Steve Cleary wants to make a difference in the way that Christian films are made. In fact, he’s so passionate about his belief that Christian films should serve missionaries in their efforts around the world that he has put up his own money to see a film aimed at evangelism globally. The veteran of twenty-six years of media and missions for The Voice of the Martyrs is on a journey to see The Pilgrim’s Progress translated visually for believers around the world. To hear about this project currently in development (and on Kickstarter), Christian Cinema caught up with the filmmaker from a movie set in Romania.
Cleary’s unique vision for the film means that is currently funded for twenty languages, and the latest update to John Bunyan’s story will be first made available to missionaries in the United States and abroad, and then delivered commercially. In fact, the director had just had a meeting with the underground church in China about making it available when I spoke with him. While Cleary’s version will be animated, it continues to follow the allegorical hero, Christian, as he journeys from his home in the City of Destruction to the Celestial City/Mount Zion, appealing to Christians in the face of persecution.
“The Kickstarter campaign started really slow, but we put the press release out there and hoped people would pick it up,” Cleary remembered. “You start to realize that people want you to sell it to a studio but I realized that the film industry makes twenty-plus Christian films a year, and how many of them actually end up available to the mission field?”
The passion Cleary feels for those serving in the mission field comes from his years traveling to countries where Christians are persecuted, with over fifty countries spread from Iraq to Colombia, from Bangladesh to Sudan. But he also became friends with The Voice of the Martyrs founder Richard Wurmbrand who was himself persecuted for his faith, and the example of someone “Tortured for Christ” resonates with him when he reads the story of The Pilgrim’s Progress. In fact, it’s this story that was found to be secretly smuggled from one community to another in Communist countries Cleary visited. “Seriously, what stories are we making that someone is willing to risk their lives for?” he asked.
So Cleary and his friend Robert Fernandez huddled up one night and determined to make a film for themselves, what Cleary calls a “legacy film.” With a freelancer from PIXAR, and a rapidly growing staff, they have been through several levels of funding, but as the budget grew from 1 to 2.5 million dollars, the quality of their film increased, too. Now, they have two weeks left in their Kickstarter aimed at raising money (and awareness) for one scene, set in the midst of this Christian fantasy/allegory. Interested parties can put up $100 and receive a Blu-ray copy of the film (and a t-shirt) when it’s completed, or invest more to receive a chance to digitally direct a scene … or receive a commissioned, real-life version of Christian’s sword.
“I believe God speaks in allegory,” proposed Cleary, warming to his subject. “John Bunyan comes to faith and begins to preach. He’s imprisoned and has this dream that inspires him three hundred and fifty years ago to write this book that has never been out of print, and published in two hundred different languages. This story resonates in our lives today.”
In fact, facing the daunting task of investing his own money, raising more funds, casting, animating, and directing a crew, Cleary shared that he’d come to relate to his protagonist. “You take on the quest and begin to realize how important the story is to the underground church and the house church. And you realize, ‘I can’t do this; it’s beyond my means.’ The more we work, the more the burden grows. But missionaries are starved for content and we have the chance to share the greatest Christian story next to the Bible.”
While Cleary must continue for a little while longer, he realizes that the burden won’t last forever, and that is made lighter every time he meets a fellow traveler who sees the purpose behind the movie. For those inclined, the Kickstarter campaign awaits, but more than anything, Cleary hopes that people will pray for the film and those whose lives it touches.