By Tim Bennett
David Kiern first picked up a video camera in his teens and has been telling visual, true stories of faith in films ever since. The subjects of his documentaries have taken him all around the world to such countries as: Nepal, India, Kenya, South Africa, Cuba, and Israel. Kiern edited Hallmark’s TV movie, The Shunning (2011), directed by Michael Landon Jr., and his movie, Living Hope, won five Dove Awards and The Great Commission Award at the Attic Film Festival in 2014. His most recent documentary, I Am Israel (2017), has been screened in over 12,000 churches around the globe and The Jerusalem Post wrote this about the movie: “David Kiern’s new film will move you.” The following interview is via a recent phone conversation from his home in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Good News: David, talk a little bit about yourself–growing up, how you became a Christian, and how you got into filmmaking.
David Kiern: Believe it or not, I was five years old when I became a Christian. I come from a great Christian family and my grandparents were also Christians so that was my environment growing up. The few things I remember about that experience was talking to grown-ups about how you become a Christian and being very intentional about my decision. In terms of getting into moviemaking, I grew up loving Walt Disney and thought I was going to be an animator or hand artist when I was 8 or so. When I was 13, I started running around with a video projector. I also had a friend who started making video movies at the same time. So, I did that throughout middle school and high school. In my mid-twenties, I felt God was impressing on me to use this interest of mine for good and show people what He is doing all around the world. I like telling stories about real people. What fascinates me is when God does something in or through somebody’s life. When it’s a true story the audience can’t really argue with that.
The Good News: Tell us about your first feature-length documentary, Journey to Everest.
David Kiern: Originally, I was asked to go on an adventure trek to Mount Everest with seven Christian businessmen who wanted me to direct some marketing videos for them–with Mount Everest as a backdrop. I said I would go if I could make a film. It turned out being my first international documentary that had a real God backbone to it. What helped focus the film was a fatal plane crash in the Himalaya Mountains while we were there. That impacted everyone big time on the front end of the trip because everyone had to ask these big questions about what life means and why is it that those people died and not us when we were all supposed to be on that plane. Ultimately, the theme of the film evolved into the need for us, as Christians, to really maximize the time that God gives us for kingdom purposes. It was my dream around that time, when I was in my twenties, to make adventurous, National Geographic, IMAX-type movies, but about what God is doing in the world with the same quality of great cinematography—whether it is through missions or serving the poor, or whatever. In this film, I was able to interweave another story as well about a Nepalese family who were going around their country, which is about three or five percent Christian, planting churches. They experienced all sorts of adventures, oppositions, and victories. It was easy to integrate them into the movie because they worked with us while we were at Mount Everest. I was trying to figure out how to incorporate faith into these films that does not feel injected” into the film but “extracted” from the film. A great comedian once said, “Great comedy is not injected into a story. It is extracted from the story and the events that are happening.” I try to take this same approach when making God-oriented films as well.
The Good News: How did you learn the technical aspects of moviemaking? Did you go to a film school?
David Kiern: No. I didn’t go to, or graduate from, a film school. As a kid of 13 or 14, I took drawing lessons and storyboard lessons from a professional storyboard artist. So, that helped in terms of visual storytelling and God’s been gracious to me over the years to give me professional and smart people in my life. Mitchell Galin was one of my early mentors and he is a film producer that has done tons of movies and television. We worked together on the Hallmark movie, The Shunning. He also worked with me on my documentary, Living Hope in South Africa, which is about three extraordinary people serving the poor and sharing God’s love in the city of Cape Town. Mitchell and I met when I was about 17, so just meeting people in the industry helps. I think a lot of filmmaking you can learn very quickly in the beginning—maybe 95 % of it. The last 5% is all the new things you keep learning throughout your career.
The Good News: How much time does it take to do a documentary?
David Kiern: The documentary, I am Israel, took about a year and a half. But I also can be doing things in between them like music videos and commercials. I was lucky enough to shoot for about two months in Israel. The African movie we shot in about six weeks, which is unusual for a 90 minute film. I’d say it usually takes me about a year and a half to complete a documentary.
The Good News: How do you decide to do a film?
David Kiern: Personally, I like filming stories that are happening and unfolding in front of the camera, as opposed to telling stories that have happened in the past. I take kind of a ‘survivor’ approach, which I find exciting. I like to show real life so I try to find interesting people in the midst of doing things. So I went to South Africa and made a movie about three Christians who have dedicated their whole lives to serving the poor and they are talking about what they are doing now, which I find more interesting. I think there is a Holy Spirit conviction, too, that He puts on my heart. Since it takes a year and a half, there has to be a real spiritual drive to shoot it and finish it.
The Good News: How do you pitch an idea to potential sponsors?
David Kiern: You know, nobody reads anymore in the marketing world. I write out the story outline for myself but I do what I call a “pitch trailer,” which is a two or three minute video with a voice over narration. I will sometimes include still photography, but it is essentially like a movie trailer which shows what our game plan is for the film.
The Good News: Have you always wanted to do a film in Israel? How did I Am Israel come about?
David Kiern: Up to three and a half years ago Israel was not on my radar at all. I was probably like a lot of Christians in the world. We grow up reading the Bible but we do not really think about Israel and the Jewish people so much. I’ve been doing work with the Ministry of Tourism and I’ve learned that most of the people who actually go there are either empty-nesters or people of retirement age—very few young people. I did not really think of Israel much until I was brought over to the country by Lance McAlindon–a Walmart executive who would later co-produce the film. Lance told me before the trip that God had been speaking to him for about a year to go there and also told him clearly that I was supposed to go with him. He was bringing me there to see if there was a story we could do there. I did not realize how colorful and gorgeous Israel was because the media makes it look like the worst place in the world. Bible movies also do not help. Most of the aerial shots from these films are taken in Morocco or Spain and the countryside looks like the Sahara Desert with a big lake in the middle of it that is supposed to be the Sea of Galilee. The thing is, the Sea of Galilee does not look like that at all. It is very lush with flowers all over the place. So, that was the first thing that struck me about the country. The second thing was meeting the people and seeing the fulfillment of prophecy coming to pass through them that is going on right now. I came away with a desire to communicate God’s hand on this land that is not necessarily being told right now to the world–in a cinematic, beautiful, IMAX kind of way.
The Good News: Have you always wanted to do a film in Israel? How did I Am Israel come about? Besides having a goal to get your film, I am Israel, into 10,000 churches this year, do you have a film project you would like to start in 2018?
David Kiern: You’re right. My number one goal is to get this film into ten thousand more churches because I see it as being responsible and kind of like what the parable of the talents is talking about where God gives you a talent and then says, “Now, what are you going to do with it?” We’ve translated it into four languages now and I’m hoping to put it into at least a dozen languages. I would like to get it into some Asian countries as well. I don’t really know what my next big film will be, but I find it interesting that by the year 2020 China will be the country with the most Christians. So let’s say, what is going on there really fascinates to me.
The Good News: I’ve never seen a good film on the life of David. Is that a story you would ever consider?
David Kiern: It is so hard to make big Bible movies unless you are at the top. However, on the documentary side, you can see the big epic stories going on right now because it only costs tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, as opposed to tens of millions.
The Good News: So you don’t see yourself doing a feature movie any time soon?
David Kiern: No, not scripted movies because I see myself as an artist who needs to put something new out every year and a half and in the feature movie world it takes an average of five years between projects. I just can’t do it.
The Good News: What advice would you give to young people interested in going into movies? David Kiern: I would encourage them to do stories of the great believers all around the world. We’ve got stories of great sacrifice like Braveheart and Gladiator, but there are Christians out in the world right now doing incredible things that nobody knows about. If there were only five directors out there doing things like that we would have two movies a year showing these great men and women of God and what they are doing in adventurous situations.
The Good News: Thank you for being so generous with your time. Is there anything you would like to add before we end?
David Kiern: I would just like to say that the message of I am Israel will strengthen the faith of Christians as they connect with Israel and the Jewish people–it will be a blessing to them.