Bullets fly. A civil war rages on. And yet six young men don't carry knives or guns for protection. They use the gospel of Jesus Christ as their safeguard.
It's 1989 in Liberia, West Africa, and six missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints find themselves caught in the midst of a war and are forced to flee to neighboring country Sierra Leone to continue their missions.
The movie "Freetown," the latest from "The Saratov Approach" director Garrett Batty, is based on true events. The film premieres April 8.
After being flown out of the country himself, the mission president advised the native Liberian missionaries to do whatever was necessary to stay safe. One such missionary was Marcus Menti. He said the mission president gave them the option of removing their missionary attire and name badges, but the elders refused.
"We had this calling," Menti said at a screening of the film in Provo. "We couldn’t teach, and the big, blaring option before us was to take off our attire, not be missionaries, not teach. I thought, 'This can’t be the end. This can’t be the picture.'"
The film depicts six missionaries and a driver cramming themselves into the cramped space of a small car. But Menti said there were actually eight missionaries plus one church member squished into the car that took them to Sierra Leone to continue their missions. Along the way, the men encountered rebel leaders who held them at gunpoint, and many times, they physically ran for their lives.
Menti said viewing the movie has helped him process the experience.
"It's just as vivid as things were back in Liberia and in Sierra Leone," Menti said. "I have been to three screenings, and the third time was the first time I was able to make it through the whole movie without breaking down. Maybe this is my own therapeutic journey."
The crew filmed "Freetown" solely in West Africa, and excluding those playing the mission president and his wife and a handful of crew members, every actor and crew member for the film were African. Batty said in an interview via Skype from Africa that he knew there was something special about the movie and the members of the team when the cast had its first read-through of the entire script.
"At the end of the read-through, there was a really potent, tangible-feeling emotion," Batty said. "We could certainly attribute that to the spirit that was there because some of the actors, they had experienced this story."
Following the read-through, some of the actors shared what they had experienced during the war in Liberia, and it motivated the team to make the film true to their experiences.
Batty and the film’s producer, Adam Abel, producer of "Saints and Soldiers" and "Forever Strong," felt strongly about each cast member they chose. Without knowing, Abel and Batty cast three members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the film. One of those was Bright Dodoo, a returned missionary who served in the South Africa Capetown Mission from 2008-2010.
"After I returned from my mission, I told all my friends that if I am ever called to serve a mission again, I would so gladly do it," Dodoo said. "So given the opportunity to portray being a missionary, I had to take it."
Native Ghanaian Clement Amegayie, who plays Elder Nyanforh, also served a mission, staying close to his roots in the Ghana Accra Mission.
"During the audition, it was brought to my mind the reason you have someone as a companion," Amegayie said. "It is such a big duty for me to always protect my companions and friends."
When Batty and Abel chose the companionships, they did it in a way similar to how mission presidents pair companionships.
"It's amazing to see how it worked out because the actors really became the role they were playing," Batty said. "We would break for lunch, and the companionships would stay together."
Each of the actors also commented on how the scenes they were acting in seemed incredibly real. Alphonse Menyo, who plays Elder Meyers, said his favorite part of the movie was when he was baptizing a woman.
"It felt so real," Menyo said. "It didn't feel like it was a movie. It was a true moment, and it was very touching to me."
In another scene, the elders sing a hymn to bring the Spirit while they undertake a dangerous trek through rebel territory.
"As we sang, I felt the Spirit, and even though it was a movie, the Spirit was strong," Dodoo said. "And no matter where you are, if you are doing something for Christ, you do have his spirit to be with you."
Bringing that spirit of faith, sincerity and courage to the film was something Batty, Abel and the crew were not willing to sacrifice.
They used a drone camera to film aerial shots for the movie, and at one point, they were using it in a waterfall area. They ran into some technical issues with the drone, and it crashed into the waterfall and fell into the water below. Within seconds, and without anyone asking, one of the crew members leaped into the water, fully clothed, and came out of the water with the drone in hand. Abel set the camera in a box of rice to dry and then used it for the rest of the movie.
"That was definitely a favorite moment," Abel said. "(The crew member's) name is Courage, and a good name, frankly, because he jumped right into the water and saved the day."
To show their appreciation to the crew members, extras and actors in the movie, Abel and Batty flew back to Africa to show "Freetown" on an outdoor screen in the village of Oyibi, where the bulk of the film was shot. This provided the village residents an opportunity to view the movie which they otherwise would have had no means see.
"'Freetown' is a great story and a good project that I will never forget because it is a story that has to do with me, part of my life," Menyo said.
To get into character, Great Ejiro, who plays Elder Forkpah in the movie, said he had to learn to calm down to play his part. Even though he is not a member of the LDS faith, he said he enjoyed the feelings he received from playing a Christian missionary.
"My favorite part of the entire movie is for me to wear the missionary uniform all through the movie," Ejiro said. "I have never worn that uniform before, so it was a wonderful experience for me to wear that uniform."
He also said the movie is a great reminder for him and others to stand up for Christ.
"People should know that if you really want to do something for God, there will be obstacles," Ejiro said. "But going through those obstacles means that the word of God spreads."
“Freetown” is scheduled to be shown in select theaters nationwide. See freetownthemovie.com for theater listings.
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