Finding Heaven director Rodney Mitchell is a man of vision. He's been a missionary to Africa and Manhattan, a corporate salesman of software, and a documentarian. But he knew he was called to do something more with his understandings of story and faith, thanks to innate sense of himself and a prophecy that had been prayed over him.
"I knew I was to be sent to a nation that would then thank me for coming," Mitchell shared from his home in California.
Mitchell had no idea what that vision would look like in reality, but having seen the way that the Internet was moving with the flow of information, he saw the means to share stories to a wider audience. He began taking film classes at night at UCLA, bought a camera, and began making church movies. But he found his documentaries rejected again and again, and his frustration grew. Then the phone rang.
"A guy who I'd pitched a film to the year before called me up and said I'd been recommended to direct a documentary about Native American Reconciliation," the director remembered. "I took the phone call and listened, but it didn't seem like something I would take. It wasn't clear where the money would come from or what they wanted me to do. But then the conversation took a Spirit-filled turn and the guy said we should pray about it, so I said, 'let's pray right now on the phone.'"
"'God, you know my heart and you know me. If you want me to go, show me an unmistakeable sign.'"
Mitchell said that he immediately felt peace, and told his wife, Judy, about the whole interaction when she walked into their home that night. She informed him that her mother had just offered up a free plane ticket for their use. So, Mitchell flew up to Seattle, fell in love with the people there, filmed the interactions between the Native Americans and whites who gathered before and during the reconciliation event. And then the leader of the Native Americans stood up and publicly thanked God for sending Mitchell to them...
Still, Mitchell returned home with twenty hours worth of material, and no funding. He was prayed over in a church by a stranger, saw a vision of what his filmmaking might look like, ... and the funding arrived. By 1996, "Two Rivers" was a PBS award-winning documentary.
Now, Mitchell is taking his desire to tell stories of faith to share people's experiences of God, not through sermons, theology, or political agendas, but asking universal questions, like, what are their hopes, dreams, and ambitions? How was their experience impacted by the tragedies that happened to them?
In filming "Two Rivers," Mitchell knew he could not be 'in your face' about Christianity, because many of the Native Americans had been persecuted by so-called Christians. He knew God had to be present there, in what he was experiencing in the reconciliation between the two groups, because otherwise it was just people trying to do good things. So in filming Finding Heaven, with hopes of nine more films like it, Mitchell set out to show exactly what God does through real-life stories of real-life people.
"When I interviewed people, they would use religious terminology, with phrases like 'God said' or 'God told me so,'" Mitchell recounted. "I would ask them what God sounded like and the interview would come to life. They would start to tell these stories that aren't aimed at edifying Christians but expose unbelievers to what the Christian life is all about, how their lives, their relationships are actually changed. I've tried to be true to the reality and truth of the message."
Mitchell wants to tell love stories, romances, too. He sees that as another way that God shows how the Christian life should be better. Instead of sensualizing the stories, Mitchell sees these stories as ways that non-Christians can see that they're missing something through watching these stories.
"I have astonishing experiences of prayers being answered in my own life!" the director exclaimed. "What does that do? I tell people, 'God has won my heart by doing sovereign things in my life.' We want an unbeliever to say, 'How do I get that?'"
"We're all inadequate to live life," Mitchell continued, laughing. "When you look at the whole thing from beginning to end, you fall short. But [the Christian] life isn't meant to be rigid. It isn't about rules and morality, but how what you experience moves you over to morality, to living life in a Christian way."
Mitchell hopes that audiences will find Jesus in the midst of Finding Heaven, and that it moves them over there.