Mark Beckford has seen gang violence terrorize his home. He knows the destruction in the Bahamas first-hand because he was a gang leader; he is now about to be locked up for life. Realizing the errors of his ways, a broken cry to God would be his last hope. After promising to change his life if given another chance, Mark was astoundingly released from jail. Little did he know that he would now be tested to see if he was a man of his word. Walk of Redemption, a 53-minute documentary feature based upon his life, will have its world premiere at the 2010 Heartland Film Festival. Co-director Jason North, a graduate of Taylor University in Upland, Indiana talked to The Independent Critic about his film and will be appearing with the film during the festival.
Tell us about your film
'Walk Of Redemption' is a documentary that shows some of the gang violence in the Bahamas and follows Mark Beckford, who used to be a leader of a gang, before he turned his life around, and now he works with the youth trying to bring them together to become friends instead of fighting one another. Basketball is one of the key tools in his ministry called the Joshua & Esther Foundation he uses to build friendships between different communities to stop some of the violence. And we see this unfold as well as other achievements and obstacles along the way in the documentary.
What attracted you to the story of Mark Beckford?
Mark got a scholarship to go to Taylor University in Upland, IN. Tim Sutherland and I attended Taylor University at the same time. First semester of Freshman year, Mark and I had a class together and started to become friends, but I didn't know a lot about his past. Then Tim had a speech class with Mark, and everyone had to give a speech about themselves using 3 different objects. Mark used a toy gun and a Bible and something else. After Tim heard some of Mark's backstory, he felt very compelled, and Tim knew Mark and I were friends. He came to me and told me, "We have to tell this story." I called Mark after that, and it went from there.
It looks like Heartland is your world premiere according to IMDB. Why is Heartland a good place for your journey with this film to start?
Tim (Co-director Tim Sutherland) and I wanted to premiere this documentary at Heartland for different reasons. Heartland's theme and purpose to try to tell the stories with meaning to make a positive impact is one of the main reasons. It's a perfect fit for the message of Walk Of Redemption. Heartland is right in our back yard. Tim and I grew up in Indiana, and this is a good way to give back to the Hoosier state. Also, while at Taylor University, Tim and I have been involved with Heartland in different ways. Taylor has been a supporter of Heartland, and Tim and I have done some promo videos to promote Heartland in the past, and we've gotten to know the people at Heartland. It's been an encouragement to us throughout the past years, and it's great that we get to participate in it this time as filmmakers. Also, Tim won a Crystal Heart Award for a short film he worked on a few years back called 'Thin Ice'. So, for many reasons, we felt that Heartland had a special place in our lives, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to premiere our documentary.
How important is the film festival circuit for a documentary?
Typically for a documentary, the film fest circuit is very important, because docs don't get as many screening possibilities or notoriety as other films. So the film festivals are times that allow for such significant works to be able to be seen by the masses more. Which is important because a lot of documentaries can have very important and life-changing messages. For us, it's great to be in film festivals. But we also have made the documentary to be a tool in helping the Joshua & Esther Foundation in its growth. So we'll be going to different churches and schools and other organizations wanting to get involved, and that's really our main priority with it. To see it bear fruit. So if the documentary can help bring to change to the lives of the viewers who watch it and bring help to the kids in need, that's when we'll feel accomplished in it. And if the film festivals can play a part in helping in that, then that's all the better.
Can you tell me more about your background? How'd you get into film? Other films/projects you've done or are doing? Did you study film?
Tim Sutherland and I both graduated in 2004 from Eastbrook High School in Marion, IN. Especially toward the end of high school we started to become better friends and really got interested in filmmaking. Tim went to Taylor that fall, I took a year off and worked with a writer/director/actor in Marion who runs the Community School of the Arts there. I was planning on going to L.A. but I didn't feel it was right to do at the time. Tim told me about the new production program that was starting at Taylor when we were working on a short video at the time for fun. So I went and talked with the professors in the Media Department who were going to be teaching production at Taylor, and it all worked out really well. And Tim had won a Crystal Heart Award that fall for 'Thin Ice'. From there, Tim and I worked on a lot of projects together through school. We enhanced our filmmaking skills. The program at Taylor was a great program to learn from and we had great opportunities through it. Tim and I both know the power that film can have, and we want to use it for the positive and not for evil. Right now we'll still be doing more with Walk Of Redemption in its mission to help bring aid in the Bahamas, and we'll see in due time what our next project is. We've got some different ideas of our own and some opportunities that have been presented to us. Time will tell. I just want to take it a day at a time and see where God wants to lead.
You really do seem to balance nicely showing the beauty of Bahamas with the stark reality facing residents...Was that a difficult balance?
Most people see the tourist spots and beautiful beaches of the Bahamas, and that's it. Everywhere you go, a lot of times you just see the tourist spots. But that doesn't necessarily show everything in any given country. You have to go among the people to learn about their lives. A big part of the Bahamas is its natural beauty and beaches, but that isn't the whole picture. There are other social struggles in the Bahamas, just like anywhere else. The Bahamas isn't Africa, but there are still many critical issues that need dealt with, as things keep getting worse, and the murder count keeps rising. It's not to say everything is bad about the Bahamas, because there are a lot of things I've learned from being there that are better than the U.S. But there are a lot of things worse than the U.S. there as well. Everywhere you go, there are different pros and cons. So it's about learning how to take the good, but improve on the bad. I don't know if it was hard necessarily to balance the beauty with the residents, because we don't just try to show the harsh circumstances facing the residents. We also try to lead to the more positive things that are taking place that are bringing positive change in the residents' lives. There kids killing one another, but there are kids also trying hard to do right. And there are people like Mark and the people involved in the Joshua & Esther Foundation doing positive things. So to see it all play out before us, it really fit pretty well contrasting the differences.
How did you find out about Mark's story? How's he doing now?
Tim and I learned about Mark's story when we met him at Taylor and decided to do a short documentary. 5 to 10 minutes we thought at the time. But when we first went down and saw the scope of his story and the issues in the Bahamas, it was bigger than we thought. And it grew, and as the years went on, more things happened to make the story grow even more, and that's how it ended up where it is now.
Mark and Tim and I became good friends at Taylor, and we're still close friends today. Mark is finishing up a grad degree at Taylor University, and his wife, Maggie, is finishing her undergrad degree at Taylor. When they're done, and better equipped to return to the Bahamas, they'll be heading back home to be there full-time again to work with the kids with a lot more aid and resources. The goal with the J&E is to incorporate a national youth program to give all the kids in the Bahamas opportunity and proper guidance and provision in their lives.
How hard is it to get a film like this made?
To get an independent film made can be tough to find funding a lot of the time. And it can seem impossible to do. But I think God worked things out really well for us because everything just seemed to come right together. The generous donors that backed our film were involved a lot with Taylor University, where we were at school. They cared a lot about film, and the capabilities of what it could do for good. And they had a heart for the Bahamas and help provide scholarship opportunities for Bahamians to come to Taylor, including Mark and his wife. So this was a perfect fit all around. I feel blessed to have had things unfold the way they have and be a part of this great experience. I've seen a lot of people try to make films for themselves that have their own vision, which can be fine. But it can also be selfish too sometimes. It depends what their motives are. I feel humbled in that I never wanted to do documentaries, but this was an opportunity to put my selfish feelings aside and do something positive to impact the lives of others. I think that really shines through. And I think it is probably easier to work things out when you are trying to do something to bring a positive change. More people will see the truth in that and want to help make that possible.
Did authorities in the Bahamas cooperate? It's a tourist destination and you certainly do show the other side..of course, with a definite inspirational side to it.
There were difficulties at some points with some Bahamians in authority positions. A lot weren't used to people filming past tourist spots, and even though we weren't doing anything illegal, they just weren't used to it. And there were a couple of situations to deal with, but all in all Assistant Superintendent Daniels of the Royal Police Force knows Mark and the J&E and the positive things it's doing. So he helped come along side us to make sure we didn't have more problems. And he's been a great supporter of the Joshua & Esther Foundation. And the people in the Bahamas in general, once they saw our goal of the documentary and knew it wasn't to show them in a negative light, but really show them in a positive light, while addressing negative issues that need changed to help it become an even better place, they were very supportive as well.
Any future screenings already lined up? Other festivals? Any movie news not on IMDB?
We just completed Walk Of Redemption and rushed to get it in Heartland. So Heartland is just the premiere of the film. Bahamas International Film Festival has shown a short 5 minute piece in the past, and they've shown a lot of interest for the documentary in doing more with it. There are some TV possibilities lining up stateside as well as in the Bahamas. Also, some colleges are showing interest in screening the film. Really, we haven't had time to look a lot at other festivals yet, but opportunities are already opening up to us, which is great to get the message out there. After Heartland we'll look and see what other festivals and opportunities open up for us. We're open to doing whatever is best to ultimately help the youth.
IMDB states this is your first film. Getting into Heartland is impressive. What advice would you or could you give to other up-and-coming filmmakers? Who has inspired/encouraged you? Any favorite documentaries?
Tim and I hadn't really done a lot in filmmaking before the documentary. Honestly, Tim had done more than me. But documentaries especially, we were both pretty green in. We made a lot of mistakes along the way, and we did a lot of things right too. Experience is one of the best ways to learn. Sometimes it's just jumping in and getting your hands dirty and doing the best you can. And I can say we tried to do the best we could. And even though next time around we could make a better documentary, I'm very pleased with this being our first one. It was largely done as a student film, and we didn't know what we were really getting ourselves into for some of it. But we went along with it and tried our best and learned a lot, and I think we have a good product. And I think a lot of good will be done with it. But the only way you can accomplish something like this is with diligence, endurance and heart. If you want to do something to this scale half-heartedly, you're wasting your time. I would have given up myself if I didn't feel the Lord leading me to carry me on in knowing it will bring positive change in people's lives. And with Tim and I wanting to imitate the life of Christ, he came to serve and help heal others, and we want to do the same thing. And Mark wants the same thing too, to see people's lives changed for good. But it's all or nothing. There's a lot to personally sacrifice to accomplish something like this.
Ken Wales, was a big inspiration for me. He produced the movie Amazing Grace which I saw the national premiere of at Heartland a few years back. And I got to meet him and talk with him, and he really encouraged me, and his movie inspired me, and I really appreciate him in helping me carry on through this process.
Anything else you'd like folks to know?
Right now we're in the middle of redoing the Joshua and Esther Foundation website. And we're in the process of getting a lot of things set in place with the ministry. But people can check out the Joshua and Esther Foundation website. They can also watch a trailer for the documentary there, and if they want to contact the ministry with any questions they can feel free to do so after visiting the site.
Interview by Richard Propes
Copyright 2010, The Independent Critic