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True stories of children held hostage, missionaries fleeing civil war bookend 2015 LDS Film Festival

OREM — One is a story of the unwavering faith of children in the face of mortal danger.

The other is a story of Mormon missionaries showing courage and conviction and making extraordinary sacrifices for strangers.

Both films are scheduled for screening at the 2015 LDS Film Festival at the SCERA Center for the Arts from March 4-7. Festival organizer Christian Vuissa said that "The Cokeville Miracle," directed by T.C. Christensen, and "Freetown," from director Garrett Batty and producer Adam Abel, will bookend the festival beautifully.

"We couldn't be happier with the lineup of films this year," Vuissa said.

The offerings come from proven filmmakers. Among Christensen's recent credits are the pioneer films "17 Miracles" and "Ephraim's Rescue." Batty wrote, directed and produced "The Saratov Approach." Abel produced "Saints and Soldiers," "Forever Strong" and "Saints and Soldiers: The Void."

"Freetown" is the story of six native Liberian missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints trying to flee the violence of civil war to safety in Sierra Leone.

Their desperate efforts make for an important and brave film, said Brandon Purdie, head of Purdie Distribution, distributor of "Freetown."

"When I first announced 'Freetown' last year at the LDS Film Festival, I had no idea of the powerful experiences that this film would provide," Batty said in a press release. "I'm thrilled to now have audiences share in this significant journey."

Batty had heard about the missionaries' experience in Liberia, but had no details. So he started seriously researching the story and ended up in the LDS Church History Library.

"It was very intriguing," Batty said. "It was based initially on oral accounts and letters to the mission president. I assembled the story and built an outline and called Melissa Leilani Larsen who is an amazing playwright."

Batty said it's surprising how relevant the 1989 story is today.

The film was shot entirely on location in Accra, Ghana, and features African actors in the lead roles, some of whom lived through the civil war experience.

"I'm very pleased with how it turned out. The moment of faith comes through," Batty said. "I had never worked in Africa before. I had no experience with what Africa was."

"The Cokeville Miracle" is the true and sobering story of elementary schoolchildren held hostage by a mentally unbalanced man and his wife in a small Wyoming town in 1986.

Over 150 people — 135 of them children — were threatened with guns and the detonation of a bomb.

Christensen said the suggestion to do a movie about the story came from a cousin.

"You know, cousins don't come up with good movie ideas, usually," Christensen joked. "And I already had a few things going at the time. But when I finished with 'Ephraim's Rescue,' that idea just popped out of my file."

Now 29 years later, the schoolchildren are grown and many remember the experience vividly, Christensen said. He's spent many hours interviewing Cokeville residents and collecting details for the film.

Christensen worked on the production for over two years. He pulled child actors from his files and "ran them through the ringer" to see if they could handle the emotional demands.

"I just think the kids did great," Christensen said. "We did a few things to trick them, to get some spontaneous reaction, but they were great."

The story itself is a faith-based story, a tenet Christensen likes to use in his work.

"I have two real themes for my work: There are still miracles and there's power in prayer," he said.

Christensen expects the movie to receive a PG-13 rating because of its intensity. He suggests parents bring older children and plan to talk about it afterward.

"The Cokeville Miracle" has been picked up for distribution by Excel Entertainment.

"The film is a testament to the power of prayer and God's awareness of our lives. Fans of '17 Miracles' and 'Ephraim's Rescue' will find the same inspiration and emotional connection to this movie, while being able to share it beyond their circle of LDS friends due to its modern sensibilities," said Arthur VanWagenen, director of Excel Entertainment, in a press release.

Both Batty and Christensen have shown films at the LDS Film Festival before.

"I am excited and honored to have the LDS Film Festival be our first screening (of 'The Cokeville Miracle') and to show it on closing night," Christensen said in a press release.

"With 'Freetown' and 'The Cokeville Miracle,' we have the perfect bookends for the most exciting year in our history," Vuissa said in a press release. "T.C. and Garrett have emerged as two of the finest filmmakers around. They are currently defining the LDS film genre, and they produce deeply inspiring films for our audience."

If you go ...

What: 2015 LDS Film Festival

Where: SCERA Center for the Arts, 745 S. State, Orem

When: March 4-7, opening night 7:30 p.m. Wednesday ("Freetown"), closing night 7:30 p.m. Saturday ("The Cokeville Miracle")

Cost: Prices vary. Full festival event, one-day, or individual show tickets for "Freetown" and "The Cokeville Miracle" can be purchased at or at 801-225-2787.


Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with more than 35 years' experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at