LANCASTER, Pennsylvania — For decades, the ministry Sight & Sound has created biblically-based entertainment at its performance theaters. And now, it's expanding its entertainment portfolio with Sight & Sound Films, beginning with the Christmas movie release, “I Heard the Bells.”
Set in the 1800s, the film is about American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who "leads an idyllic life until the day his world is shattered by tragedy," the film synopsis reads. "With a nation divided by Civil War and his family torn apart, Henry puts down his pen, silenced by grief. But it's the sound of Christmas morning that reignites the poet's lost voice as he discovers the resounding hope of rekindled faith."
"COVID really pushed us out of the nest," Sight & Sound President and Chief Story Officer Joshua Enck told The Christian Post about how the new film came about. "We were predominantly, obviously, a theatre company, telling [the stories of] biblical characters on stage in a very epic way and that really became the Sight & Sound brand. But a lot of us have always sensed that we are more than a theatre company and theatre ministry. We really felt more like a story company, a company and ministry of storytellers."
The creator said it has always been the power of story that appeals to him, and Sight & Sound has never discounted any method or vehicle of storytelling in its 46 years as a ministry. Now films are the next avenue.
During the pandemic and ongoing lockdowns, the ministry launched the streaming service Sight & Sound TV, which enabled people in more than 100 countries to watch live performances, including "Queen Esther." After God's leading, the organization decided to take a leap of faith and create Christian films.
"When we did the live broadcast events, and the energy started to pick up, we prayed and discerned that we feel like we need to tell more stories beyond the stage,” Enck said. “Even though those stage shows are getting out through the airwaves across the world and as incredible as that is, we felt like there was a turning of the page for us to go back to our roots, pick up the camera again but this time, make motion pictures.”
Before joining Sight & Sound on his mother's insistence that he look into the company, Enck had sought to make films. But he quickly fell in love with the people at the theater and their mission to bring biblical stories to life. Soon his gift of storytelling was being utilized, too, as he began writing and producing stage productions for the company.
"Around COVID, we started realizing the global impact, [so] we dusted off the dreams of making movies and decided to go for it and do it differently than the industry, in that, we have so many resources here under our roof that we realized we're already more or less a film studio,” he said.
Sight & Sound's founder Glenn Eshelman also had a love for the stage and multimedia and was intrigued by the idea of blending the two. He originally started his productions in 1976, crisscrossing the country to broadcast his slideshow at churches. After years of traveling, he decided to open a theater.
A decade later, Sight & Sound began its immersive experience using live animals and performing on a 300-foot panoramic stage. Now, it has built a film studio next to the iconic theater in Lancaster.
"Our heart for Sight & Sound films is to tell the stories of figures and events from history who changed the world because Christ first changed them," Enck told CP about why the team decided to make “I Heard the Bells.” "There are endless stories, endless people, and figures and events that we could talk about,” he added.
The film creator said that, off the top of his head, he could list 10 Christian figures throughout history who changed the world through a song, a poem or an event.
"So many Christians in our recent history, post-Bible characters that just because they have died, doesn't mean that their stories are dead or that their prayers are dead. We have a calling to pick up those batons and tell those stories and inspire a new generation,” Enck said, describing "I Heard the Bells" as something that was initially under the radar because they were busy with the theatrical production of "David."
"The resources were not there for us to approach films the same way that we approach stage productions. We have this machine of 700 people committed to this three-and-a-half-year process of building a stage show. And then we are starting films, and we just didn't have that machine at our disposal,” he noted.
Nevertheless, Enck held onto his vision and led the charge of creating the film in faith.
"We believe that the Lord has now challenged us and charged us to tell stories on the screen for a mass audience," he said of why he moved ahead with the movie. "So we knew that He directed us to that, and that was the stake that we drove in the ground that said, 'We're going to do this because we know it's the right thing to do for Sight & Sound.'
"I Heard the Bells" wasn't expected to be a full-length feature film, he added. It started off as a short "experimental" film. Enck was inspired by an earlier Sight & Sound production, "The Voice of Christmas," that depicted the true story behind the poem, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
"It always stood out to me because it's a Civil War era story; it's Americana. It's about a poet, the poetic voice," he continued. "I just remember years ago, seeing that scene, thinking that would be an amazing story to research. So I picked that one up and started to realize that there was so much power in that story of loss, hope and having it redeemed and brought back to him again. What he chose to do with that inspiration was put pen to paper and write a poem.
"I was not a Henry Longfellow historian. But as I started to look into his story, I realized he was not just America's most famous poet at the time, but he was considered America's most famous person in the 1850s and 1860s. He was the voice in a culture that would have had stories in the paper that people would have read aloud; schools memorized his work,” Enck explained.
The saying "two ships passing in the night" came from Longfellow, and Enck credited him for shaping the "character and the legacy of America during that time."
"He was a trailblazer in the poetic. What Charles Dickens was to England, Henry Longfellow was to America. So, when I realized that he was America's most famous person, and then all of a sudden his writing stopped and it was because of tragedy in his life, I thought, 'People can relate to that.'" Especially through the COVID experience, there's been a lot of loss; there's been a lot of sorrow and sadness.
“Christmas is typically a beautiful and wonderful time, but it's also a very lonely time of the year for people who have had significant loss,” he told CP.
Once the heart of the story came to the forefront, they decided to make it into a film.
The heart of the story followed the premise that, "like a church bell in a steeple, when it rings out, it rings out across the land, across water. It's a voice of the Church," he continued. "That's what Henry was for America at that time. He was on top of the highest steeple. His words were ringing out and everything was being heard. But then when that bell fell from its steeple and lay in the rubble [during the war], and silenced, Henry thought that his pen has also silenced, his voice is silenced.”
"But as God does, it's because he fell from his steeple. Because we've fallen from our Christian steeple and had been in the rubble and been in the mess, our testimony actually rings out more loud and deep,” Enck assured.
"Those are the stories we want to tell," he added, emphasizing the relatability of Longfellow's story. "We want to tell stories that are relevant today. We want to tell stories that speak truth to power. And we want to tell stories of redemption that bring inspiration, inspire people who think that they may have lost their voice,” Enck said.
"We're excited and ready to jump into the fray of the film industry. We don't want to copy what the world is doing. We want to create new.”
"I Heard the Bells" will be in select movie theaters for three days only on Dec. 1 and Dec. 3-4. To purchase tickets in advance, visit fathomevents.com.
Jeannie Ortega Law is a reporter for The Christian Post. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org She's also the author of the book, What Is Happening to Me? How to Defeat Your Unseen Enemy Follow her on Twitter: @jlawcp Facebook: JeannieOMusic