Middle East. . . . I found that sincere expressions of respect and affection from us warmed their hearts and ours immensely.

The Empty Quarter

The crew planned to take a day travelling a small portion of the Empty Quarter and filming as they went. For twelve hours they would travel, check out a vista, film, and then move on—all the time seeing sand and dunes—and nothing else. Night fell.

With the sun gone, the brilliant night sky opened above us. On we went through the night, our path lit only by headlights. Several times a vehicle got stuck, and we would all pile out of our Land Rovers and push the vehicle out. Then we went on. The Bedouins would stop frequently, check the stars, look around to see the limited terrain that was illuminated before us, and then lead us on. Stories I had read all my life about mariners and desert travelers making long journeys by plotting their course from reading the stars became vividly real. Being deep in the Arabian desert led by Bedouins who were guided by the stars was an unforgettable experience I doubt I will ever repeat.

The crew were advised to stop filming and return to the United States as soon as possible. As they arrived at Sana’a Airport, it “looked like something from the opening scenes of Frank Capra’s classic film Lost Horizons when refugees were desperately clamoring to get on the last flight out. Our flight left in the middle of the night, only adding to the drama.” Remarkably, all their luggage and equipment made it safely out of the country. However,

We were horrified to find that despite all our efforts to ensure that the footage would be handled with special care, it had been blasted with x-rays, . . . and some of our unique Yemen footage was damaged. . . . The damage affected some of the color, but mostly it affected the emulsion with a resultant grainy look. To our relief, some of the key footage was amazingly not damaged, or at least was not severely damaged. We were able to do some careful technical work on it and happily salvaged the key scenes.

2004—Finishing What They Started

The crew, assembled once more, flew to Muscat in Oman, then to Salalah where they drove to Dhalqut and then rented fishing boats to take them to Wadi Sayq—one of the most plausible locations for Nephi’s Bountiful. After a spirited negotiation for the price of the rental, they sailed forth. “Each fishing boat carried three to four people and our equipment. Our little flotilla with Omani fishermen and American filmmakers went at high speed through the water. It was a refreshing and exciting ride across the rolling ocean surface with fish visible below us and the steep escarpment rising dramatically above the seashore.” It was with great anticipation that they approached Wadi Sayq: “It was magnificent; before us lay a beautiful alcove of teaming tropical plants framed by steep and jagged mountains with a small freshwater lagoon in the center. This place touched our hearts and imagination because it fit perfectly the description Nephi gave in his record (1 Nephi 17:5–7).”

The eventful time continued after the boats had been beached:

After shooting some wonderful vistas of Wadi Sayq, which included Brian and Justin getting in the freshwater lagoon to get some artful shots close to the water’s surface, we climbed above the cliffs that rise on the western side of the beach. It was a difficult climb through sharp rocks that plagued us at every step. On top the vista was magnificent. This is the place where we obtained the wonderful shot of the beach and the lagoon that would have been the place of much labor in building the ship. Looking out to the Indian Ocean that disappeared over the horizon was also impressive from this perspective. There is some evidence of ancient structures that would have been there, and it was not hard to imagine that this could have been an area where the family created their living quarters. The 200-foot-high cliffs were ample evidence that, when Laman and Lemuel threatened to kill Nephi by throwing him into the ocean, this would have been the perfect place.

Besides the work of filming the documentaries, the crew had first-hand experience of the local culture, including a special meal put on for them by the Omani Ministry of Information.

Two platters at least three feet across were put in the middle of a blanket or mat spread out on the desert floor. A huge pile of rice, seasoned with saffron, covered each platter. Pieces of goat meat and goat entrails were mixed throughout the rice, and crowning the top of the mound was a goat’s head. . . . Our crew carefully picked out nice pieces of meat and rice, avoiding the other objects. The rice and meat was delicious.

Besides the filmmaking, important to the documentaries were the insights from the scholars who narrated and took part in the documentary. Johnson was careful to include artwork from LDS artist Joseph Brickey and original music from Arlen Card and Nicholas Gasdik, who had spent time in the Arab world as a youth.

The first documentary was screened during Education Week at Brigham Young University. Johnson relates the reactions of those attending,

I attended each presentation because I wanted to know if we achieved our goal. I remember watching four women become engrossed in the film. The next evening these same women came again. I joked with them and said, “Didn’t I see you here last night?” “Oh, yes!” they in chorus cried out with enthusiasm. “We just had to take the journey again.” Thank you. That’s all I needed to know.

 


[1] All quotations are from Peter Johnson’s article; A Filmmaking Odyssey.

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