Director Bob Hercules and Executive Producer Steve Sarowitz Discuss Importance Of New Documentary
Ask most people what the Bahá’í faith is, and you will get puzzled looks. It is one of the relatively newer religions and has around five million members around the world. The documentary The Gate: Dawn of the Bahá’í is trying to change that. The film blends expert testimony with dramatic reenactments to tell the story about the beginning of the Bahá’í faith and their mystic creator, the Báb.
The compelling movie is designed to serve as a means for education and discussion. The director of the film, Bob Hercules and the executive producer, Steve Sarowitz discussed with World Religion News the motivation for the movie, what the reaction has been, and the learning experience of trying to create a movie where you cannot show the main character.
World Religion News: What has been the reaction so far to the film?
Steve Sarowitz: The reaction among Bahá’ís is extremely enthusiastic. They’ve been waiting for this film for over 30 years, and the reaction from non-Bahá’í has also been very positive. In general, we’ve had very few complaints about the movie. Almost everybody said they thought the movie was well-made. I think probably because Bob and I have been so close to the film, we have more criticisms of it than the people seeing that.
Bob did a wonderful job with visuals in the scenes. We had a lot of compliments about that in the interviews. We had some wonderful people that we interviewed. I think the story itself lends itself to making a good movie. It is just a very moving story and a very exciting story. And I think that all of us combined to make people like the movie.
“It is just a very moving story and a very exciting story. And I think that all of us combined to make people like the movie.”
Bob Hercules: I’ll add too that I am not a Bahá’í member myself. I have friends of mine that have seen the film and are quite impressed with it. I mean they hadn’t known anything about the Bahá’í faith except for maybe been to a temple a few times. But other than they thought it was just a tremendous amount of information and a great story. So people have been very enthusiastic about it.
WRN: And what was the inspiration for the film?
SS: In February of 2015, I became a Bahá’í. Three days later I emailed my friends and said to him “I’m a Bahá’í now.” He has been a Bahá’í all his life. We are in the same industry together, so he knew I was Jewish and we’d known each other for over ten years. And I said to him I want to retire and teach the faith. He said, “you could do that, and you could reach hundreds of people, or you could make a movie, and you could reach millions of people.”
By the way, when I emailed him, I emailed him a picture of me declaring. In the background was a picture of a hundred martyrs from Iran who’d been martyred because they were Bahá’ís and one of them was my friend’s father. At the time, I didn’t look at the picture very closely. But months later I noticed on the side of the picture all the people were numbered, and his father was number 49. Which just happened to be my age at the time. So anyway my friend tells me to make this movie and less than an hour later I got an email from Peter Samuelson, a movie producer who wanted me to do some work with foster children because I’m also a philanthropist. So I ended up doing work with foster children with Peter whose most famous movie is called Revenge of the Nerds. We ended up having this great conversation, and he said: “come out to L.A. and talk about this.”
As we’re sitting at a table in Santa Monica, the people at the next table asked a question about Christianity which I hope I answered correctly. And one of them asked about a movie about the Bahá’í faith. So after those couple coincidences, I thought “you know someone’s trying to tell me something that maybe I’m supposed to do this.” I had said if I’d been a Bahá’í for four days when this had been proposed I might not have done it because it would seem too daunting of a proposition. But it’s been a wonderful ride to make this movie having not known anything about making a film and knowing very little about the Bahá’í faith.
“If I’d been a Bahá’í for four days when this had been proposed I might not have done it because it would seem too daunting of a proposition.”
WRN: Do you think it’s an issue of people knowing nothing or an issue of people having misperceptions about it?
SS: It’s a combination. I believe very passionately in the Bahá’í faith and its ideas about the oneness of humankind. If you look at the United States as an example where there are so many divisions with people being so hateful towards each other.The Baha’i faith is all about unity and reconciliation. It’s about the oneness of humankind and going even further. Some people say that coexistence is good and that tolerance is good. I’m pretty sure that Jesus never taught us to tolerate each other. He told us to love each other. The Bahá’í faith is very much about that, really breaking down these false barriers.
WRN: While watching the documentary something that comes across is even though it’s one of the youngest religions there is a lot of radicalness in the message.
SS: The message is always radical whether it being Christ, who was crucified for his radical message, Muhammad who was chased out of Mecca, or Moses who was pursued by the Egyptian priests.
As we believe it’s a single faith of God and that it’s always been radical. When the Messengers come with a new message, at first we’re not ready for it. We believe that Messengers are the same spirit returning. Essentially that the spirit of Christ is in all of these Messengers. And then over time almost like a tree growing they plant a seed, and a tree grows. A golden age follows each one of them. Moses’s message turned into the Kingdom of Israel and Zoroaster inspired the great Persian empire which lasted for centuries. Jesus Christ was followed by the Byzantine Empire which also lasted for a thousand years, and Muhammad raised his followers up to the Golden Age of Islam. So initially their message was rejected. They suffer. Their people who were following them often suffer. But over time the message is adopted. And that’s when you see the fruits of that knowledge. And we believe the same thing is happening with the Bahá’í faith.
WRN: And what is the next step and then you have this series of screening?
BH: So we’ve had screening requests from 125 countries and counting them, so that will go off. We are starting to show the film all over the world now, and I’m planning a trip to the U.K. in August. They’re very excited about having us. The film will be shown all over the world. It’s been shown nationwide on ABC. We’ll be showing it at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
I think the film will introduce many people to the Bahá’í faith. And you know again it’s ideas of reconciliation and oneness and the idea that we don’t have to fight over which religion is better. It’s really all a single religion and always has been. The radical idea, as you said, is to think that Buddhism and Christianity are the same faith or that Hinduism and Christianity are the same faith.
WRN: No one has criticized this project as purely a recruitment tool for Bahá’í?
SS: One thing that’s helpful is that Bob is not a Bahá’í. We rely heavily on him and Jan, our editor. We also actually did some focus groups with non-Bahá’ís. We very much wanted to make this film not triumphalist. Not beating you on your head. We feel this film is more of a historical movie about the Bahá’í faith. In fact, one of the big complaints we had about the film is that it doesn’t give you enough points about the Bahá’í faith. We’re not out to convert people. Our goal is to introduce people to the faith. Those people who are interested can study for themselves and decide if they’re going to become Bahá’í. We don’t expect nor has it happened that massive amounts of people will convert based on the movie.
WRN: What about the stylistic choices for the documentary? You have a combination of experts that you mentioned and you have dramatized versions of historical events. How did you decide for style?
BH: We had a challenge where we couldn’t show the main character of the film, the Báb. So we had to get very creative regarding how we were going to tell the story without showing the main character. As we were collaborating and brainstorming and it was pretty clear from the beginning we would need to do reenactment scenes because this was in a period in Persia pre-photography for the most part. So you know how do you visualize a story from the 1840s in Persia?
We settled on doing some reenactment scenes to help visualize the story and also to show the people that were impacted by Báb’s message. We got into it with our archivist and our editor, Jan Sutcliffe, and a few others. We were able to find, through some incredible detective work, some amazing photographs from the beginning of photography in Persia.
That was helpful too because as the director of the film was I wanted to show ordinary Persians, how would they have been affected by this revolutionary message and what were the circumstances and context under which they would be receptive to such a radical message. Therefore those photographs were crucial to me, as well as the re-enactment scenes. The third layer was the interviews. We worked hard on assembling an esteemed group. These are some of the foremost religious scholars in the world. They were very articulate and good storytellers.
You might say a fourth element was we used some CGI work to give us a sense of the scope of the story, especially the execution scene, which was a challenge to film. We used some extra tools to make it look like there are more soldiers and things like that. It was a combination of all those elements and weaving them all together to try to tell the whole story.
SS: One of the challenges Bob had to overcome as a director is this non-portrayal of the Manifestations of God. As Bahá’ís, we can’t show any Messenger of God whether it be Jesus or Moses or the Báb or Muhammad. We were learning this as we went. There’s never been a movie about the Báb. I didn’t warn poor Bob about this when I first hired him, “By the way, we’re going to learn how to do this.” But he was a trooper. And what I love is that we work as a team.
BH: We had many sessions where there were several of us throwing out ideas. We spent over a year alone on the script itself trying to boil down this very complicated story into a palatable one-hour show. And so that was part of the consultation Steve is talking about. We have many people involved, and we were trying to get to the essence of the story.
WRN: Was there anything that was left out because you’re trying to get to the essence that you would have wanted to keep it?
BH: Yeah there were a few scenes. For some scenes, I would have it would have been nice to have longer scenes a longer exposition I might have wanted to have them be a little bit longer, but I was ultimately quite pleased with the final result. I’m thrilled with it actually, and so I think it came out well.
SS: I can give you my scene. The last one that Bob cut. Manuchehrk Khan, a governor and in my opinion a wonderful character. There’s a beautiful part where he says that he wants to give his fortune to the Báb. The Báb predicts that he will die in three months and three days. The governor tells him tells “I’m going to give you all my money” and the Báb says “no you’re going to die anyway.” We cut that part out. We also cut some of the more miraculous pieces because we didn’t want it to be unbelievable. There was a lot of fascinating phenomena.
WRN: And is there anything in the documentary that you think is especially important that might not be seen as central or something that’s very dear to you?
BH: Interesting question. So one thing is the character Tahirih. I think he was our popular character outside of the Báb by far. There is a connection between her and the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention which coincidentally happens days after she announces that there are a new faith and new laws. One of the laws of equality for women. So we took that part out. We couldn’t put everything in. So I think that powerful connection with the worldwide Women’s Rights Movement. I think people make a connection, but I don’t know if they realize timing wise how strong it is.
SS: Since you brought that up I mean that to me is one of the most important and crucial points in the film when she unveils herself. It is an abrogation of the old ways. The dawning of a new era right at that moment. It’s a critical piece that happens and turns everything around. There are a lot of important things in this story, but that’s almost like a critical juncture for the entire world. That was the moment that everything changed and there was no going back at that point.
SS: One thing that people have asked for that we didn’t put in the film is what does the Bahá’í faith do in the modern era. How are we making the world a better place? I don’t think that’s the film we made. And again that goes back to your original question about trying to convert people. Other films have been made like that. That information is available. That’s not our film.
BH: In my experience as a filmmaker and I’ve been doing this for about 35 years it is better to tell a great story and captivate people, move them and to reach them on those emotional levels. Then, at the end of the film, if they are really interested in the subject, whatever it is, they’ll go and do their research. They can Google things, and they can do whatever they want. Human beings are story based creatures. And so it takes is for them to tell a great story and leave it at that and let people go on to do their work.
WRN: Why does it seem that other religions have much more media attention than Bahá’í?
SS: First of all Bahá’í is a relatively new faith, and because of that, we have smaller numbers. If you look at the growth of the faith, we’re kind of in a similar trajectory at this juncture in our history that Christianity was on. Being a small religion that means we have fewer people who can afford to make the movie and fewer people to watch it, relative to Christianity or Islam who’ve been around for a long time.
Second of all, there are the challenges of not being able to show this Messenger. That’s a big challenge. That is something we’ve had to overcome with this particular faith. I think a lot of people for the last 40 years wanted to make this movie. But it’s been the daunting thing about this movie versus making a film about Christianity or Islam or Judaism or any of the other older faiths. Most people know those story. So you’re not the first. In other words, even if you tell the story of Jesus people know that story. This is the first time that a Messenger of God is getting introduced to humanity in the form of a movie. So there’s a lot of pressure to do it right.
“This is the first time that a Messenger of God is getting introduced to humanity in the form of a movie. So there’s a lot of pressure to do it right.”
BH: I’ll add one more thing. Thanks to Steve for providing the resources to do it on this scale and to tell the story at this level. That’s another daunting challenge to any filmmaker is frankly the resources available. A lot of documentaries do not have these kinds of resources, Therefore people don’t give up, or they take a pass on it, or any number of things happen. So my hat’s off to Steve for having a vision from the very beginning and allowing us to work at the peak of our skills. It was just tremendous to do those kinds of re-enactment scenes, and Spain was obviously very expensive, but it is a tremendous addition to the film.
WRN: If someone can’t make it to the screening what can they do?