Martin Doblmeier: Filmmaker
An award-winning documentary filmmaker looks at Seventh-day Adventists—again.
Not that long ago, Martin Doblmeier was hardly a household name among Seventh-day Adventists. In spite of a career that spans nearly three decades and award-winning documentaries that chronicle such notables as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Albert Schweitzer, and Thomas Jefferson, Doblmeier flew mostly under the Adventist radar.
All that changed in 2010, with the release of Doblmeier’s film The Adventists—a documentary film about abiding faith, cutting-edge medicine, and longer, healthier life.
The film was not only shown at the 2010 General Conference session in Atlanta—it aired on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and won a 2011 Gabriel Award for best religious film. Doblmeier has since traveled throughout North America, where his film has been shown at churches, camp meetings, and college campuses.
The Adventists presents the genesis of the church’s emphasis on healthful living through the counsels of church cofounder Ellen G. White, and describes how that is embodied by a university hospital in California that has a worldwide reputation for cutting-edge medical technologies; a health system in Florida that seeks to integrate health of body, mind, and spirit; and a community throughout North America that lives up to 10 years longer than the general population.
Little Things With Love
In the late 1970s Martin Doblmeier was a young filmmaker producing a magazine-style television program that told stories about religion in the United States. One of the first subjects of his Real to Reel programs were the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic order of religious women who live and work in the Bronx, New York City.
Not long after Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize, Doblmeier received a telephone call from the provincial of the order. “Mother Teresa’s going to be here in a week,” she said. “We’re going to let you be the only one to interview her.”
Doblmeier spent two days with the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and during their conversations he shared his hopes for the film: “Mother Teresa, we want this television program to be really big, with millions and millions of people watching it.”
She stopped him with these words: “God does not call us to do great things; but little things with love.”
Mother Teresa’s ministry of caring for the poor, homeless, and dying people on the streets of Calcutta, along with her counsel to do “little things with love,” have guided Doblmeier for the past 30 years. His films feature individuals and communities that are both well known and slightly obscure. But the common characteristic is how they live their faith.
His films have been broadcast by the BBC, PBS, ABC, NBC, the History Channel, and other networks in the United States and abroad.
Doblmeier’s first formal contact with Seventh-day Adventists came several years ago when he was invited to speak in Loma Linda, California, in connection with a screening of his film Bonhoeffer.
“I spent time going around to different parts of the [Loma Linda University] hospital,” he remembers. “That’s when it started to percolate for me that here’s this somewhat conservative, biblically based Christian faith that’s also on the cutting edge of health care and medicine.”
The Adventists introduced viewers to historical figures such as William Miller, Ellen White, and John Harvey Kellogg. But from there to it moved to cutting-edge therapies and procedures performed by Dr. Leonard Bailey at Loma Linda University Medical Center, and the mind, body, and spirit emphasis displayed at Florida Hospital and at St. Helena Hospital and Medical Center.
The emphasis is not just about health—it’s about health and its relationship with spirituality. “CNN, or any other secular newsgroup, could say, ‘Here are these people living longer; a lot of them are vegetarians, maybe that’s why,’ ” says Doblmeier. “But what I wanted to say was ‘At the foundation of the action, of the behavior of Seventh-day Adventists in terms of health, is this central notion that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. . . . That, for me, was the central thing.’ ”
In The Adventists Doblmeier interviews Adventist health-care administrators, doctors, theologians, chaplains, patients, and family members to explore the intimate relationship between health, spirituality, and quality of life. He also tells the stories of those touched by the healing ministry of Adventist health care: cancer survivors, those fighting addictions, transplant recipients.
But Wait, There’s More!
Following the release of The Adventists Doblmeier was approached by members who asked, “Would you ever think about doing a film about the work of the church in the international dimension?” That was the beginning of The Adventists 2.
Where The Adventists was a study of the Adventist health message and how it touches individual lives, The Adventists 2 looks at the medical missionary work of the church in areas of the world where quality health care is rare or practically nonexistent.
Filmed in Haiti, China, Peru, Brazil, Malawi, and the Dominican Republic, The Adventists 2 tells the twenty-first-
century version of stories many of us heard when we were children going to Sabbath school. Except that where the stories we grew up with told stories of individual missionary doctors and nurses living in primitive settings, these stories involve health care on a large scale, made possible by advances in modern medical technology, and motivated by a desire to serve humanity by following the example of Christ’s healing ministry.
Doblmeier’s Journey Films is located in Alexandria, Virginia, and he works with a small staff that includes associate producer Deryl Davis, director of photography Nathan Dewild, and John Dillon, office manager and production assistant. The Adventists 2 is scheduled to begin airing on PBS stations in September.
Ready for Prime Time?
Doblmeier says that spending time with Seventh-day Adventists and becoming familiar with our concept of health, particularly as it relates to spirituality, has brought depth and meaning to his life. “I have felt remarkably comfortable in this environment,” he says. “It’s been a great blessing to me to take a story that I think has great value and say something about it. . . . I have really come to admire so many people with this church that I feel very comfortable being able to do that.”
According to the Journey Films Web site (JourneyFilms.com), Doblmeier’s films “examine how belief can lead individuals to extraordinary actions, how spirituality creates and sustains communities, and how faith is lived out in the most challenging times.”
And while it’s one thing to profile what’s best about Seventh-day Adventists—our world-renown health-care system and our belief in whole-person health—physically, emotionally, and spiritually, what do we do with this kind of media exposure? What happens when Public Broadcasting features The Adventists or The Adventists 2?
Says Doblmeier, “If I was making a film knowing it would be seen only by Seventh-day Adventists, that it was going to be shown only in churches, it would be a different film.” The first film, The Adventists, was well received by PBS viewers. And PBS, which has no shortage of filmmakers vying for airtime on its system, is already committed to presenting The Adventists 2 on many of its stations in September.
The reception received by these two films has pushed into production a film about Adventist education (as yet unnamed) that will feature Holbrook Indian School, Bronx Manhattan School, Oakwood Academy, and others.
Doblmeier is also beginning work on a film about chaplains that will feature Barry Black, chaplain of the United States Senate.
But what if a film crew showed up at your church? your school? your office? your community? What would it be able to tell about Seventh-day Adventists by following you around?
As an observer of religion and religious people, Doblmeier is aware of the tension that often exists between different practitioners of religion, or those who practice no religion. “We’re all part of the human family; we’re all created in God’s image,” he says. “We have to figure out a way to break down barriers and be more civil, more accepting.”
A filmmaker chronicling religion in the twenty-first century should find among Seventh-day Adventists something that would fit the bill.