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'Other Side of Heaven' themes receive Disney label validation

Mitch Davis doesn't really think of "The Other Side of Heaven" as a "Mormon movie," and he hopes the rest of the world will feel the same way. It's a film with universal themes, Davis says — themes that reach out to a wider audience.

The characters in the film just happen to be Mormons.

That would also seem to be the feeling of Walt Disney Home Entertainment, which is distributing "Heaven" on DVD and videotape next Tuesday, April 1. And that's no April Fool's joke.

"It will be in every Wal-Mart and Blockbuster and Hollywood Video (across the country)," Davis said during an interview from Southern California on his cell phone.

What's more, it's going out under the "Walt Disney" label! "Outside of the movie business, people may not realize what that means," Davis said, referring to how the company is extremely protective of the Disney name, and often releases its many video titles under other labels, such as Buena Vista Home Entertainment. "The folks in the home-video department said, 'This is pretty amazing.' They were shocked and pleasantly surprised."

It's quite a validation for the writer-director, who put his heart and soul into the movie, which relates the LDS missionary experiences in Tonga of young John H. Groberg (now a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

And he isn't finished yet. As the film makes its home-video debut next week, Davis is preparing to take "Heaven" out to the rest of the world — a job that will keep him occupied for another six months to a year. "I've had a lot to do with marketing and distribution. The movie did really well at AFM (the American Film Market, where distributors gather to purchase independent movies for release all over the world).

"We're taking it worldwide theatrically and on video and on TV," Davis said. "I've been especially surprised at the number of Muslim countries that have bought the movie." Excel Entertainment's list of countries — so far — that have purchased "Heaven" for theatrical, video, television or other viewing rights, numbers 73, and includes Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and many others.

In May, Davis will take "Heaven" to the Cannes Film Market, at the Cannes Film Festival, which should cause that list to swell. Meanwhile, he's also developing his next film at Disney, though his "Heaven" labors will keep him from taking it into production for awhile.

Davis also did an audio commentary for the "Other Side of Heaven" DVD, which, to his surprise, turned into a rather spiritual experience. "When I went into the booth, they just showed the movie and said, 'Talk,' and every time I started, I couldn't help but recall the personal, spiritual experiences that helped make the movie. I tried to shy away from that, but when I was done, I realized I'd been bearing my testimony on the audio commentary that Disney was now going to release.

"The interesting thing was, five co-producers and engineers all said thank you. It was clear that they'd been moved by some of the things I had discussed. I mention that because I think a lot of people are looking for inspiration, for a reaffirmation of their faith. And Disney is putting out the movie, and it has this audio commentary that says there is a God, and he loves us, and he answers prayers. That's pretty amazing."

Davis also feels strongly that there is a large contingent of potential moviegoers in the world hungering for such movies. "Mormons in Utah are not the only people who really, really wish there were more well-crafted family-friendly movies out there. And, surprisingly, there are a lot of people in Hollywood who wish there were more."

He also has what he describes as a "pet peeve" about the way the LDS audience looks at movies with LDS themes. "The hardest group to convince that this is not a Mormon movie is the Mormons themselves. For us to think that only Mormons can understand our movies is like saying only Mormons can understand the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"We've got to make movies that reach or surpass the standards of the world stage, and we've got to have the guts to pay the price to be on that stage. We should make no apologies for what we are and who we are and how we behave. If we sit on the sidelines and allow others to define who and what we are, we shouldn't be surprised when caricatures of ourselves permeate the media."