CIRCLED AROUND the conference table in October 2000 were expectant faces, about to begin an adventure of a lifetime. Each person on the film team for Journey of Faith had prepared, some for months, to film key locations that Lehi and his family would likely have crossed on their epic journey from Jerusalem to the Promised Land. Each was handpicked because of his particular expertise, talent, and spirit. This was the final meeting before flying to exotic Yemen, the first of several Middle Eastern countries in which we would film. Final details of travel, filming, culture, and directorial instructions were on the agenda.
Brian Wilcox sat across the table from me. Brian was our director of photography and had already distinguished himself as a man who would go to great lengths to obtain the right shot for a film. This was not the first time that we had worked together. Once I wanted a shot with the camera on the surface of the water just below a waterfall. We were shooting in the midsummer heat in Oklahoma and Brian happily got in the river and placed the camera. With his focus through the lens, he didn't see what I did. From the riverbank behind the camera, three water moccasins slithered into the water, headed toward Brian. Despite my warnings to get out of the river, he just told his assistant to keep an eye on the snakes while he kept shooting. They swam too close to Brian for me, but he got the shot and then quickly climbed out of the water.
But it wasn't only Brian's commitment to working hard in difficult conditions that put him on the team, it was also his sense of capturing the dramatic moment. He, of course, had great technical skill with the camera, but his ability to capture the unexpected on film would make our documentary memorable. If the sun came out of the clouds with just the right light and color, Brian caught it. A bird gliding in for a landing to create a perfect composition for a shot, an animal suddenly scampering by, or the wind blowing over tall grass in undulating waves are moments that a less-experienced photographer might miss. On this trip, we would have one chance at capturing the right moments, and if we missed them, the opportunity would likely never come again. Brian was a perfect choice.
I found out later that Brian had dreamed of filming in the Arabian Empty Quarter since childhood. His emotional interest in this trip was high. With his gentle and calming disposition, even in the midst of the inevitable vicissitudes of film production, Brian would bring confidence and excitement to the photography.
The film crew was small since I wanted to move quickly while filming, and our budget was limited. As I looked into their faces, I knew we had a great team. Brian quietly tapped a pencil, ready to get the show on the road. Sitting next to him was his assistant cameraman, Kelly Mecham, a man of wisdom, insight, talent, and skill. Kelly and Brian had worked together for many years. They were a strong team. They knew each other's "shorthand" and would work fast and efficiently. Kelly's spirit and personality simply made everyone feel comfortable and reassured. He brought a sense of emotional strength to the team, and we all knew we could count on him regardless of what we might face on any given day.
Travis Allen had worked as a sound technician for many years but had broadened his work to include recording sound during the filming process. It was good to have a soundman that also had experience and skill in repairing sound equipment—just in case. We would be on the far side of the world; there would be no chance of running to a repair shop in the Arabian Desert.
An important member of the crew was the grip/electrician, Justin Andrews. Justin was also qualified to function as an assistant cameraman, but his primary job was to make sure we had the right gear. Justin was the youngest member of our team and his humor and youthful observations brought lots of laughs. He already had experience in filming internationally, and his enthusiasm for this project raised our own expectations. He also had a second assignment for this production—to obtain still photographs of our experience.
Each member of this small film team was a returned missionary, a strong family man, active, and committed. Each demonstrated a deep appreciation and love for the Book of Mormon. Each loved his fellowman regardless of religion or culture, and I had no concerns about how they would respect and treat the very different people we would meet. All were strong family men, and their priorities in life were clear. This was not an ordinary film crew.
None of the crew had been to Yemen, and as we looked over the large map of that ancient land, discussing the various places we would film, our excitement grew. Suddenly an assistant entered the conference room and announced that there had been an attack on a US Navy ship named the USS Cole off the southern coast of Yemen. We discussed this news for about ten minutes when the phone rang and our authorities informed us that we would not be allowed to make the trip until the State Department and our own leaders felt that it would be safe. The filming trip was abruptly cancelled. Our excitement quickly turned to disappointment. We had planned to make the film in about eight months, but that eight months would stretch into years. When Lehi and his family left Jerusalem and began their amazing journey across Arabia, would their faith have been tested even more if they had known that it would take them eight years to cross that arid land?
Creating a motion picture combines faith with work in a very direct way. Faith, because the creative process never guarantees automatic success; work, because all resources of one's capacity are stretched—physical effort, mental stress, spiritual reserves, emotional strength, moral determination, and a simple resolve to do what has to be done.
The challenges that inevitably follow the decision to make a film crash upon filmmakers like relentless waves from an oceanic storm surge. Wave after wave of unsuspected obstacles can dampen and even drown the most ardent creative aspirant. The making of Journey of Faith was such an experience. From small day-to-day problems to worldwide conflict, the filming effort was constantly assaulted.
Key to the success of making the film was Dr. S. Kent Brown. A distinguished professor and expert on the ancient Near East, his support and enthusiasm for the project was the one factor that kept us going. I met Kent when producing colleague Steve DeVore and I presented the idea of the film to FARMS (now part of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University). Kent immediately saw the value in the film and became our lead scholar. It was through his contacts in the Middle East, and his dogged determination, that doors, which seemed hermetically sealed after the bombing of the Cole, slowly started to open. Years later, Steve DeVore described Kent as our Nephi. No matter what obstacles or setbacks came our way, it was his faith and the belief that this film needed to be made that brought solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.
We actually wanted to make two films. Golden Road was the other film and was intended to explore the ancient incense trail. Known as the Frankincense Trail, this amazing merchandising enterprise thrived for over a thousand years. Frankincense, myrrh, and other goods were transported by camel caravan from the southern regions of Arabia through the modern countries of Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Mediterranean and beyond. This commerce in incense created wealthy communities and individuals along the trail. It was enormously successful because incense was a highly prized and necessary commodity. Anciently incense had a variety of uses, but chief among them was the cleansing of temples. The smoke from burning incense purified temples of odors and created a pleasant atmosphere. Lehi's departure from Jerusalem took place when the incense trade was flourishing. Nephi's description of his family's journey seems to parallel that of the Frankincense Trail, at least as far south as southern Yemen. So we wanted to place Lehi's epic Book of Mormon journey within what we know of this historical trade route.
In September of 2001, we finally received the green light to commence photography on our two documentaries, beginning in Yemen. Political conditions seemed settled enough that it appeared we would be safe to travel in the remote areas where we needed to film. To my delight, my team of filmmakers was still eager to be a part of this experience. We traveled the long 30-hour plus journey to Sanaʿa, the capital of Yemen and one of the oldest cities in the world. We were immediately engulfed in a world of sights, sounds, and smells that gave us a hint of what the ancient Middle Eastern world would have been like. In just a few hours we started to get a strong sense of the world of Lehi. The people of Yemen were friendly and helpful; they apparently had seen few Americans, which made us something of a novelty.
One of our first days of filming was in the ancient Sanaʿa market. A crowd of people milled about the shops, which offered many exotic goods from clothing and spices to frankincense and myrrh. Strange-sounding instruments produced unusual music. Sweet and savory smells of different spices and burning incense wafted through the air. The unfamiliar cadence and timbre of the Arabic language surrounding us added to the reality that we were in a very different world, a world that would have been more familiar to our hero Nephi than it was to us.
The gate in the wall of the old city was particularly photogenic, but we had no camera crane that allowed us to move the camera through the gate and into the crowd, which was the shot I wanted. We had to improvise. Suddenly a man came by pulling a large cart and we knew our problem was solved. With a few American dollars, we persuaded him to let us use his cart. After mounting the camera on the cart and hiring a few young men to push the cart through the gate into the crowded market, we got the shot and also attracted a large crowd. Children especially were fascinated by our film camera and gear. They chattered excitedly and wanted us to hire them to carry equipment. In the midst of this excitement, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to suddenly stare face-to-face with a large snake! A young man, with a nearly toothless smile, proudly held the snake inches away from me and indicated he wanted me to use the snake in the film. I've always had a horror of snakes, but I managed to maintain my composure, smiled, and said, "No thank you," and quickly moved on, feeling an adrenalin surge that only Indiana Jones could appreciate.
We were guests of the General Office of Antiquities and our guide and chief Yemeni archaeologist was Dr. Abdu Ghaleb Othman. Abdu had made all the in-country arrangements for our filming—particularly permission to cross tribal lands. He was a pleasant man and was eager to help us. He understood English very well and spoke with some fluency, though his pronunciation was not always easy to understand. From a directing standpoint, I tried to figure out ways to obtain his commentary in understandable English. I tried to slow down the rate of his delivery. This worked to a degree, and most people seemed to understand him.
Everything about the country of Yemen seemed ancient and exotic; it was like going back in time. The architecture is unique, with multistoried buildings, most of which were topped with upturned triangular or horned corners. Considerable patterns of design covered the buildings, which were trimmed in gleaming white. From my perspective these attractive buildings were unique.
The people dress in traditional clothing, with hints of modern influence. For example, the men wear either a long one-piece dress or a shirt and skirt. But they often wear an incongruous suitcoat or sport jacket over the top. On their heads they wear scarves wrapped into a turban. To wrap the scarf into a neat-looking turban took skill that none of us could achieve. Virtually all the men, especially outside of the city, wore a curved dagger, called a jambia, directly in front at their waist. Slung from a shoulder, they also carried automatic rifles, many of them Russian-made Kalashnikovs. Yemen has one of the most armed citizenry in the world. Even fourteen-year-old boys brandish these weapons.
At the time of Lehi, many different tribes populated Arabia. Today, Yemen is still a tribal country. The central government has certain power, but on tribal lands that power is diminished and the tribes exert primary control. Many of the customs that still prevail today come from this traditional tribal culture. Anciently, a person would not be allowed to cross tribal lands or drink from a well on tribal territory without permission, on the pain of death.
As we moved from the city to the desert, we were joined by a Yemeni military contingent of eighteen soldiers and a couple of military vehicles. One was a Toyota pickup with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the back. Most of the soldiers rode in the back of the pickup. One stood with both hands on the handles of the machine gun as we went down steep switchback roads in the mountains and along the flat, rocky desert that led to the sand dunes. It was a strange sight, our caravan of four Land Rovers carrying the crew, equipment, and our scholars, with a military jeep in the front and the machine-gun-toting Toyota truck in the rear. We were moving through the same areas that Lehi passed through, but our caravan was radically different.
Our Yemeni soldiers were young men assigned to guard us. I wondered what they really thought of us. Most were friendly, full of youthful interest and fascination with their American "guests." However, there were a couple that never seemed to warm to us. They always had a scowl on their faces, and I was shocked when I shook hands in friendship when we met to see these two look at me with malevolence. Not knowing what the source of their ill feeling was, I simply took it as a personal challenge to be their friend.
We had a Yemeni driver for each vehicle. They were pleasant men, friendly enough and sometimes funny. My driver was obsessed with Dolly Parton. We crossed the great Arabian desert, keenly focused on Lehi's journey, but often with American country music resonating in the background.
Since the incense trail was often tens of miles wide, we never expected that we would be on the actual steps that Lehi's family took. However, because of the topography, Nephi's description of where they went, and the sources of water, it was very likely that we were often in the same general area. These were times that caused us great reflection. I remember as we went down a steep and rocky mountain pass toward the burial place of Nahom, I soaked in the visual imagery. The sense of closeness to that family's amazing journey was powerful. The account Nephi gives us in the first chapter of the Book of Mormon became vividly real for us. No longer an interesting scriptural story, the reality of their heaven-directed journey inspired us each day.
One of the first deeply thought-provoking locations was Nahom. Only recently discovered, this ancient burial ground was the place of great sorrow and trial for our ancient traveling family. The burial mounds were all around us, and, as we laid dolly track for a moving shot, Abdu explained how the bodies were buried. He was the first archaeologist to excavate mummies from this site, and some of them dated to around 600 BC. We were fascinated at the way these mummies were wrapped in leather with their knees pulled up in a kind of prenatal position. Long slabs of rock were formed into a coffin for the body, and then the mound of rock was built over it. They were not small mounds, and there were thousands of them. Where Ishmael died is not known, but the family brought him to this burial ground for his final resting place. I thought of the sorrow of the family but also of the contention that came out of that loss. Laman, Lemuel, and Ishmael's sons were distraught and angry that this journey had now cost them the life of a family member. Ishmael's daughters wept and mourned bitterly, while some of the men plotted vicious ways to abandon the journey (1 Nephi 16:34–36). But the Lord's intervention stopped their plans to murder Nephi and Lehi so they could assume leadership of the family. Later, as we depicted this anxious time in the film, I was moved by the dramatic and emotional artwork created by Joseph Brickey. His dynamic drawing powerfully captured the anguish of Ishmael's daughters at the loss of their father.
Not far from Nahom is Marib, one of the key cities along the Incense Trail and the home of the famed Queen of Sheba. Her temple is currently under excavation, and we were impressed to see what had so far been uncovered. I was particularly captivated by a base for a statue with a row of ibex heads intricately sculpted around it. Sand from the desert has preserved this fabulous site, which is circular in design and dedicated to the moon god. One of the most colorful characters we met while filming was Sheikh Marzook. He controlled the historical site and claimed to be a direct descendant of this fascinating Queen known primarily for her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem.
Sheikh Marzook was right out of central casting from Hollywood. Handsome and powerful in appearance, his charming smile revealed a perfect set of teeth. We found out later that the Sheikh was a strong leader/warrior and had been trained by the Taliban in Afghanistan while fighting the Russians. He wore the traditional shirt and skirt with the jambia at his waist and automatic rifle over his shoulder. He was our friend and, we felt, our protector.
The Sheikh opened the secured site for our camera crew and would not allow entrance to anyone while we filmed. A touring group from France became very angry when Sheikh Marzook would not open the gate, so they stood outside the chain-link fence and loudly heckled whenever they heard me call, "Action!" Their catcalls included anti-American slogans. Of course, this ruined the shot. We appreciated their frustration, but it would have been very difficult to have people walking over the site while we obtained the interviews we wanted with Kent and the Sheikh. After several spoiled attempts at getting the interview, and pleadings for their patience from Steve DeVore, our associate producer, the Sheikh finally went over to them and they dispersed. Steve later told me that the Sheikh didn't say a word to them, but his imposing figure was enough to stop them. It was a strange encounter.
This day, however, became even stranger—it was September 11, 2001. When we completed our shooting for the day, we retuned to the Queen of Sheba Hotel. We were unloading our equipment when Abdu came out of the lobby excitedly yelling, "An airplane has crashed into the White House!" We quickly went to our hotel rooms and watched in horror as the events of "9/11" unfolded before our eyes. It was late in the afternoon in Yemen, morning in New York City. We watched in astonishment as the planes hit the Towers. After a brief time to at least initially absorb what was happening in the United States, we gathered in one room to watch together and discuss what we should do. Senator Orrin Hatch came on the TV screen and said, "This has Osama bin Laden written all over it." Yemen is the ancestral home of bin Laden, and the realization of where we were, in the midst of this shocking world event, started to sink in.
One of our associate producers, Brent Hall, an executive with FARMS, called the American Embassy in Sanaʿa for their advice. They said we would be much safer if we stayed in the desert because the city, and especially the airport, would make us an obvious target. Dr. Arnold Green, the director of the Jerusalem Center, was also with us. Arnie had lived in Yemen and knew the language and people very well. He was one of the most knowledgeable Western scholars for this part of the world. We were grateful to have his insight and wisdom, since we had no idea what the next few days might bring. Would this terrorist attack stir excitement against Americans? Were there terrorists locally who might see us as opportunity targets? Just how much danger were we in? All flights to the United States had been cancelled. Were we essentially trapped in al-Qaida country? After consulting with the American Embassy, we prayerfully and quietly considered what we should do.
Like the rest of the world, we knew only what was being presented through news broadcasts. Analysts were trying to get a handle on the implications of this huge event, but all was speculation. The only thing we knew for sure was that terrorists had attacked locations in the United States and all signs pointed to Middle Eastern connections. We also knew that international travel had been interrupted. So our discussion brought us to the choice of going back to Sanaʿa, lying low and trying to arrange for a flight out of the country, or staying in the remote desert, which had its own uncertainties.
Our deliberation was calm and reasoned. There was apprehension, of course, but no one was in a panic. We felt that our work, which had already been delayed a year because of the terrorist attack on the Cole, was important and that we should try to obtain as much footage as possible while we were there. We were sensitive to the seriousness of our situation and the crisis that the world was now in, but we also felt a calm spirit to move ahead with our work. Our decision was to remain in the remote desert, to keep close contact with the American Embassy and BYU (we had a satellite phone), to make flight arrangements when we could, but to continue to film. As I crawled in bed that night and watched the unfolding events before going to sleep, I felt at peace and assured that all would be well, but I also fell asleep knowing that our adventure of filming Lehi's journey had just become much more intense.
When I got up the next morning, I decided to put a positive face on an otherwise gloomy world situation. I was the first to leave the hotel that morning and immediately saw our military guards with their commander. I went to the commander and shook his hand with a cheerful, "Hello." He spoke sketchy English, but he looked at me with genuine sorrow and expressed how bad he felt because of what had happened in America. I held his hand warmly and told him that we were very pleased to be in his fascinating country. I told him how much it meant to us to be with him and to see the land of his heritage. His eyes rimmed with tears, and he said, with emotion, that they were honored to have us with them. When I looked at the other soldiers, all their heads hung down. The commander saw this and said that they were "embarrassed" to face me. I asked him to tell his troops that we considered it a great blessing to be in Yemen and that it held great meaning for us. A smile came into his eyes and he seemed truly cheered by that. So many misconceptions about America exist in the Middle East. Many think that America hates them, and so they hate America in return. But their hatred for America does not necessarily mean they hate Americans. I found that sincere expressions of respect and affection from us warmed their hearts and ours immensely.
The day after 9/11 we traveled into the Ramlat as-Sabʿatayn, a strip of the Arabian Empty Quarter. The Empty Quarter is a large expanse of sand desert that covers thousands of square miles. It is the most daunting part of the Arabian Peninsula. Sand dunes sometimes rise several hundred feet, and they extend as far as one can see. We would only pass through a small portion of the Empty Quarter, but that would still take twelve hours.
We experienced a vivid example of the influence of the tribes in Yemen. Our Yemeni military guards were with us all the time, except when we entered tribal lands. Bedouin guides took over there, and we left the military behind to join us at our return. We only had two Bedouin guides, but they represented the three tribal areas we would travel through, and they were all we needed. Their names were Abdullah al-Karim and Amin. Amin was recently married—about 22 years old, I would guess—and full of youthful expectations.
When we reached the edge of the sand dunes, our drivers let about half the air out of the tires. There would be no roads to travel on today—only shifting sand. The Bedouins led the way. It was amazing how the Land Rovers could "float" over the sand. Some of it was packed fairly hard, but in other places the sand was soft and loose. Constantly going up or down, we went on mile after mile, hour after hour. A few times the Bedouins stopped to let the vehicles cool down a little, and then we pushed on.
The Land Rovers did not have air-conditioning, so we had the windows rolled down, allowing the hot air to blast in upon us. We constantly sipped from our supply of bottled water. As soon as we finished one bottle, we'd grab another. Never guzzling it down, just sipping, sipping all day long. The heat was intense. When we stopped and stepped down on the sand, we found out how hot it really was. With the blazing sun beating down and heat radiating up from the sand, it was hard to imagine how Lehi and his party ever found relief from this harsh environment. My thoughts went to the women in the party who bore children in these staggeringly harsh conditions. Nephi's tribute to the women had special meaning to me now.
When we saw a shot that we wanted, Brian and I would stop our caravan. We often climbed to the top of the tallest sand dune to get the best vista. I was constantly amazed. As far as we could see in every direction, there was nothing but sand dunes. This went on for twelve hours. Travel, then shoot; travel again, then shoot. Amazingly, we found a few camels wandering along every now and then. Where they found water or even food was a mystery, but there they were.
In planning our day of crossing this portion of the Empty Quarter, the Bedouins didn't realize what it meant to go with a film crew. They simply didn't plan for the time we would take to shoot, so before we got out of the sand dunes, the sun set, and darkness fell upon us. There are distinct dangers in crossing the Empty Quarter besides the obvious heat and need for water. Most of the crossing consisted of weaving our way through sand dunes, and these were often quite high. So driving safely to avoid getting the vehicle trapped in a crevice of sand, or plunging down the steep side of a dune and getting stuck in a more unstable area of the sand, took skill and knowledge that came from experience. When the sun sank lower in the sky and we were still surrounded on all horizons by sand dunes, I noticed that the Bedouin guides became increasingly anxious.
With the sun gone, the brilliant night sky opened above us. On we went through the night, our path lit only by headlights. Several times a vehicle got stuck, and we would all pile out of our Land Rovers and push the vehicle out. Then we went on. The Bedouins would stop frequently, check the stars, look around to see the limited terrain that was illuminated before us, and then lead us on. Stories I had read all my life about mariners and desert travelers making long journeys by plotting their course from reading the stars became vividly real. Being deep in the Arabian desert led by Bedouins who were guided by the stars was an unforgettable experience I doubt I will ever repeat. I gained an even greater appreciation for Lehi's family. Because of desert heat in the day, at least some of their travel would have been at night, as was the custom. Even though they were guided by the Liahona, it took great courage to be a small group in such a vast and hostile place. We starkly experienced the vulnerability of their situation.
The sweetest human interaction occurred during our crossing of the Empty Quarter. On one of our stops, I was sitting in the Land Rover waiting for our journey to resume when I felt a hand touch my arm, which was resting on the open window. I looked to see one of our Bedouin guides, Amin, his face lit up with a warm smile. I turned to him as he took a ring from his hand and gave it to me to look at. It was a simple ring, not expensive. I turned it over in my hand, admiring it, and smiled back trying to express my appreciation for his friendship. Neither of us spoke the other's language, so body language was our only means of communication. After a moment, I handed the ring back to Amin, but he refused to take it. I tried again to give it back to him, knowing that he was a poor man, recently married, with few material possessions. Again, he refused and looked at me with the most compassionate countenance. He again gestured that he wanted me to keep the ring, his broad smile and earnest eyes lighting up his face with a bright, sympathetic expression. I finally realized that Amin was attempting to let me know of his sorrow for the events of 9/11 and to assure me that he was my friend. I shall ever remember that moment in the stark desert when a very poor man reached across vast differences in culture, language, and religion to express his sincere brotherhood and love.
One of the memorable experiences for our crew was eating different foods. Sometimes we were in remote places where the only food available was what we brought with us. That was usually fruit and bread to keep us going. Most of the time, however, we ate where the locals ate. These eating places were always fascinating. The men ate separately from the women, usually in separate rooms. They ate with their hands. Sometimes they sat at tables, but more often they sat on the floor or ground with the food placed on a mat.
One such place was particularly intriguing. We stopped to eat at a small, simple, solitary building made of adobe or cement on the side of the road that wound its way along the edge of the sand desert. There were no other buildings or signs of civilization around this cafŽ. Our lunch consisted of chicken, saffron rice, and bread. The bread was baked in an oven that was shaped like an eggshell standing on one end. The top was open, and a hot fire burned in the bottom. The cook worked the dough into a very flat piece larger around than a big pizza, then slapped it against the inside of the egg-shaped oven. It only took a couple of minutes to cook, and then he peeled it off and served it. It was very tasty.
Men came and went dressed in different turbans and clothing, all with jambias and automatic rifles. These were desert dwellers and had dark, leathery faces and hands. I was struck with the variety of characters that passed by. The Arabic chatter was strange to our ears, and the curious sounds from unusual animals combined with the ethnic, discordant music playing loudly in the background. Through the windows and from behind hanging cloth curtains, camels and other animals passed by with the stark desert stretching far beyond into the distance. I turned to one of my companions and said, "I think we just dropped into the Cantina from Star Wars!"
We stayed in contact with BYU and the American Embassy during our filming across Yemen. After several days of shooting, we were able to arrange a flight to London. We journeyed back to Sanaʿa and made a crucial arrangement—the safe passage of our 16mm exposed film back to Utah. This was of great concern to us because we didn't want it to be subject to the powerful and damaging x-ray machines in most airports. We went to considerable lengths to give our footage special handling and, when we felt we had this taken care of, we turned our efforts to actually getting on a flight.
The airport at Sanaʿa looked like something from the opening scenes of Frank Capra's classic film Lost Horizons when refugees were desperately clamoring to get on the last flight out. Our flight left in the middle of the night, only adding to the drama. After making our way through the initial attempts at airport security (only embryonic in those first days after 9/11 compared to what they would become), we were taken to the plane sitting on the tarmac away from the terminal. There we found that our checked luggage (and camera equipment) was set out on the tarmac next to the plane along with the baggage of all the other passengers. Jostling our way through a near mob scene, we finally found and verified our luggage; then we were allowed to get in line to board the plane. A table had been placed just in front of the steps to the plane, and everyone boarding had to place their carry-on luggage and other items on it for inspection. The passengers were mostly Arabs from various countries, but there was a fair mix of people from other countries, creating an intriguing international feel. A sense of urgency permeated the crowd. The man in front of me reached the table and placed a large, attaché case on it. His case was at least six to eight inches thick and somewhat oversized. As he opened the case, I saw that it was completely filled with neatly bundled, large-denomination US dollars. He nervously shifted his weight from one leg to another, while sweating profusely. The inspector was taken by surprise and immediately called over another official. They took the man away into the darkness; I could not see where he went. I boarded the plane and, just before the door closed, the man with the attachŽ case entered the plane, clutching his large case to his chest. I have often wondered who that person was with his huge bundle of American money.
As we flew off into the night, leaving the wonderfully intriguing country of Yemen behind, I reflected on the singular experience it had been. I also thought how fortunate we were to have filmed there. Without the footage we obtained in Yemen, we could not make either the film on the incense trail or the one on Lehi's journey. Because of the events of 9/11 and the inevitable aftermath worldwide, it would be impossible to return and film in Yemen for a very long time. The bombing of the Cole delayed our filming for a year, and 9/11 threatened our success once we finally arrived in Yemen, but we had a tiny margin of time to do our filming, and I was grateful.
After a short stay in London, we flew to New York City overnight, changed airlines, and resumed our journey to Utah. As we flew above the city in the morning light, the destruction left by the collapse of the Trade Towers was in view, and smoke rose from the rubble. Justin soberly reflected that on the flight to Yemen he saw the towers for the first time, now they were no more. I watched the smoke slowly rise, almost surreal and mystical in its ascent, and wondered when, if ever, we would be able to return to the Middle East to finish our filming. At least we had that precious footage from Yemen—the desert route of Lehi, the amazing confirmation of Nephi's reference to Nahom, and the stunning Empty Quarter with its seemingly endless rolling mountains of sand.
Anxious to see the footage once we returned home, we were horrified to find that despite all our efforts to ensure that the footage would be handled with special care, it had been blasted with x-rays. Undeveloped film is often damaged if it is exposed to x-rays, and some of our unique Yemen footage was damaged. We did tests and sent a sample to be analyzed at the Kodak lab in Rochester, New York. The damage affected some of the color, but mostly it affected the emulsion with a resultant grainy look. To our relief, some of the key footage was amazingly not damaged, or at least was not severely damaged. We were able to do some careful technical work on it and happily salvaged the key scenes.
Even with the usable footage from Yemen, we did not have enough of the story to complete our film. The likely site for Bountiful, for example, was in Oman, but with mounting world conflict, the prospects of returning to the Middle East were, at best, a faint hope. We hunkered down, calculated what we had obtained against what we needed yet to film, and watched the news for any signs of hope to return. The Iraq war rose, climaxed, and then sank into an insurgent miasma.
One encouraging thing warmed our souls and kept hope alive. We edited a short section of the Nahom footage and ended up giving a few firesides around the country showing that short film clip. The response was always excitement, fascination, and a clamoring for the completed film. Our reaction was somewhat bittersweet. We knew that members of the Church were captivated by the Nahom sequence, but how could we ever finish the film?
The hero of the film is clearly Dr. S. Kent Brown. He had studied and lived for a number of years in the Middle East, had been assigned to be the director of the BYU Jerusalem Center for three years, and had built up some very good contacts in that part of the world. He kept working those contacts, trying to assess the possibility for our return. Ever so gradually, a few doors started to slowly open. It was now 2004, and we had received permission to enter the countries of Oman, Jordan, and Israel. Saudi Arabia was still not possible, but we decided we had better go to the other countries. The uncertainty of travel to the Middle East was such that we wanted to finish shooting while we had another chance. It was impossible to know if this newly opened window would suddenly shut. So, after some careful preparation, we again made the long flight to the other side of the world.
Oman lies east of Yemen on the southern and eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. I didn't know what to expect, but rather thought it might be similar to the lifestyle in Yemen. It wasn't. Muscat is a very progressive and modern city. We were guests of the Ministry of Information and, on our first day, after a warm and friendly audience with the undersecretary in the Ministry of Information, His Excellency Sheikh Abdullah Bin Swain Al Hosni, we were taken to see a campus of technology, newly built and filled with eager students and workers. They called it the Knowledge Oasis Muscat. Those we met spoke fluent English, and they seemed genuinely excited in their pursuit of increased technology and business. After our tour of the Knowledge Oasis Muscat campus, we visited a strikingly beautiful new mosque built at the instructions of His Royal Highness, Sultan Qaboos. It was huge and absolutely magnificent. The quality of construction materials, the beauty of design, were breathtaking. We walked on marble sidewalks and floors, entered sacred places after removing our shoes, and were awed by the size of the complex.
The Omani Ministry of Information could not have been more helpful and thoughtful to us. Everyone we met tried in every way to accommodate our filming needs. The Ministry always had at least one guide or representative with us. We were impressed with the constant attention.
Muscat is in the north of Oman, and our main locations for filming were in the southern coastal area, where the best frankincense grew and where Nephi's Bountiful would have been. So the following day we flew to Salalah, a small city situated on the coast overlooking the Arabian Sea. His Excellency Abdullah Aqeel Ibrahim, a grand and gracious man of influence who is held in great respect in Oman, entertained us at his home with a welcome feast of lamb, rice, and fish. We went to bed that night well fed, excited to once again be in lands that the ancient incense harvesters inhabited and that Lehi and his family would have known and anticipating the next day when we would go to Wadi Sayq, a quiet but beautiful site and the most likely place for Nephi's Bountiful.
It is about a two-and-a-half hour drive through many winding and steep parts of the road to reach a small fishing village named Dhalqut where we rented boats to take the last leg of the journey along the coast to Wadi Sayq. A steep escarpment runs along the coast, and the road is above the escarpment bordering the desert. Just before we turned to wind our way down to the fishing village, we had to pass a military checkpoint. This military checkpoint reminded us that we were very close to the Yemeni border, thus tying us to that portion of Lehi's journey we had embarked on over three years earlier.
We had made prior arrangements for our filming in Oman through several contacts, so the ensuing "negotiation" on the dock of the fishing village was a little surprising. The boat owners' representative argued for more money in a loud, biting voice, with the peculiar timber and emphasis of the Arabic language and with great emotion and animation. We rented several boats to take our scholars, crew, and equipment, so there was more than one boat owner involved. The negotiation reached such a pitch, I thought we were in real trouble, until our interpreter and guide informed me that they would be happy if we paid them about fifty dollars more—total. Relieved, I happily agreed and we were on our way, smiling to myself because we were still under budget for the boat rental. Producers love these moments.
Each fishing boat carried three to four people and our equipment. Our little flotilla with Omani fishermen and American filmmakers went at high speed through the water. It was a refreshing and exciting ride across the rolling ocean surface with fish visible below us and the steep escarpment rising dramatically above the seashore.
As we came around a curve in the shoreline, Wadi Sayq opened to our view. It was magnificent; before us lay a beautiful alcove of teaming tropical plants framed by steep and jagged mountains with a small freshwater lagoon in the center. This place touched our hearts and imagination because it fit perfectly the description Nephi gave in his record (1 Nephi 17:5–7). On one side, steep cliffs that rose over two hundred feet had at their base sharp rocks with crashing waves. Behind them, a beautifully cone-shaped mountain rose majestically over the lagoon, inviting inspiration. The steep mountain cliffs on either side of the alcove had natural caves etched into them where, the locals informed us, bees stored honey. The abundance of date palms, edible plants, grapes, melons, and fish further testified to why Lehi called this place Bountiful and why local herdsmen have been coming to this place for millennia. Our first view of Wadi Sayq revealed a place that would have been a great joy and blessing to Lehi's family after their long and wearying journey through the parched and threatening heat of the Arabian desert.
Our flotilla stopped off shore so we could photograph the site from the ocean perspective. I am still moved by that vista representing a place where so much human effort was exerted in order to follow the Lord's command to build a ship. These were not shipbuilding people, and to undertake such a challenge required the greatest of faith. It is not surprising that some members of the family were disdainful of the work, but were later awed by the accomplishment. I was informed by our scholars that the beautiful beach stretching across Wadi Sayq would have had an opening in it at the time Lehi's family lived here, creating an inlet where the freshwater lagoon now lies. This would have made a safe and calm place for Nephi to launch the ship, test it out, and prepare it for rigorous ocean travel.
Gazing at the beautiful site, I mused, "So this is what Lehi's family saw as they put out to sea with Nephi as their captain on the ship designed by the Lord." As they began their long voyage across oceans to the Promised Land, looking back they would have seen this beautiful seashore with lush, tropical vegetation covering the steep mountains. And, as Nephi remembered all too well, just beyond the escarpment lay a vast ocean of a different kind—a desert, hot, dry, and unforgiving. Perhaps Nephi felt a particular tug of emotion as he gazed for the last time at the mountain where he went often to seek the Lord's guidance and where the Lord revealed to him how to build a ship "not after the manner of men" (1 Nephi 18:2). That would forever be sacred ground for him. What sense of satisfaction did he feel as the divinely inspired boat surged forward? After so much arduous labor amid the contentious family dynamics that frequently plagued him, he was able to complete its construction. Now they were sailing forth, with all the family on board, toward the land that God had promised unto them. As Nephi turned his gaze from the land of his forefathers, to the promise of a new land for his father's posterity, he saw a vast ocean. The water stretched before them as far as they could see, and looking at that endless horizon, he must have thrilled at the possibilities.
After we had taken our shots, our boat pilots moved us toward the shore. No road leads into Wadi Sayq, and no one lives there. Evidence indicates ancient habitation of some degree, but this beautiful alcove that sees occasional camel herds lies in a quiet, untouched, largely pristine state. The only way to get there is by boat, and the only way to land the boat is to run it up on the beach. The waves were larger than our pilots wanted, but they found the calmest spot and rammed the boats into the sand. These were not boats made for carrying tourists or passengers, but were old, well-used fishing boats, dirty, greasy, and with abundant evidence of previous fishing trips. There was black, greasy water in the bottom of the boats that sloshed around and appeared to be a permanent part of the experience. We brought boxed lunches and bottled water to get us through the day, but when the boats hit the sand, the dark, murky water cascaded over our lunches, ruining most of them.
Despite that, when we jumped onto the sandy beach, our excitement increased. We quickly organized ourselves, left the ruined lunches and our cache of bottled water at a "base camp" on the beach, and got underway. We had a lot to shoot on this day and wanted to take advantage of every minute. This would be a day of working fast and hard.
One of the first things that drew our attention was the large numbers of honeybees and abundant wild flowers. Nephi specifically mentioned the fact that Bountiful had an abundance of honey (1 Nephi 17:5). Perhaps after that long journey across the desert with little to eat, and at times even eating raw meat, the taste of honey was particularly sweet to them. They also had many small children who would have delighted in the expanded diet that included the sweetness of honey.
After shooting some wonderful vistas of Wadi Sayq, which included Brian and Justin getting in the freshwater lagoon to get some artful shots close to the water's surface, we climbed above the cliffs that rise on the western side of the beach. It was a difficult climb through sharp rocks that plagued us at every step. On top the vista was magnificent. This is the place where we obtained the wonderful shot of the beach and the lagoon that would have been the place of much labor in building the ship. Looking out to the Indian Ocean that disappeared over the horizon was also impressive from this perspective. There is some evidence of ancient structures that would have been there, and it was not hard to imagine that this could have been an area where the family created their living quarters. The 200-foot-high cliffs were ample evidence that, when Laman and Lemuel threatened to kill Nephi by throwing him into the ocean, this would have been the perfect place.
Filming Wadi Sayq was so engrossing for all of us that we didn't realize how dehydrated we had become. With only scant scraps of food that were salvaged from our ruined lunches, we didn't eat much, and the water that we each carried was soon depleted. But we paid little attention because we were so absorbed in our work. We were on the top of the cliffs, filming an interview with our botanist, Dr. Gary Baird, who sat on a rock. Suddenly, he was lightheaded and about to faint and had to put his head between his knees. After a few moments he was able to collect himself, and he would raise up, look at me, and continue on with his commentary. Then when he was about to faint again, he would repeat the process. This is the way we shot that interview. One would never know the stress that Gary was under from the final, edited comments that he makes in the finished film. He was not the only one of our group that was suffering. We all became weaker. Brian, Justin, and Adam Lisonbee carried most of the heavy camera equipment, and the climb up to the top of the cliffs was arduous. It was steep and rocky, and the climb took a toll on us in our already light-headed state.
While we were doing the filming at this location, Kent was the first to recognize that we needed water. So without saying anything, he climbed down from the cliffs and walked across the beach to the other side of the wadi where we had put our water supply. It was at least a mile away from where we were working. After finishing our shooting in that location, we all picked our way down to the beach where Kent was waiting with water for each of us. It was sorely needed.
Being on the Arabian desert, especially the Empty Quarter, gave us firsthand knowledge of the heat. We had not expected such heat on the coast where Bountiful would have been, especially with the high humidity. So the filming we did at Wadi Sayq taught us that, even though Bountiful was beautiful with its tropical vegetation and abundance of fruit and other food sources, it would not have been an easy place to exert the labor necessary to smelt ore into tools, hew timbers, and do all else necessary to build an oceangoing ship. This labor would have taxed Nephi's and his family's strength to the limit. We were becoming acutely aware that each phase of their amazing journey was fraught with its own unique challenges and tests of endurance.
The Omani Ministry of Information provided us with several guides, and it was my pleasure to ride with one of them, a wonderful young man named Abdullah. As a traveling companion, Abdullah was delightful. Married with two children, he is one of the most impressive individuals I have ever met. He is a devout Muslim and lives his faith with integrity and diligence. A kind and sweet man, he was constantly striving to attend to our needs so we could obtain all the filming we needed. Every morning as we assembled at the hotel in preparation for our day's journey, he was cheerful, smiling, and immaculate in his dress and grooming. I was impressed with this personal standard, even though we were filming in rugged locations that were either on the desert or in places where we had to climb over rock, dirt, or sand. He wore the traditional white robe with a simple cap covering his head, and on more formal times the cap was replaced with a scarf wrapped in the familiar turban head covering. I marveled at how he kept his white robe spotless, even after our ride on very oily and dirty fishing boats. He was a credit to the Ministry of Information and his country.
One day we filmed at a distant and ancient oasis called Shisur. After an interview with Kent, Brian and I completed some detail shots of figs hanging on a tree while the crew relaxed under some shade. When we finished, I got in the backseat of our Land Rover. After a few moments Abdullah hopped in the front seat, whirled around and asked, "Are you Mormon?" Completely surprised, I stammered back, "Yes, I am." "Are all of you Mormon?" he asked again. "Yes we are," I answered, wondering how he even knew of Mormons in a land where there were very few religions except Islam. A huge smile crossed his face, and he said, "I'm so happy! I wondered if you were because while the crew was resting, the oasis host asked if they wanted any tea or coffee and they all said no." I asked, "Abdullah, how do you know about Mormons?" He explained that he studied and received his bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas about ten years before. He was assigned to live with an American family, and they were members of the Church. Finding out that we were Mormons brought back a flood of happy memories of a wonderful family; his affection for them was clearly genuine. He said that they had the missionaries to dinner every Tuesday evening, and he attended Church with them a few times to understand more of their beliefs. As he was telling me this, I wondered what the chances were of our LDS crew connecting with perhaps the only Muslim man in Oman who had lived with an LDS family in the States. We were on the far side of the earth from Utah, and the chance of anyone even knowing that Mormons existed was slim to none.
From that time on Abdullah and I had many long discussions about our different religions. I was happy to gain a greater understanding of Islam from a young man who was insightful, articulate, and happy to share. He respected my beliefs, and we compared our two faiths and discovered many similarities along with the differences. The feelings we shared were warm and spirit-filled; I often thought that Abdullah was a young man whom God would use in a quiet and unnoticed way as world events unfolded. Abdullah and I are still friends, and I am always happy to hear his warm, loving voice on the phone.
The Ministry of Information wanted to share a traditional meal with us, and so one day when we were shooting on the desert, they brought one to us. Two platters at least three feet across were put in the middle of a blanket or mat spread out on the desert floor. A huge pile of rice, seasoned with saffron, covered each platter. Pieces of goat meat and goat entrails were mixed throughout the rice, and crowning the top of the mound was a goat's head. I will never forget the shocked expression on the face of our youngest crew member, Adam Lisonbee. I could tell he was in near panic; he later confessed to me that he was frantically wondering what we had got ourselves into. But we all sat on the mat around the platter with our Omani friends and dived in with our hands. Our crew carefully picked out nice pieces of meat and rice, avoiding the other objects. The rice and meat was delicious. I observed, ironically, that the men who ate with us, many of whom had been handling camels and otherwise working in dirty desert conditions, did not wash their hands before eating. However, after eating, water was provided to clean their hands from the greasy meat. (Our crew discreetly cleaned their hands with disinfectant lotion before eating, a practice we followed throughout the trip.)
The cultural differences in eating, which we also experienced in Yemen, further reminded me that we should think of Lehi and his family as Middle Eastern. These characters in the Book of Mormon are beloved and intimate friends for those who have been inspired by their words and moved by their experiences. Because of the closeness that we feel with them, it is easy to consider them as "just like us." But to impose our contemporary Western culture on them is a mistake. Spiritually, there is a direct connection, of course, and from a human point of view, we can relate closely with their joys and sorrows, struggles and triumphs, personal anguish and love of the Lord. We can feel the same as did Nephi when he expressed his disappointment with the lack of faith and belief of his older brothers, or thrill with him with the Lord's tender mercies for his family. But culturally they lived a very different life from much of what we know. And the basic need for eating simply brought that into clear focus. Not only would they have eaten food prepared differently, the extremity of their situation would have caused them to value every edible part of the animals they hunted. This culturally fascinating meal of rice and goat meat that we ate using our hands, sitting on the desert floor, made Lehi's journey even more real.
After we finished shooting in Oman, we traveled to Jordan and Israel to complete the journey. We had started in Yemen (the long middle part of Lehi's journey), but finished our principal photography at the starting point, Jerusalem. Because of the then dangerous political circumstances in Jerusalem, we had to stay in the BYU Jerusalem Center. Hotels were considered too vulnerable. It was wonderful to lodge and film at that beautiful facility, but the empty halls, classrooms, and dormitories spoke sadly of the political state in that ancient and intriguing city. Shortly after Lehi left Jerusalem, the city was sacked by the Babylonians, and the Jews were enslaved by a culture that worshipped strange gods. Even though the story of the Book of Mormon begins in Jerusalem, it is easy to concentrate on its New World setting. But as I stood at the Jerusalem Center and looked at the ancient walled city, I thought of Lehi, Sariah, Nephi, Sam, Laman, and Lemuel. This was their home. They were wealthy, had a comfortable life, and would have been very familiar with this city. I was glad our schedule allowed us to finish filming at the beginning of the story. Having seen where they would travel, what they would have to experience, only made my appreciation for their sacrifice in leaving this famed and beautiful city of their home all the greater.
Obtaining footage from the actual lands of the incense trail and Lehi's journey was essential in making Journey of Faith, but it was not the only critical aspect of the production. Commentary from scholars was to be the backbone of the film. I knew several of them and was familiar with their expertise, brilliant academic thinking, and illuminating scholarship. I had been impressed for years with their findings and knew that their insights would be inspiring. Artistically, I wanted to do something different from the standard interview in an office setting. The story seemed to call for a more stimulating setting for these comments that would glue the story and scholarly findings together. Our budget was limited, and I could not afford to take all the scholars to the various countries of the journey. As I pondered how to make the film more aesthetically appealing while at the same time visually enhancing the story, the idea of artistically rendered backgrounds behind the scholars emerged. I also wanted other artwork to emphasize and expand our appreciation for the beloved iconic characters in 1 Nephi. I had worked with artist Joseph Brickey before and knew he would have a strong feeling for this work, so I engaged him to do the artwork. He felt that the art of the film would be enhanced if we included another artist to do the background art for the scholars' commentaries. Howard Lyon, a colleague of Joseph's, agreed to take on that project. It was thrilling to see these pieces as they were completed, and I knew they would create the ambience I hoped for in the visual presentation of the film.
The challenges of the film extended beyond the world conditions that interrupted and delayed our filming in the Middle East. For example, getting the artwork done by our deadline was a tremendous effort that took determination and personal sacrifice. Joseph had married about a year earlier and had a pregnant wife. He had painted the stunning murals for the temple in Copenhagen, Denmark, and needed to return to do some finishing touches. He was only able to do that work during a narrow window of time at the temple. In order to meet our deadline, he would have to complete the drawings for Journey of Faith in Copenhagen, then mail them back to me. The plan seemed workable. Joseph's wife, Angie, traveled with him. Her pregnancy was normal, and the baby's due date at a safe distance.
Joseph was only able to paint in the temple for a few hours a day because of its schedule, so his plan was to do the drawings for Journey of Faith during the off time. The plan worked fine until Joseph somehow pulled some muscles in his back. Not only could he not do any painting, he could not do any drawing. He was laid up, flat on his back, for days. Knowing the deadline I was facing, he tried to force himself to do the drawings. With pain medication and putting himself in just the right position, he was able to slowly get some of the work done. When looking at the finished drawings, he remembers the pain of each stroke!
But things only got more challenging. Angie suddenly had a medical problem with the pregnancy that put her in the hospital. The situation required the delivery of the baby within a few days or its health would be threatened. Now Joseph cycled to the hospital to check on his wife and baby, then back to their apartment to continue the drawings, all the while trying to ignore the pain in his back. This routine continued for several days until the baby was born healthy and the drawings were completed. I was thrilled with the drawings, but I knew what Joseph and Angie had been through. Striving to promote and expand awareness and testimony of the Book of Mormon seems to stretch our efforts to the limit.
I have always felt that one of the most important artistic elements in a motion picture is the music. For Journey of Faith, a unique sound that reflected the ancient Middle Eastern world was needed. Arlen Card and Nicholas Gasdik are two of the most talented composers I know, and I felt that their working together would produce some intriguing and compelling music. Nick also had the unique background of having grown up in the Middle East. His father was a US Diplomat and spent a good part of Nick's teenage years working in the Arab world. I anticipated that the sights and sounds of Middle Eastern countries from Nick's youth would give us a musical score different from what we ordinarily hear. Arlen is also known as one of the finest music arrangers in our community, so through their composing collaboration, I knew the music would be excellent.
Our rationale for making Journey of Faith was to bring to a larger audience the tremendous research that has been done for decades by many dedicated scholars from several disciplines. Their work is amazing to me. To search out the clues embedded in the text of the Book of Mormon and, through professionally accepted and accredited research, discover strong evidence, and even proof of the sacred record, is an ongoing labor that continues to testify to the veracity of Joseph Smith's translation and the surrounding history of the coming forth of the book. I have no doubt that the future will bring additional exciting discoveries and, perhaps, even clarifications or further illumination to what has already been found. Belief in the book is, of course, a personal and spiritual matter. Faith is the first principle of the gospel and is at the core of our belief. But to have that faith bolstered by unfolding discoveries supporting the Book of Mormon is a blessing.
It is always a thought-provoking and moving experience for me to visit the sites of the restoration—Vermont, the Palmyra area, Kirtland, the Missouri sites, and Nauvoo. The events that occurred at those locations, the sacrifice that was made there is sobering and inspiring. To then be in the areas through which Lehi's family traveled, Nahom being a specific site, made me keenly conscious of the fact that few members of the Church would ever have that opportunity. Out on the desert one day, I knew all of our effort and frustration and delay was worth it, and I felt a mounting responsibility to visually share these places with our fellow members and friends. As we went to one location and then another, I constantly reflected upon Nephi's narrative with his remarkably intimate and compelling details. I wanted so much to capture as vividly as possible the sights, sounds, heat, and feeling of Lehi's journey so it would have, to at least some measure, the same effect on an audience as it did on all of our crew.
Journey of Faith premiered during Education Week at BYU in 2005. We screened it each evening to a capacity audience of nearly 900. I attended each presentation because I wanted to know if we achieved our goal. I remember watching four women become engrossed in the film. The next evening these same women came again. I joked with them and said, "Didn't I see you here last night?" "Oh, yes!" they in chorus cried out with enthusiasm. "We just had to take the journey again." Thank you. That's all I needed to know.