The true story of eight LDS Liberian missionaries in the midst of a civil war inspired director Garrett Batty’s feature film “Freetown.”
The eight missionaries serving in their native country during a civil war that broke out in 1989 were surrounded by devastating conditions that forced them to flee for freedom and refuge.
Their story of faith in the midst of intense fear rocked Batty to his core when he read it in the archive section of lds.org. It inspired him to further research the story in the LDS Church’s archives in downtown Salt Lake City.
What he found were old missionary letters the eight missionaries had written to their mission president about their experiences during the civil war.
“Right there I knew this was a story that would be a great film,” Batty said.
The film “Freetown” is a movie comprised of an almost-all-African cast, taking place in Ghana. “The infrastructure for production was greater in Ghana (than Liberia), and this last summer there was the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.” said Adam Abel, the film’s producer. “Ghana was safe, because there were no confirmed cases.”
Both Batty and Abel are based in Utah but have filmed all over the world, with Batty’s latest film, “The Saratov Approach,” being filmed in Ukraine. However, neither had been to continental Africa. “We came over for a couple weeks and did some preliminary scouting,” Abel said. “It was evident that, visually, a lot of things were working in our favor in terms of value.”
Abel said it was an amazing feat that they went from not knowing anyone in Ghana to having a finished feature film in theaters within six months.
One of the actors on the film, Great Ejiro, said he studied LDS missionaries to accurately portray his role.
“When I was cast and got my script, I took the time to read and understand the character and went and studied missionaries,” Ejiro said. “I think that helped me to prove my character properly.”
Actor Bright Dodoo said the actors relied on Batty’s directing and instructions to interpret their characters and portray realistic emotions for their scenes.
“We didn’t meet any of the missionaries for the film,” Dodoo said. “But studying our lines and shooting every day gave us enough information, so we knew who we were supposed to be like and how we were supposed to act like.”
The actors’ portrayals in the film were very accurate and realistic, according to Marcus Menti, one of the original eight missionaries. He said he has yet to see the film in its entirety.
“I had to muster inner fortitude to see the whole thing,” Menti said. “Because of the imagery of the events, I had to leave once or twice.”
The missionaries faced terror from the rebels who were out to execute anyone from the Krahns tribe, to which one of the missionaries belonged. Menti said they ran out of other options and knew they had to flee their dangerous circumstances in order to survive.
“I felt, and eventually everyone felt, we were boxed in to a point where we were not able to do the work which we were ordained and set apart to do,” Menti said. “We had to make a very quick decision — not realizing what the consequences would have been.”
Menti said his main fear was not being able to fulfill his calling as a missionary.
“We were on a mission for two years; every second was being wasted by this war,” Menti said. “War was eating everything away — without baptisms or being able to proselytize — that was my main fear.”
Menti said he and the other missionaries, along with their driver, local Church member Philip Abubakar, witnessed miracle after miracle on their journey from Monrovia, Liberia, to Freetown, Sierra Leone.
It took them two days of traveling, with most of the roads ridded with terrible potholes. They went through about 50 rebel and military checkpoints along the way. “It was one miracle after another that we came out in one piece,” Menti said.
Menti said he never wanted to give up. The trials he faced on his mission have strengthened his faith.
“My desire, my decision, my will to persevere trumped any desire I had to give up,” he said. “The Lord will give us the means to make sure that which he commands. The Lord always had a hand in it, and I know that now with a surety — 100 percent.”
The pioneer missionaries from Liberia faced unimaginable trials that tested their faith. Menti said he relates these experiences to the Latter-day Saint pioneers crossing the plains to the Salt Lake Valley.
“My faith in the process had been strengthened,” Menti said. “Every trial you endure successfully enhances your closeness and communication with Heavenly Father.”
The U.S. release date of “Freetown” is April 8.
A free screening is scheduled in the BYU Varsity Theater during the evening of April 2 at 7 p.m. Seats will be available on a first-come-first-served basis.