Tell the World is an ambitious film that represents a step forward for an Adventist production, breaking out from the traditional “talking heads” documentary.
It is a difficult film to label because it looks like a movie—through imagined reconstructions of characters and conversations—but acts like a documentary—because its primary role seems to be to convey information. In effect, it is really a moviementary: a dramatised history of the origins and foundation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It represents progress in an Adventist understanding of how visual media works best: as a communicator of attitudes, emotions and values rather than of information.
[The film] represents progress in an Adventist understanding of how visual media works best: as a communicator of attitudes, emotions and values rather than of information.
Tell the World begins with the origins of the Millerite movement in the 1830s, with William Miller as the central character, switching about halfway through to Ellen White, as the Millerites gradually organise into the Seventh-day Adventist Church with distinctive doctrines and emphases, such as the Sabbath, the health message and education. The film attempts to explain the key theological and religious ideas that drove the Church’s pioneers, while at the same time fleshing out the founders of Adventism so that they come across as real people.
The cinematic step forward is in dramatising the facts, with the intention of making denominational history more appealing and memorable. And it has done this well. The high production values result in a film that looks thoroughly professional, with quality sets, locations and costumes. The professional actors are almost uniformly good, creating believable characters and credible emotions. The cinematography is excellent and the directing assured. One shot in particular stood out for me: Ellen White standing on a snow-covered ridge, in mourning after the death of her eldest son Henry. Its exquisite framing and tone speaks more eloquently of sorrow than does copious screen weeping. Though to be fair, Tommie-Amber Pirie, who plays Ellen White, handles her role with aplomb, as convincing with her vision scenes as with the emotionally-charged scenes of the loss of two of her boys.
However, the film is overweighed with history, with the screenwriter struggling to cram in the many theological issues of the era, especially the now-obscure ones of the Millerite period, while trying to keep the film from bogging down with theological exposition at the expense of the narrative.
The medium of film is ill-suited to explaining complex ideas such as the sanctuary doctrine; it is more effective in offering modern viewers an approachable and human Ellen White, along with other pioneers, which to its credit it partially accomplishes. To see the interactions, disagreements and arguments of the principal personalities, as well as the nice touches of the critics of Adventism in the tavern, was one of the most persuasive features of the film.
Rightly handled, Tell the World is an ideal educational tool, rather than a stand-alone cinematic text. Its imposing length and density of historical detail suggest that it is best presented not at a single screening, but episodically, with time to discuss and unpack the story further with the assistance of additional textual information. While it struggles to communicate an excess of Adventist apologetics and history, the Church is to be congratulated for its increasingly assured and effective use of visual media.
Gradually we are learning that film is not very good at conveying hard information—but all is not lost. Historical movies capture audiences who ordinarily won’t read a book and often act as catalysts for viewers to do their own research. Perhaps our next move is to produce a mini-series, allowing characters to be fully developed and acting as inspiration for audiences to seek out the historical detail, which is best presented in print rather than on screen.
Daniel Reynaud has a doctorate in historical movies, and has published extensively on the subject. He is also the writer of a number of It Is Written episodes on the Anzacs and religion. He is an Associate Professor of history at Avondale College of Higher Education.