The feature film Tell the World, released in September, produced by the Seventh-day Adventist Church (publishers of Signs of the Times), is a difficult film to label: it looks like a movie—through imagined reconstructions of characters and conversations, but acts like a documentary, because its primary purpose is less to entertain than to inform. In effect, it is really a movie-mentary—a dramatised nineteenth century history of the origins of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the US and its beliefs. And using the medium of film as it should, it is a communicator of attitudes, emotions and values rather than of information alone.
Tell the World begins with the origins of the Millerite movement in the 1830s, with William Miller as the central character. The camera then switches to Ellen White, so influential in the church’s seminal days, as the Millerites gradually organise into the denomination we recognise today, with its distinctive beliefs and emphases—the seventh-day Sabbath, healthful living and education, for example.
The film attempts to explain the church’s key theological and religious ideas that drove the church’s pioneers, while at the same time fleshing out its founders so that they come across as real people, with the intention of making dull denominational history appealing, more understandable and memorable.
Enabling this are its high production values in respect to acting and costuming, locations and sets, and cinematography and directing. The actors are almost uniformly good, creating believable characters and credible emotions. The cinematography is excellent and the directing assured. One shot in particular stands out: Ellen White standing on a snow-covered ridge, in mourning after the death of her eldest son Henry. Its exquisite framing and tone speak more eloquently of sorrow than does copious screen weeping.
However, the film is overweighed with history, with the screenwriter struggling to cram in the many theological developments of the era, especially the now-obscure ones of the Millerite period, while trying to keep the film from bogging down with theological exposition at the expense of the narrative. It also struggles against the clock, becoming episodic in the second half in order to cover all the theological bases.
The medium of film is ill-suited to explaining complex ideas, especially theological ones; it is more effective in offering modern viewers an approachable and human Ellen White, along with other pioneers, which to its credit it partially accomplishes. To see the interactions, disagreements and arguments of the principal personalities, as well as the nice touches of the critics of Adventism drinking in a tavern, is one of the most persuasive features of the film.
Rightly handled, Tell the World is an ideal educational tool, rather than a stand-alone cinematic text. Its rather imposing length (150 minutes) and density of historical detail make viewing in a single screening difficult. It is clearly a two-part feature.
Historical movies capture audiences who ordinarily don’t/won’t read a book, often acting as a catalyst for viewers to do their own research. Tell the World could be just the inspiration needed for viewers interested in knowing more about the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which are better presented in print rather than on screen.