Depth of faith

Million-Dollar Movie After taking top honors at a Christian film festival, a California couple wins $1 million to make a feature-length movie | Angela Lu

Depth of faith

Abby White plays the lead character in ReMoved.
Photo courtesy of ReMoved.

Yesterday we started something new in WORLD history: We began a real reality show about Megan Dancisak, 26, and her 16-month-old son Ethan. Today we’re starting a second real reality show: It features Nathanael and Christina Matanick, young filmmakers who won Best Film at the 168 Film Festival, earning a prize of up to $1 million to make a feature-length film through Echolight Studios.

We call them real reality shows because television “reality shows” are often heavily scripted. Our goal at WORLD, though, is to show readers actual life in God’s world. Megan Dancisak has the pleasure of raising Ethan, and the hardship of doing so as a single mom. We don’t know what will happen to them as time goes by, but our reporter will find out and update you each month. We’ll also follow the Matanicks month-by-month as they try to create in a way that glorifies our Creator. —Marvin Olasky

Nathanael Matanick had always wanted to work on narrative films, but between his commercial production work and raising two kids with his wife, Christina, he never found the time. When he came upon the 168 Film Project in 2011, he decided the idea was achievable—the festival requires filmmakers to create a short film based on a randomly drawn Bible verse in 168 hours, or a week’s time.

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The Matanicks entered for the first time in 2011. They participated again this year with ReMoved, a film about a young girl in the foster care system. It ended up winning Best Film at the 168 Film Festival on Aug. 10, winning the prize of up to $1 million to make a feature-length film through Echolight Studios. 

“Our expectation when we submitted the film was just hoping it would be screened,” Christina said. “I wasn’t expecting we would win the entire competition.”

The idea came from a foster parent training class in which the Matanicks watched a slideshow describing common emotions felt by children in foster care—rejection, fear, and distrust from past experiences. Christina realized that most films portray the difficult behavior of foster children without explaining why they act up. She wanted to tell a story through the eyes of a child. 

At the Bible-verse selection ceremony, they drew Hebrews 12:2b “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God.” They were elated, seeing how the sacrifice foster parents make is a representation of the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. “Personally nothing is more like the gospel than caring for orphans, opening up your home, and getting into their mess,” Christina said.

Christina wrote the script and Nathanael directed and edited the film. Film industry friends helped, volunteering their time for free. For the main character, Zoe, the Matanicks cast their next door neighbor, Abby White, who at 9 years old had never acted in a film before. 

Competition rules gave them 10 days of pre-production—to write the script, cast characters, and find locations—and a week to shoot and edit. The Matanicks decided to make the film with a voiceover from Zoe’s point of view, while the storyline played out visually. 

They dealt with actors and locations falling through and re-wrote the script on the fly. Before cameras started rolling, they realized they needed an on-set studio teacher for their child actor, and started praying to find one. The next day they overheard a women at their church saying she was a studio teacher. They asked if she would be willing to help, and she agreed to do it for free.

“It was a confirmation that this is from God, that we should be doing it,” Christina said. “He was going to take care of the little details. It’s fun when you feel like you are taking a step of faith and not sure what was going to happen.”

After four days of shooting and three days of post-production, they turned in their completed film along with 150 other teams from across the country and around the world. While the 168 Film Festival is in its 11th year, this is the first time it awarded the winner a feature-length film deal, and subsequently the number of submissions nearly doubled from last year. 

John Ware, 168 founder and executive director, said more entries led to better quality entries: “This is the best year we’ve ever seen in terms of quality and quantity.” Choosing the top film was “absolutely impossible” with the jury deadlocked on five categories, including Best Film.

ReMoved received nominations in 13 categories, and won four of them on Saturday. As two other films also won many categories, Christina prepared for disappointment about the big prize. So when the announcer for Best Film opened the envelope and read “ReMoved,” she was surprised: “In my head I said ‘WHATTT?’... That was very exciting.”

Now the Matanicks are thinking about new ideas for their feature-length film. They also plan on submitting ReMoved to a few other secular film festivals. The film isn’t overtly Christian, but Christina says the gospel infuses it: “It doesn’t need to be preachy, this is what God did for us and this is what we should do as Christ followers.”

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