Like a glowing orb of glass in some fiery furnace, the late afternoon sun hovers in the smoke and dust over the horizon of the Ndop Plain in northwest Cameroon, Africa. Far above the village of Bambalang, this light of the day’s slow farewell casts an orange-red tint on the vapour trail of a jet. In that tube of transport at 10,000 metres, passengers are no doubt peering into monitors on the seat backs in front of them. They are watching one of dozens of movies or TV shows, available in multiple languages.
Here on the ground, locals will soon gather for a movie of their own. But unlike the wide-ranging video menu in the soaring airplane, this flick is the only one available in these villagers’ mother tongue (which takes the same name as their village).
On this movie night in Bambalang, the Luke film will tell the story of Jesus.
Pastor Novethan Shanui, from the Bambalang Bible translation team, has shown the film about 10 times since it was released in 2013, as have others numerous times. On this Thursday evening, Novethan leads the set up and projection of the movie. It visually portrays the entire Gospel of Luke, a four-hour (originally English) epic, from which the more well-known “JESUS” film was produced.
The thoughtful, 37-year-old pastor has picked a strategic spot beside Bambalang’s main road. Tonight’s theatre is by a compound of mud-brick homes, a short distance from the congregation Novethan pastors—Central Baptist Church, of the Cameroon Baptist Convention denomination—and down the street from the local bar and brothel.
More Public Locations
“We projected it one time outside of our church, because some people have been skeptical of coming inside the church,” explains Novethan, earlier in the day during a break from checking the Bambalang draft translation of the New Testament. Showing the film in neutral, more public, locations is now the norm.
Novethan and others from his church choose the outside wall of a house as backing for a bedsheet screen, pulled tight by nylon ropes. He slides an electrical cord through the wall’s window towards a power plug inside the house. Ndop Cluster supervisor Dan Grove helps hook up a Toshiba laptop computer to a white Epson video projector and large, black speakers. Meanwhile, young women carry 24 wooden benches from their church, for seating on the hard dirt ground that has been swept clean by a woman with a grass broom. She also trims large, overhanging leaves that might obstruct the view for those in the back rows. Someone tests the microphone: “The Lord is good. All the time!”
The Luke film for the 25,000 speakers of Bambalang is the first in an eventual 10 languages of the Ndop Cluster slated to get the movie after the Gospel of Luke is translated in each one. Producing the film in such languages is no simple chore.
“It went well, but it was more complicated and challenging than I thought it would be,” recalls Novethan.
Local churches—Baptist, Presbyterian, Full Gospel, Apostolic and Catholic—were asked to choose 40-plus people to be the voices for each of the different characters in the book of Luke. Sentences of dialogue from the translated book in Bambalang were extracted and organized by character.
A media team from the Cameroon branch of SIL International (Wycliffe’s key partner organization) came to Bambalang for an audio recording session. They created a studio inside a bedroom of the large column-fronted house owned by the landlord from whom Ndop cluster supervisor Dan Grove and his wife Melody rent their house. A small cubicle was made with mattresses to serve as sound-proofing. During the recording, a prompter read to each person what they should say, so they would not sound stilted.
Beyond the Audio
It took about three weeks to do the recording and a few months for it to be finalized in the U.S. The goal was to have words lip-synced as closely as possible to match the mouth movements of actors speaking English in the original film.
Editing didn’t just involve the audio, notes Novethan. In one scene, Jesus wears a traditional Jewish phylactery, a small leather box containing strips of parchment inscribed with biblical quotations. The few Bambalang speakers first reviewing a rough cut of the film noticed a problem, says Novethan, who voiced Peter the apostle.
“The practice here is that when people are afraid of something, they will go to a sorcerer and they will produce some charms . . . to wear on your arm or waist or neck,” he explains. “So when somebody that doesn’t know what a Jewish phylactery is, they would think, ‘Does this mean wearing charms is correct? Even Jesus went to the sorcerers—that is why he’s wearing what he is wearing.’”
Wisely, those video frames were removed.
As the Luke film begins just after 7 p.m., it’s quickly apparent that the dubbing is good. The audience is immediately engaged with biblical characters who seamlessly speak their Bambalang heart language. One woman momentarily turns on a small flashlight, lifts up her T-shirt and begins nursing her baby, settling in for a long night. Around her, benches are quickly filling.
A few minutes into the film, a power failure abruptly halts the video. Novethan has prepared for this possibility, quickly starting a gasoline generator he brought earlier on his motorcycle. The power of the Word is restored and the show goes on.
Jewish priest Zechariah asks an angel how he could father John the Baptist (Luke 1:18) because of his and his wife’s old age. Some in the audience might recognize the voice as that of a community elder, “90-something”-year-old Thomas Ndiwago. The prominent coffee farmer in Bambalang says he had to repeat his lines four or five times in the recording studio before it sounded just right.
“I understood that Zechariah was a believer and that is why he is featured in the film with Jesus. So I tried to speak as somebody that would be looked upon as a God-fearing person.”
Thomas was honoured to be chosen by the Catholic church he attends to lend his voice at the recording sessions.
“I had zeal to go,” he says, “so that when the film came out, those who do not even like God’s Word will hear it and, through that, become Christians.”
Thomas has not been disappointed by the film.
“When I saw it the first time after it was done, I knew that God . . . is mighty and has been in control and has helped the whole thing to be realized. When I saw it, I was really thankful to God.”
The darkness grows deeper. Now the only light is from a three-quarter moon overhead, and the projector’s triangular light beam. Filled with dancing dust particles, the beam projects onto the bed-sheet screen and reflects back onto pensive front-row faces.
When Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness in Luke 4, he is portrayed as a snake, drawing “oohs” from an audience that lives daily with the danger of poisonous serpents on the Ndop Plain. (Ironically, a boy who was bit earlier in the day is brought to Dan during the movie and he treats the youngster with an electrical anti-venom zapper back at his house.) The voice of Satan is that of Novethan’s Bambalang translation partner, Pastor Ezekiel Sancho. He was chosen because his well-known Christian reputation in the community fends off the potential stigma of portraying God’s great enemy.
All of the seats are filled now. An audience of about 250 spills out onto the roadside, where viewers stand three or four deep. Some casual passersby, walking or riding motorcycles, have stopped and stayed to watch the film. Novethan has seen this many times before, recalling one showing outside his church months before.
“One father came around,” he remembers. “He doesn’t go to church. He was going somewhere—he wasn’t coming to watch—just walking by.”
Novethan discovered that the man had been opposed to his children attending church, thinking they would stubbornly turn against Bambalang traditions.
After watching the entire Luke film, the father changed his tune. “So these are the types of things that they are teaching in church,” he said. “Then why would I not want my children to be church people?”
Explains Novethan, “There are so many good lessons that he never knew are found in Scripture. Now sitting there, he heard those lessons directly himself. And then he invited me to come and talk with him about what he watched.”
Reverent and Amused
When tonight’s audience watches Jesus heal the demon-controlled man in Luke 8, several express joy at Christ’s power and mercy. “Jesus! Jesus!” they say aloud. To a people so familiar with oppressing spirits in day-to-day life on the Ndop Plain, sending demons away into a herd of pigs is an impressive miracle.
At other times the viewers laugh heartily. The short tax collector Zacchaeus’ frantic scramble up a sycamore tree in Luke 19, to get a good view of Jesus, prompts a burst of chuckles. But the crowd seems even more amused at the wisdom of Jesus. When he cleverly answers Jewish chief priests and teachers of the law, who are trying to entrap him with trick questions, audience members giggle with glee.
In like manner, Jesus in the Luke film is challenging local religious leaders in Bambalang.
Dan says the film has been shown in predominately Muslim sections of Bambalang, outside mosques where local imams take chairs right up front.
“They’ve probably been told that the Bible isn’t true . . . or that very much of it has been corrupted,” he says. “But when they actually see it and hear it, they can’t help but be enthralled with Jesus. They are just drawn to Him. It’s really neat.
“They want to understand and they want to know what this message is and how it affects them.”
Feeling What He Did
Chapter after chapter, hour after hour, the audience watches the Luke film. Men and women don’t budge from their hard bench seats or their crowded standing places beside the busy road. Kids aren’t fidgeting in the front row, either.
A few scenes after Jesus feeds the 5,000, the film stops for a short intermission with tea and a snack supplied by the family lending their home’s wall for the bedsheet screen.
As the film portrays Jesus being arrested, whipped and crucified, the audience becomes noticeably more solemn.
Though not here tonight, Thomas, the voice of Zechariah, says he is still deeply impacted by these scenes, despite watching the Luke film more than 10 times.
“I like to watch it again and again because I see Jesus. I see His work and suffering here on earth—suffering to die for me and to die for all the people. It is not just in my imagination. When I see it, I feel it. I feel what He did in the suffering He went through, and that encourages my faith.”
Like Thomas, many Bambalang people watch the Luke film multiple times, says Novethan. It is not just a tool for evangelism, but also discipleship.
He gives the example of an illiterate Bambalang mother he visited in her home, who was talking to her misbehaving son.
“The mother said, ‘This thing you are doing, have you not heard Jesus saying that we should not do it?’ That is because that mother has the film on her mobile phone.”
The woman obtained the movie on a phone SD memory card, distributed by the Ndop Cluster team, says Novethan. “She will listen to it, the children will watch it. When they work their farmland and sit and rest, they listen to it.”
Jesus is Bambalang
It is late, well past 11 p.m., when the movie ends. Pastor Novethan takes the microphone and encourages the crowd to come to Jesus, before praying to close the evening.
He is encouraged that three-quarters of this night’s crowd are not churchgoers. Just as the prophet Isaiah asserted in the Old Testament, the pastor knows God’s Word in Bambalang will accomplish what the Lord wants it to. Over the next days and weeks, he says, the impact of this night’s movie will become evident. Bambalang villagers will contact him with questions or commitments to follow Christ.
“He is no longer a foreign Jesus,” the pastor says of the Saviour presented in the Luke film. “People are saying, ‘Jesus is speaking Bambalang.’
“They see Jesus like He is their countryman, because He is speaking their language. He cares about them.”
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