“Our stories are as big as we think they are.” That’s what Latter-day Saint film director Mitch Davis believes is the key to making a good film about Latter-day Saints: belief that they are important enough to be shared.
It was this belief that led him to make a massively successful, Disney-distributed film about the story of a Latter-day Saint missionary in Tonga called The Other Side of Heaven, and now its sequel, The Fire of Faith.
The second movie was filmed in Fiji earlier this year with plans to release it in theaters in summer 2019. The sequel will follow the story of President and Sister Groberg when they moved their family of five girls to Tonga after he was called as mission president.
Prodding from a Future Prophet
The Other Side of Heaven tells the story of emeritus general authority John H. Groberg as he served as a missionary in Tonga when he was 19 years old. But what most people don’t know is that the movie, which starred Christopher Gorhman and Anne Hathaway, may not have come into existence without the prodding of Thomas S. Monson.
President Monson had been the area's supervisor while Elder Groberg was a mission president, and when Elder Groberg was called as a general authority, one of the first things President Monson told the new leader was, “John, I want you to write a book about your missionary experiences in Tonga . . . because if you don’t, that will be a chapter of Church history that will be lost." Though it took some prodding and over a year of work, Elder Groberg finished the book.
Later, when Davis discovered the book and wanted to make a film out of it, he was given approval on the condition that they didn’t take too much creative license. When The Other Side of Heaven was completed, there was a special screening for the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, other authorities, and their wives at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. It was the first time Elder Groberg would see the film as well, and he was nervous. Elder Groberg recalls, “As it went on, I remember seeing President Hinckley laughing here and there, and then President Monson would lean over and say, ‘I like that part,’ and then President Faust would every once in a while tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘That’s good. I like that.'” During the moments of silence after the movie concluded, Elder Groberg remembers President Hinckley standing and giving his approval: “He had his cane with him at the time and he poked Mitch in the back and said, ‘Good job, young man! Good job! I like it. I think it will do a lot of good.’ Then he turned to me and he said, ‘Well, that was good.’ And again he said, ‘I just have a feeling that’s going do a lot of good.’ Then he turned to his counselors and said, ‘Well, let’s get back to work!’”
And it has done a lot of good. The Grobergs have scrapbooks full of letters and emails from people who have learned about or come back to the Church because of the movie, and it continues to grow. The Other Side of Heaven has now sold millions of copies worldwide and, Mitch says, “has been shown in every major Muslim country in the world. Yemen, Iraq, Indonesia, The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia. Places where the word ‘Mormon’ could never ever be uttered out loud. It’s been on T.V. and sold in their DVD shops.” He concludes, “We shouldn’t expect other people to tell people who we [the Latter-day Saints] are.”
What to Expect from the Sequel
While The Fire of Faith may not have the same reach that its predecessor did, you might say it’s been 18 years in the making, considering how long Davis has resisted making it on a small budget for fear of it being poor quality. And those behind the film believe its success can be measured in more than its sales. In fact, Elder Groberg is quick to clarify that the purpose of the film is not to promote himself but to share light and faith—a fact Davis attests to.
Davis also shares more specifics about the upcoming sequel, “This movie tells the true story of when [Elder Groberg] returned [to Tonga] only 10 years later as a young man in his early 30s with a wife and five little daughters, one only a few months old, to the same place to serve as mission president. And guess what? His wife and children had the same kind of adventures and excruciating tragedies and trials of their faith.” The storyline is based on the second book that Thomas S. Monson encouraged Elder Groberg to write about his service in Tonga.
Mitch shares a sneak preview of one of those experiences that will be portrayed in the movie, “When their son was born in Tonga in 1967, he was very ill. He became so ill so soon that it was impossible to get him on an airplane to the United States to treat him. They didn’t think he’d make the flight. Part of our movie shares how the entire nation of Tonga, all the people of every faith, united in fasting and praying for that little boy’s life. ”
In another sneak preview, Davis revealed that because then-Elder Thomas S. Monson was the supervisor of the area while the Grobergs were in Tonga, he will also make an appearance in the film in the form of an astonishing lookalike from New Zealand, Russell Dixon.
Cast and crew will be gathered from Fiji, New Zealand, and Utah, to film scenes on locations in Fiji. Davis also announced some of the returning cast members as well as a few new faces.
Christopher Gorham as Elder Groberg
Joe Folau as Feki
Whetu Fala as the Branch President’s wife
Miriama Smith as Lavania
Natalie Medlock as Jean Groberg
Russell Dixon as Elder Thomas S. Monson
Keep an eye out on LDS Living for additional stories, insights, and information about The Fire of Faith throughout the upcoming year.
All pictures courtesy of Mitch Davis
Read more about Elder Groberg's experiences in his memoirs, available on deseretbook.com.