Subscribe to our email list and receive discounts and special offers from Watchman
The Profile Notebook on CD-ROM $19.95!
A postcard promoting the recently released film The Other side of Heaven would probably not raise any concerns for most people. On the front was the scene from the film's poster with:
comes the true story of a young missionary
on an extraordinary adventure."
On the back of the card: "Experience the remarkable true story of Elder John H. Groberg, a farmboy from Idaho, whose extraordinary mission experiences set a foundation for the rest of his life."
Some might pick up on the title "Elder" and recognize this is about a Mormon missionary. Many however may incorrectly assume they are going to view a Hollywood production about a Christian missionary.
It is also not readily apparent this is a movie about a Mormon missionary when visiting the film's website. In fact, at this writing, there is little mention of it being connected to Mormonism unless one searches the press releases or stumbles across the last question of the Frequently Asked Questions:
Is this a Mormon movie? No. The Other Side of Heaven is only a Mormon movie in the sense that the main character in the film is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The film was not produced, funded or endorsed in any way by that Church. However, because John Groberg is a current leader in the Church, he did consult with his leadership before allowing his life's story to be told. His leaders raised no objections. (http://osoh.xelent.com/pressresources/faq.pdf)
While it is true the Mormon Church is not "officially" connected to the movie, the movie certainly has a number of Mormon connections, other than just the missionary who inspired the story.
One of those connections is the writer-director Mitch Davis, a member of the LDS Church:
The Other Side of Heaven is the realization of a "personal and outrageous dream" he had back in the early 1980s. Returning from his mission to Argentina, he enjoyed watching Chariots of Fire and decided he wanted to make a film "about a Mormon for the world." (http://www.meridianmagazine.com/arts/011005other.html)
Another connection is the film's distributor, Excel Entertainment. The Mormon News quotes Excel president Jeff Simpson from an Excel press release:
Our vision as a company has always been to become a complete entertainment company, providing music, film, all types of entertainment media that is reflective of Mormon or LDS culture. (http://www.mormonstoday.com/010126/B4ExcelFilms01.shtml)
The manner in which the film was released also reveals its Mormon roots. The distributors chose to release the film in December 2001 in Utah and Idaho, only. Their reason is explained in a press release from Excel (try to remember this is not a Mormon film according to its website):
Distributors say they have chosen to open this way in order to see the film play in its potentially strongest markets before Christmas, traditionally one of the year's busiest box office seasons. Utah and Idaho, where the film will initially open, have some of the largest population concentrations in the nation of both Polynesians and members of the Church. (http://osoh.xelent.com/wdk/showNews.phtml?newsID=55)
Interestingly, this press release describes the film as "the true story of Groberg's adventures on the islands of Tonga as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." (http://osoh.xelent.com/wdk/showNews.phtml?newsID=55) However, when the film opened nationwide some four months later, the press release at that time described it quite differently:
The true story of a 19-year old John Groberg's experiences as a young man who travels to the exotic island of Tonga in the 1950's to become a missionary. Through letters, he shares his challenging, humorous and life-affirming adventures with "the girl back home." (http://osoh.xelent.com/wdk/showNews.phtml?newsID=148)
No mention is made of the Mormon connection.
After the movie opened nationwide and broke into the box office top twenty films, Excel gave an explanation:
The movie had the top per screen average of any film in the nation for Monday night. Distributors attribute this to the fact that many families, especially Mormon families, set Monday night aside as a special family night and will attend movies together. (http://osoh.xelent.com/wdk/showNews.phtml?newsID=174)
In this press release they also acknowledged that the film is "the true story of a Mormon missionary sent to the kingdom of Tonga in the 1950s."
Perhaps by now they realized it would be increasingly difficult to convince others this was not a Mormon film . Excel somewhat acknowledged this in a press release stating they had "attempted to buy advertising and PR services from several Christian media organizations before the film was released in theaters in April, but was repeatedly turned down. While many of the organizations praised the movie, they were concerned about being associated with a film about a Mormon missionary." (http://osoh.xelent.com/wdk/showNews.phtml?newsID=178)
The secular press had also caught on as evidenced by the following sampling of reviews:
Based on the memoirs of Mormon missionary John Groberg. The Other Side of Heaven plays like a recruitment film for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post)
The Other Side of Heaven (Excel, opens April 12) is to Latter-day Saint proselytizing what Top Gun was to Air Force recruitment. (Ed Park, The Village Voice)
[S]hould you happen to be a preteen Mormon, this will be time well spent. If your demographic profile fits elsewhere, however, this is the cinematic equivalent of two hours in someone else's Sunday school. (Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News)
The Other Side of Heaven is an unabashed Mormon propaganda piece disguised as an adventure film. . . . The whole trippy experience is like being held at gunpoint by a Jehovah's Witness at the front door while George Gobel holds forth in the living room on Nickelodeon. (Jan Stuart, LA Times)
Your enjoyment of The Other Side of Heaven, about a young, fresh-faced Mormon missionary who travels to the remote Tongan islands in the South Pacific during the 1950s depends greatly on your appetite for wholesome family entertainment and your immediate reaction to proselytizing. The film is absolutely unswaying in its determination to show conversion of an indigenous people to Mormonism as an important endeavor . . . even to a charitable viewer, The Other Side of Heaven will feel like a piece of propaganda. (Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald)
Bill McKeever, Director of Mormonism Research Ministries, has studied Mormonism for a number of years and provides a more fair account:
While there is no mistaking this for anything but a Mormon film, there is not a barrage of unique LDS teachings. About the only doctrine unique to Mormonism receiving prominent mention is the LDS teaching that marriage is for eternity. (http://www.mrm.org/articles/other-side-of-heaven.html)
Having said this, McKeever, would probably agree that the film does have as one of its aims to build and hopefully leave a positive image of the Mormon Church and its mission efforts in the viewer's mind. In one instance this comes at the expense of the Christian minister in the film, whom McKeever points out plays the role of the bad guy, "who tells his people to stay away from the Mormon missionaries because they are teaching false doctrine." (http://www.mrm.org/articles/other-side-of-heaven.html)
One concern Christians will surely have is the potential proselytizing effect the film might have if used as such in Mormon mission efforts. The real Elder Groberg has said his desire, "is that it [the film] will help people see 'that there really is a God out there.' A God who knows us and is involved in our lives." (http://www.meridianmagazine.com/arts/011005other.html)
The problem here is that the god that Elder Groberg wants them to know is not the God of the Bible. Mckeever aptly points this out:
We cannot forget that John Groberg was a Mormon missionary who, in real life, was and is spreading a terrible heresy. There is no escaping the fact that he is partially responsible for the exceptionally high LDS population in Tonga. Today this constitutional monarchy is about 40 percent Mormon. In actual numbers that accounts for 43,000 people trusting in a works-oriented salvation that tells people to believe in a God who was a glorified man and in a Jesus that current LDS President Gordon Hinckley says is anything but "traditional." (http://www.mrm.org/articles/other-side-of-heaven.html)