A Passion for Film: My Life as a Filmmaker

Like the rest of my Mennonite Brethren Church congregation in Boissevain, Manitoba, I sat with growing anticipation as the lights went down and the first flickering images lit up the screen. It was my first experience seeing and hearing an actual film presentation. It was 1954 and, as a fourteen year old who had grown up on a mixed farm in rural southern Manitoba, this was a moment that would alter the course of my life!

The group that was presenting the film was The Shantyman Organization, whose mission was to visit the logging camps throughout the province and present the Gospel to them. The film was to be used to set the stage for their ministry. But when the first scenes depicted a logger going into a bar, sitting down next to a bar “girl” and ordering a beer, the assistant moderator (my grandfather) spoke up and asked that the film be stopped immediately! The speaker then continued to explain about life in the camps and how the organization ministered to the loggers.

Mennonites at that time had a very dim view of film and equated going to the cinema with committing a sin, so when the film opened with scenes from the “godless” life in the camps their worst fears were confirmed. How that fourteen year old boy became an award-winning filmmaker with an honorary doctorate for his production and distribution of films about Mennonites and their history has been the story arc of my life.

Like many immigrant families, my parents’ lives afforded them little time or money for going to drama presentations or other recreational events. Farm life was hard and demanding. My growing interest in film was therefore not directly discouraged but also not greatly encouraged, or even understood. It would be many years before my parents had a TV in their home.

While I was in high school I went to an actual movie theater for the first time to see Helicopter Canada, which was shot in Panavision and was up for an Oscar nomination. I walked out of the cinema convinced that the medium of film was not in and of itself “sinful” and that with the right perspective it could be used for “good.” My early infatuation with film became a love affair. I resolved to make documentary films and to see them presented on the big screen.

But how to begin? My first “film” was shot on regular 8 mm and edited “in the camera” during the shooting. By this time I was in my third year at Winkler Bible School and was organizing events for those students who didn’t return home for the weekend. The programs were a mix of entertainment and ministry so, using a friend’s camera, I decided to launch my film career.

It was a light comedy based on the ability of the camera to compress time. In it a series of students, one at a time, climbed into a barrel. By stopping the camera and starting it again with another student disappearing into the barrel, the impression was that they were packing themselves into this tiny space. The movie was just three minutes long and well received by both students and faculty who had made a point of staying to watch. I was hooked. I saw first-hand the power of film and its ability to entertain, inform, inspire and motivate people. My direction towards filmmaking was later confirmed when the buzz surrounding my film was, I believe, instrumental in my receiving the Alumni Scholarship upon graduation.

The two main interests in my life at this time were my Christian faith and science. As a result I was able to work as a volunteer at the “Sermons From Science” pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal. During my off time I visited other pavilions and saw what was then cutting edge media presentations--split screens, films and slide shows--that really impressed me. This exposure to the dynamic potential of film was a big factor in my buying a 16 mm Bolex camera. Film, the third interest in my life, was clearly joining the other two.

Following Bible school I went on to complete both a science degree and an education degree, which led me to a teaching post at the Collegiate Division of the University of Winnipeg. There I met and fell in love with Toni Martens, who would become my wife, best critic, tireless cheerleader and assistant and co-producer. At our wedding a future brother-in-law shot the entire event using my Bolex camera. When a technical problem surfaced, he brought the camera to the head table, where I fixed the jam and, in the process, realized that Toni’s acceptance of this interruption confirmed that I had made the right choice for a partner.

With my Bolex camera I became a stringer for the local Winnipeg TV stations, covering news stories in and around the area. It was a thrill to see my footage appear on screen and was also gratifying to receive my first paycheck specifically for working in film.

Inspired by what I had seen at Expo ’67, I jumped at the chance to make my own feature documentary in 1970. Along with Toni, we traveled with Henry Baerg as he toured Mennonite mission stations in Japan, India, Israel and Europe. What we lacked in experience we more than made up for with passion and determination. I carried the Bolex camera with me for twelve hours a day. The resulting film was used in a multi-media setting with Henry’s slides and my film. The presentation played to large audiences in Winnipeg, Abbotsford, B.C., and Fresno, California.

Also that year the Province of Manitoba celebrated its centennial. Throughout the year I filmed many events with the plan to assemble them into a documentary film, to be called The Spirit of 70. All of this was done on speculation and financed out of our own pocket. The payoff was that some of the film’s highlights were shown at the grand finale held in the Winnipeg arena. The CBC also used some of our footage of the Queen’s visit to a Hutterite Colony for their year-end report. The then Manitoba premier, Edward Schreyer, invited us to show the film at his home, and public showings were held in Winnipeg, Portage La Prairie and Brandon.

In 1976, I took a sabbatical from teaching and we produced a 60-minute TV special called Menno’s Reins. This step reflects my growing interest in creating meaningful films that not only entertain but also inform and inspire. The story centered on the Mennonites who came to Manitoba in the 1870s, and the film was produced for the 50th Jubilee celebration of the Crosstown Credit Union of Winnipeg. This film broke new ground for us. It was the first time we were financed instead of using our own funds and it was the first time I worked with a professional crew and a director (Don S. Williams). Menno’s Reins was eventually broadcast on the CBC throughout Manitoba without commercials!

Still on sabbatical, Toni and I purchased a motor home and set out with our three young children for a Western Canada tour, during which we spoke and showed Menno’s Reins and Hazel’s People, a wonderful film by Merle and Phyllis Good. I was beginning to live the life I had dreamt of so many years ago--producing meaningful films and presenting them to appreciative audiences.

When the sabbatical ended I returned to the Collegiate at the University of Winnipeg and was asked to initiate a course in film production and appreciation, one of the first ever launched in Manitoba. My passion and my life were becoming one. It is satisfying to know that, 35 years later, the course is still being taught and that a number of my original students have gone on to full-time careers in filmmaking.

But the rich story vein of Mennonite history was soon calling again. In 1980 I got a call from the Fernheim Mennonite Colony of Paraguay, who wanted to document their 50th Jubilee. In some ways this was a “natural” since Toni’s family had come to Manitoba via Paraguay. With the support of the family and the colony I made four trips to South America and produced a 90- minute docudrama that combined current celebrations, historical footage and re-enactments. I would use this blend again in the production of And When They Shall Ask.

The film was released initially in German as Heimat fur Heimatlose, with later versions created in both English (Home for the Homeless) and in Spanish (Una patria para huertanos de patria). Again I worked with a professional crew composed of cinematographer Burton Buller and soundman Mark Beach. Peter P. Klassen from the Colony was the writer and director.

It seems only fitting that my next major film project would also deal with a family story, in this case my own family’s experience during the Russian Revolution. My mother had told me how she was orphaned during the chaos of the revolution and how both her parents and six siblings had perished within a two-year period. She ended up in the Mennonite Orphanage in Grossweide in the Molotschna in the Ukraine before being finally adopted and brought to Canada. The scope of this story was huge, intensely dramatic and very personal.

Like most film projects, a great idea will remain just a great idea until it is financed. Fortunately at this time the Canadian Government encouraged film production by providing investors in Canadian-produced films with a tax deduction while still becoming shareholders in the project. With the success of Menno’s Reins and Home For The Homeless and the vision for our new film, the Mennonite community all across Western Canada stepped up to support our initial prospectus for And When They Shall Ask.

The responsibility of telling the accurate story of people who were still alive in a compassionate and truthful way was daunting. In the initial drafts we depended on several prominent Mennonite historians, such as Gerhard Lorenz and John B. Toews. Taking the historical facts and weaving them into an entertaining story was the next step. Once again we were able to work with professional people such as John Morrow, who was both writer and director, and Rene Ohashi, cinematographer.

With support and participation of the growing Manitoba film community, we filmed several dramatizations in and around Winnipeg, as well as documenting the personal stories of many of the people who had lived through these events. Again the Mennonite community came forward to help with organization, props and costuming, and many even volunteered as extras when needed. We had the sense that this ground-swell of support was going to lift us to a new level in our filmmaking.

In order to anchor the film in a factual setting, we decided to join a Mennonite tour visiting the Soviet Union and to film the present state of the former colonies and the lives of the Mennonites who had remained. The year being pre-glasnost 1983, filming behind the iron curtain was not easy to accomplish. However, with the help of Edward Schreyer, who was now Governor General of Canada, and my father-in-law William Martens the trip was cleared through the proper channels.

During the three weeks of the trip, John Morrow and I were able to shoot with the old faithful Bolex in locations such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Molotschna, the Black Sea and Karaganda (near the border of China). Although we were “watched” we were able to film unhindered wherever we went. That trip was not only a deeply meaningful pilgrimage back to my own family’s roots but was also a time of great blessing as doors that were normally shut to Western media were left open for us.

The scope of the production was growing. Since music has always been important to the Mennonite community, we knew that it had a critical role to play in And When They Shall Ask. Victor Davies had composed the Mennonite Piano Concerto and agreed to work with us to produce the musical score for the film. This eventually led us to record the music soundtrack with the London Symphony Orchestra at the historic Abbey Road Studios in London, England. As a result the film’s budget began to climb! It was a time of testing, for sure.

And When They Shall Ask was released in theaters in 1983 as a 90-minute docudrama. It played to sellout crowds in Winnipeg (five showings in the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall), Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Kitchener and the Shaw Festival Theatre. Since some of the dramatic scenes were shot in Fresno, California, showings in both Fresno and Reedley, California, were also sold out. On the festival circuit the film won recognition and awards at the Toronto Film Festival, the Chicago Film Festival and the top prize at the Dove Awards in Hollywood.

The CBC purchased a 60-minute cut of the film and aired it nationally on its entire network without commercial interruption. Hundreds of PBS stations, as well as the Discovery network, have also shown the hour version. Local TV stations in Wichita, Kansas, and Fresno, California, have also played the film. In 2001 a German version was produced and is still being distributed on DVD by Logos. In 2010 a revised version of And When They Shall Ask was released on DVD; it included 45 minutes of Bonus Features in which some of the main participants in the production give comment and insight into the making of the film. This version of the film has been sub-titled in English for the hearing impaired, and plans are underway to add Spanish subtitles as well.

It is humbling to see how my films, especially And When They Shall Ask, have become part of the fabric of Mennonite history. In the past our traditions have been passed down mostly through the printed word, and now visual media like film can also be included. Films like And When They Shall Ask are being used at family reunions, as gifts for more recent generations and in schools and colleges across the world. In fact, there is hardly a day in the last 30 years that we have not been involved in some aspect of the film’s distribution or its impact.

Currently our films on DVD and the Mennonite Piano Concerto on CD are being distributed under the not-for-profit Mennonite Media Society www.mennonitemediasociety.com. Also being considered is a book that looks at the events and, more important, the God-directed moments that took place during the production of And When They Shall Ask. It may well be the “spiritual Bonus Features” that will truly complete the story of how the film was made and distributed.

We are also being asked to consider producing a sequel to And When They Shall Ask that would deal with the post WWII Mennonites and their arrival in Canada and South America. The story of those who were sent to the Gulag is also worthy of a film. Many of their descendants are now coming to Canada via Russia and Germany.

My film career and my film passion have blended the main themes of my life: faith, science, family, community and film. The journey has taken me from that small Mennonite gathering in Boissevain, Manitoba, to recognition as a filmmaker throughout the worldwide Mennonite community. Along the way I have tried to honor God in all things, to be motivated by using the medium for good and to minister to my community, as opposed to just make money. Whatever successes I have attained, I humbly pass them on to the Lord, who has actually been the head of the production team from the very first. I make this statement not as a cliché or a gratuitous remark but as a heartfelt belief in how the desire of a young, rural Mennonite boy to create something that would entertain, motivate and inspire was blessed and continues to be blessed by God.

To God be the glory!

About the Author

David Dueck

David B. Dueck, of Winnipeg, is currently executive director of the nonprofit Mennonite Media Society, which makes and distributes Mennonite films. While teaching in the Collegiate division of the University of Winnipeg, he and his wife Toni developed the Dueck Film Productions, Ltd., company. His films have won awards in Chicago, Ohio and Toronto as well as the Angel award at the Dove Awards in Hollywood. Although he has produced dramatic films and commercials, David says it is documentary films that excite him. “They are real!” David was baptized in the Boissevain Mennonite Brethren Church in Manitoba and now attends the North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg. The essay published here is part of a manuscript he is developing for his children that will chronicle his life and work with film. www.mennonitemediasociety.com