Movie with a Message:
Interview with Bill Ewing
about End of the Spear
By Madelyn Ritrosky-Winslow
What film company gives away all profits from a motion picture?
What film company conceives of a project in terms of a unique one-two punch of both documentary and feature adaptation?
What film company seeks out inspiring real-life events where people have overcome tremendous odds in eye-opening stories of perseverance and hope?
If you answered Every Tribe Entertainment, then you win the grand prize which is exactly what Every Tribe’s new feature film, End of the Spear, won at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis this past fall.
End of the Spear is part of Every Tribe’s first project, which is about to come to fruition with that film’s theatrical release on January 20, 2006. The companion piece, the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor, came out on DVD in October.
Both are powerful films about the incredible transformation of a tragedy into a phenomenon of hope. They both recount, through obviously different formats, a highly emotional journey of forgiveness and faith that began a full 50 years ago. In fact, the theatrical release of End of the Spear will mark the 50th anniversary of the tragedy that set this story in motion.
For a closer look at the genesis of this unusual experiment in moviemaking, I had the chance to speak at length with Every Tribe’s president, Bill Ewing, who was instrumental in getting the project off the ground. He is one of the writers and producers of End of the Spear and executive producer of Beyond the Gates. He co-wrote End of the Spear with director Jim Hanon and Bart Gavigan (also a producer).
In the 1950s, the Waodani tribe (referred to at that time as the Auca) lived an isolated existence deep in the rainforests of Ecuador. Their culture was one of revenge and violence, where revenge spearing claimed the lives of more than half of Waodani adults, as well as foreigners (anyone who was not Waodani) who ventured too near their territory.
In January 1956, five American missionaries (all men) had progressed to the point of contact but were still speared to death when a Waodani man, to cover a personal transgression of his own, maintained that the foreigners would kill them. The deaths made headlines in the U.S., including coverage in Life magazine. But it was what came next, in the years that followed, which is the real story.
Bill Ewing puts it this way: “We don’t take credit for writing the story.... It was written by God through the lives of the people who were willing to live their faith on both sides…. It’s not only the five American heroes who literally laid down their lives. They could have killed the tribespeople when they were spearing them because they did have guns they didn’t…. And then you have the women, who were willing to go in knowing their loved ones had been speared. And then you have the Waodani women who, believing that foreigners were cannibals, were willing to leave the tribe and come out. That in essence is laying down their lives. And then you have when this new knowledge came into the tribe, their willingness to lay down their spears. When you’re that tribe in the jungle, laying down your spear is laying down your life.”
It goes even further, for the son of one of the murdered missionaries, Steve Saint, and his father’s murderer, Mincaye, now consider themselves family, and Saint lives with the Waodani in the jungle. Other children and grandchildren of the victims have visited the Waodani tribe, and everyone on both sides has reached out with staggering emotions across a huge divide.
As Ewing explains, this is an “incredible reconciliation that goes beyond forgiveness because you have these two diverse cultures that have come together and formed a family to the point that the grandchildren of the man that was sacrificed in 1956 now refer to his killer as grandfather…. They are family…. It’s one thing to accept them; it’s another thing to move your family down to the jungle and live with them.”
Not surprisingly perhaps, movie ideas for this story were bandied about in the past, but none met with the approval of the people involved and all attempted to tell the story from a North American perspective. Every Tribe’s adaptation tells the story from a South American perspective and, Ewing says, “there are no profit participants in this movie. The money will all go back to ministry and missions.”
Although the documentary was produced and released first, it was the feature film idea that actually came first. Bill Ewing was working as an executive at Columbia and Tom Newman, who is another producer of End of the Spear, asked if he could recommend a screenwriter, which he did. Ewing was familiar with the real-life story; he had first heard of it as a child. So he also agreed to serve as an advisor.
The idea for an accompanying documentary came about soon after that. Ewing says “they were developing the feature film, and they put together a ten-minute teaser/trailer.” Some existing footage of what the missionaries filmed in 1956 was used, and this trailer was shown to potential donors. When Ewing showed it to his family, his son suggested he look at the two films about music teacher Roberta Guaspari, the documentary Small Wonders (1996) and the feature adaptation, Music of the Heart (1999). Although he had not considered himself a “documentary guy,” he was blown away.
This resulted in his suggestion of a 45-minute documentary to be a “companion piece” when the movie came out on DVD. That then mushroomed because it was a “one-time opportunity to capture everything concerning the story. So there is now a 127-hour digital archive” of all existing primary materials (letters, home movie footage, etc.). Thus, “it grew into a feature length documentary.” You get the perspectives of the widows as well as the native people who were involved.
The person at the helm of the documentary was Jim Hanon. Every Tribe’s founder and CEO, Mart Green, originally hired Hanon, whose background was in commercials, for a series of PSA ads for the Bible. Green was pleased enough with Hanon’s work to hire him for the larger project. As writer and director of Beyond the Gates, Hanon also got to co-write and direct the feature film. Working on the documentary first, he brought a “cache of knowledge and experience and emotion that just grew in him and got translated into the making of the movie.”
The documentary was produced under Bearing Fruit Communications, which was the nonprofit entity set up by Green for the Bible television spots. For making the feature adaptation, though, even if profits were to be given away, they needed to establish a separate company. Thus, Every Tribe Entertainment was created.
In developing End of the Spear, Bill Ewing says, “We had to make a conscious choice in terms of the narrative film, that we were going to tell the story from the tribe’s point of view…. When you make that decision, it presents a lot of obstacles because most of the story is known from the North American side only.”
In re-configuring and condensing the myriad elements of the real-life story into a feature-length adaptation, Gavigan, Hanon, and Ewing had to make choices: “We can only tell one person’s story, so we have to take dramatic license. That’s why the principal character’s name is not Mincaye, because Mincaye is a real person that you, of course, see in the documentary. We call him Mincayani because it is principally his story, but we had to take elements from some of the other tribespeople and incorporate them into his character. Also, it was a way to honor the Waodani to say it is Mincaye but it’s Mincaye representing the Waodani people…. And that’s why it became principally male-driven because we chose Mincaye and we chose young Steve to represent the North American side of the story.”
I had asked Ewing about the gender difference between End of the Spear and Beyond the Gates, where the former is male-driven while the latter features extensive interviews with the widows. While they had to make choices about points of view for both films, the adaptation minimizes access to certain viewpoints in order to tell a more or less traditional linear narrative from a central character’s point of view.
Ewing says, “Our hope is that the film is just a catalyst, begins the dialogue…. Then when people go back to the documentary it becomes an even more enriching experience ‘Look at what these women did!’” He goes on to express his amazement at reactions he has already witnessed: “What’s really interesting about this whole process, which I would have never expected, is that when people go back and see the movie a second time they have an even stronger emotional reaction.”
I was also curious about the decision to have actor Chad Allen play both Nate Saint, one of the murdered missionaries, and his son Steve as an adult. It was a specific decision in keeping with the Waodani world view that the father is seen in the son. Ewing explains: “There were way-outside-the-box decisions. But if you’re going to tell the story from the tribe’s perspective, you must be consistent. It’s so strong in terms of lineage, that when Mincaye looks to Steve, he sees Nate as well. For us, Chad Allen was the only actor that could pull off both those characters.”
Ewing also points out that four North American actors portray Waodani, while 80% of the cast was portrayed by non-actors, specifically, people of the Embera tribe of Panama where the film was shot. This is impressive because you certainly do not feel you are watching amateurs act in the film; they did an impressive job. Ewing further describes that process: “We brought eight Waodani advisors up from Ecuador to teach the Embera the Waodani ways. What was incredible during this process was then these two tribes became family. The Embera were so honored to be asked to tell such an amazing story. And the Waodani were so honored that the Embera would give themselves to this process and this story.” Yet another fascinating layer of human communication added to this ever-expanding tale...
As for the professional actors who play Waodani, Ewing recounts that there is “Louie Leonardo being the lead actor, playing Mincayani; Jack Guzman, who was Kimo; Christina Sousa, who played Dayumae; and Gil Birmingham, who was Moipa.” These actors are Hispanic and Native American. In the lead role of Mincayani, the Waodani leader, Leonardo does a masterful job bringing this complex character to life as he struggles with life-altering decisions decisions that will forever change the Waodani life as he and others know it.
Every Tribe’s next feature adaptation will be Chandra’s Mirror, which “deals with the AIDS crisis in Africa.” They have already shot the documentary that will accompany this feature film. Ewing says, “We’re going to continue this pattern of documentary, then feature film. And let the story grow in the documentary, so we always have that basis of truth. All of our films will be based on true stories.” Every Tribe Entertainment is the only film company using this unique approach. If End of the Spear does well in theaters, it will be a real boost for their strategy. There are undoubtedly a lot of potential viewers out there who are interested for varying reasons in more films like this. Ewing has firsthand knowledge of Hollywood moviemaking from his fifteen years at Columbia and from his experiences as an actor before that. He is now concerned with filmmaking that provides an alternative to mainstream Hollywood, with films that inspire, that are hopeful about humankind.
End of the Spear was released January 20, 2006.