Once Upon a Time with Donald Leow
When it comes to missions, we usually think of church volunteers going abroad
on short-term mission trips and full-time missionaries living among the natives. Donald Leow, a movie-maker, however, calls himself a “media missionary”.
Growing up in Singapore, he discovered his passion for films while volunteering at Great Joy Media Center (GJMC) in the 1980s as a teenager. GJMC screened movies in churches on weekends as a form of evangelism. Often, a church leader would speak after the movie and Donald was struck by the responsiveness of the audience. “I saw the impact of what a movie could do,” he recalls.
Fuelled by what he saw, Donald embarked on film production work. With GJMC, Donald was involved in the production of Blessed Family—a six-episode television programme about Singaporean families. In 2003, Donald filmed his first production with Good News Productions International (GNPI), The Source of Love, a Hong Kong-based feature film starring actress Deborah Sim.
Unfortunately, GNPI closed in 2007. But all was not lost. “It’s been said that when God closes the door, he opens a window,” Donald says. “In my case, it was never a window—that would mean having to climb! It was always a wide- open door!” This door was an invitation to fill a Senior Producer position in a production company in the United States—the filmmaking capital of the world—and so Donald and his family moved to the USA.
In 2012, Donald started his own production company, StoneTable Films, together with a business partner.
Films about everyday experiences
In the last decade, Donald has produced four films. His latest film, released on 24 June, Once Upon a Time in Mongolia is a romantic comedy that tells a story of love in recognisable forms—parental, romantic, and divine. Prior to this, Donald produced Badge of Faith (2017), Touched by Grace (2014) and For the Glory (2012). Badge of Faith tells of the inspiring true story of police officer Bryan Lawrence, in an era of anti-police sentiments in the USA, and Touched by Grace casts Amber House, who has Down Syndrome, in a story about bullying.
Although the themes of his films vary, they have something in common. “All my movies feature everyday conversations with common people addressing a common issue,” he says.
Mention Christian faith-based movies and inspirational films like War Room, Courageous and Fireproof come to mind. Donald’s stories are different.
“I don’t sense that my calling is to tell stories to believers specifically,” he shares. “Rather, I want to tell stories that impact non-believers.”
Missions in the filmmaking process
Behind this heart for missions is a conviction, to paraphrase Blaise Pascal, that there is a God-shaped void in every man’s heart that only God can fill. Donald hopes to awaken that longing with his movies.
Donald’s films can be likened to “short-term” mission work. Targeted at the unreached, Donald intends his films to be a lighthearted avenue for Christians to reach out to their non-believing friends, hoping they can spark faith-based conversations.
“I want Christians to be able to bring their non-Christian friends to watch my movies and not be embarrassed about it,” says Donald. “It was partly for this reason that Once Upon a Time in Mongolia was produced as a romantic comedy.”
The “long-term” aspects of Donald’s mission occur behind-the- scenes through his efforts to train others in media production. “Today, there is a team in Mongolia equipped with professional gear to do media production,” Donald says. “They are producing excellent material. I am so proud of them.”
Now that they are trained, these Mongolian Christians are better poised to be financially independent and are equipped to produce more work—both Christian and secular content. “If the team can make a living from production and, on top of that, serve God, why not?” Donald says. “If any organisation, including those from the West, needs filmmakers in Mongolia today, this team is the one they go to!”
Where needed, Donald adapts to the cultural context of his locale in his media missions. While filming a scene for Once Upon a Time in Mongolia, he conceptualised an outdoor service to showcase Mongolia’s beautiful landscape. This was a foreign concept to the Mongolians but he strove for it anyway. Yet, in filming another scene, he honoured the Mongolian practice of designating specific areas in the gers, which are traditional tents commonly found in Mongolia, for different genders.
With his mission firmly in mind, Donald hopes that they bring about opportunities for interaction between people. “I don’t think of a movie as an end in itself. I think of it as a vehicle for evangelism.”
“Someone still needs to drive it.”
Once Upon a Time in Mongolia
After her mom dies, Mya finds an old photograph that sends her to Mongolia in search of her long-lost father. Along the way, she saves a young widower’s daughter, and in gratitude, he (Bataa) agrees to help her in the quest.
Their journey through the gorgeous countryside brings them through horse racing, archery and wrestling contests, debates about God, dead end leads and ultimately falling in love. There is one problem, however. Bataa has already been pledged to another woman in an arranged marriage.
Will Mya find her father? Will Bataa go through with arranged marriage? Can they live happily ever after? All these questions are answered in this romcom located this side of the Great Wall of China.
Terence Chua worships at Living Hope Methodist Church and is studying at Trinity Theological College. / Photos courtesy of Donald Leow