“You don’t get into making films about religion because it’s a great marketing idea,” says Martin Doblmeier. “It’s exactly the opposite. It’s the hardest sell. It’s just uphill all the way.”
Still, the 52-year-old filmmaker has had at least one great marketing idea. After making TV documentaries on religious subjects for 20 years, Doblmeier’s Alexandria firm, Journey Films, produced a movie for theatrical release: a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the liberal German theologian who plotted to kill Hitler and was hanged in the Third Reich’s final days. But then Bonhoeffer was rejected by the largest showcase for American indie films, the Sundance Film Festival.
Some Sundance refuseniks turn to alternative festivals such as Slamdance, but Doblmeier called on a higher power: the Interfaith Council of Churches in Park City, the Utah ski town that hosts Sundance every winter. “I was lucky, because the people who head up the council had seen other films that I had done,” explains the filmmaker, an earnest, ruddy-faced man who speaks in the sonorous, declarative style of someone who’s done more than a little voice-over work. (In fact, he narrated Bonhoeffer.)
“They said, ‘We like this film very much, and we’d like to be part of this. If you would like to come out here for the week of Sundance, we’ll use our churches as movie theaters, because we think this is the kind of film that we need to be bringing into our churches.’
“That’s what happened,” he continues. “And when we sold out all but one show and added on more shows, the media started to pay some attention. By the time we got home, we had invitations to go with this all across the country.”
After Bonhoeffer’s big week in Park City, Journey Vice President Dan Juday returned to the five-person firm’s office, a town house near the King Street Metro station, to organize screenings sought by other churches and synagogues. “There must have been 45, 50 requests the first day I sat down to work on this,” he recalls. “It immediately had a life of its own.”
“We had no money and decided, Let’s do it. Let’s see what happens,” says Doblmeier. “Desperation has a certain way of taking over sometimes.”
Doblmeier, a Roman Catholic, was first inspired by Bonhoeffer in high school, when he read the theologian’s letters from prison. “I was so moved that I started getting involved in soup kitchens and little social projects,” he says. Bonhoeffer was also one of the reasons Doblmeier decided to study religion at Rhode Island’s Providence College in the early ’70s.
Essentially, the documentary began then, although it took Doblmeier another 30 years to complete it. “Bonhoeffer was a perfect candidate for us,” the filmmaker notes. “I’d been thinking about doing Bonhoeffer for years.”
Doblmeier arrived in Washington from Boston in 1980 to work on Reel to Real, a TV program about religion and society. He founded Journey three years later because he wanted to expand beyond Reel to Real’s six- to eight-minute reports. The company went on to produce such TV documentaries as Final Blessing, a 1997 film about spiritual issues of the terminally ill that was shown on PBS and NBC, and Church Without Borders, a program about religion’s role in immigration issues made for ABC in 2001. In two decades, Journey has produced only
one documentary on a secular theme, 1996’s Thomas Jefferson: A View From the Mountain, which was broadcast by PBS and the History Channel.
Religious issues, Doblmeier says, are “what we think is interesting. My folks used to tell me, ‘If you want to get in a good argument, it’s all about politics and religion.’ So we put them both together.”
The filmmaker describes Bonhoeffer as a film about “a man who’s deciding that he’s got to live out what he believes is the will of God,” and he clearly enjoyed taking the film to audiences who share his interest in such prayerful struggles. “We like this formula of going first to the churches and building on a real grass-roots level,” he says. “This was a wonderful experience for us.”
The last theatrical feature to enlist churches in a nationwide marketing effort was Left Behind, the eschatological horror flick based on the first in a series of novels about “the Rapture”the imminent moment when everyone who’s not a fundamentalist Christian gets what’s coming to him.
“I never saw the movie, but I heard they were doing some of that,” Doblmeier says. “I hoped that we wouldn’t be compared, because this is a totally different kind of film and subject. We were trying to develop a film that was true to the story. And then, once we finished that, to see if it would attract people from across the religious spectrum.”
So far, Doblmeier believes that at least the latter goal has been achieved: “We’ve been invited to present the film and to hold discussions in what I would consider to be the very left-wing Christian world, where they look at Bonhoeffer as a real model for them, as a Christian martyr in social justice. And at the same time, we’ve been invited into the nondenominational, born-again Christian world. That tends to be very conservative
and very Biblically based, very different from the other side.
“And they are equally drawn to Bonhoeffer, for very different reasons,” he continues. “Because he’s very Christ-centered, and that’s what they’re particularly interested in. Despite the fact that these two groups may not always talk to each otheror talk to each other very nicelythe bottom line is that somehow Bonhoeffer talks to them both.”
After approximately 50 church and synagogue dates, Bonhoeffer was picked up by New York-based distributor First Run Features and headed for American art houses, beginning June 20 in New York. (It opened in D.C. last week.) Doblmeier sounds almost wistful about the days before his movie was in theatrical release. “Now it starts in a much more commercial sense,” he says, “where all people seem to care about are how many people are in the seats. The discussions now are over.”
He adds, however:”I understand that this is the next logical step. We had done dates all over the country, and we can’t really do that any more. It’s time to move to the next level.”
The next level is exactly where Journey meant to go with Bonhoeffer. “The very fact that it was crafted as a 90-minute piece,” notes Juday, “is evidence that we saw it had a dual application. But never having brought a film to the theaters, there was no clear avenue for us. It was more a hope than a finely honed strategy.”
Bonhoeffer will eventually appear on TV, presented by South Carolina Educational Television. “But I think it’s a totally different experience to see the film in theaters,” says Doblmeier. “I think a film that’s been in theaters first is treated differently than a television program. To have the film in theaters allows it to have a life where it’s before people, where it’s talked about and thought about for a longer period of time.”
In their ongoing search for greater impact, Doblmeier and his team hope also to make small-budget fiction features. “I still see it as the same kind of material,” says Juday. “The spiritual issues are the heart of it.”
Making fiction films would require, Doblmeier concedes, “a whole other level of fundraising.” And it’s not as if Bonhoeffer was easy to finance: The documentary was made over a four-year period, as money became available.
“We started in 1998 with a small grant,” Doblmeier says. “My idea was to go over to Germany immediately and start shooting interviews with the people who were the oldest and most fragile. It took us almost four years to get the money to finish the film, and several people [who appear in it] did pass away. Eberhard Bethge, who was Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, passed away in 2000.”
It was in Germany that Doblmeier found striking footage, unknown in the United States, in which Hitler appears not as a militarist ranter but as a sort of German national pastor. The churches in Germany “allowed a political figure to take from them this religious language and religious symbolism,” the director says. “That’s why we used those sections of Hitler preaching. It’s not so much a speech as it’s a prayer that he’s offering. We had never seen anything like that before.”
The filmmakers also managed to show Germans something they hadn’t seen before: The enormous impact that Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church had on Bonhoeffer during his ’30s sojourns in New York. That helped Journey secure funding from another source, German public television. “Having an American make a film about a German theologian for German television was just unthinkable,” Doblmeier says. “But when they actually saw the film, and saw things they had never seen in any other Bonhoeffer film beforeand in particular his experience in New Yorkthey took it.”
Although Journey is not a nonprofit company, it can offer its backers tax deductions. Bonhoeffer was made in partnership with South Carolina Educational Television, Doblmeier explains: “You don’t write a check to us; you write it to South Carolina Educational Television. Then South Carolina channels the money to us. And then South Carolina gets to present the film when it goes to public television.”
Such arrangements are necessary, Doblmeier says, because “documentaries don’t make money. (This is a customary financing arrangement for public-television productions.) The cable outlets can make money, but a documentary on its own making money is really rare. The number of outlets is up, but the [price outlets will pay] per documentary minute is being pushed down constantly. The market is getting really pressed.”
Juday declines to reveal how much Bonhoeffer cost, but he says it was roughly three times as expensive as a typical Journey production. Including theatrical and video revenues, the documentary could also net three times as much as other Journey releases, Juday notes, although he cautions that such a rate of return is far from guaranteed.
To keep making films, Doblmeier has to consider such matters, but ultimately he’s interested in something other than his company’s balance sheet. “I’m just endlessly curious,” he says, “about how people see the divine and the workings of God in their lives.” CP