Star-Bulletin Features

"The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Sheperd" filmed mainly on Kauai, returns for screenings at the Laie IMAX.

Mormon IMAX film
has roots in isles

By Gary C.W. Chun

Kieth Merrill is returning to Hawaii as a filmmaker.

Two years ago, he completed a film for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Filmed mainly on Kauai in 1998, it's an ambitious docudrama based on a piece of scripture in the Book of Mormon that tells of Christ's visit to an ancient Central American city.

"The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd" was shown once on the Garden Isle soon after its completion, but otherwise hasn't been shown in Hawaii until now. With the prompting of local mission president Mark Willes, the inspirational film will play continuously at the IMAX Theater at the Mormon-run Polynesian Cultural Center.

"To film this universal story in Hawaii and then to come back is, frankly, delightful to me," said Merrill by phone from Los Angeles. "Local people who worked on it can now bring their family and friends to see it."

He added that the timing of the run, just before Easter, is fortuitous. "The focus of the film's story is on Jesus Christ and his resurrection, which is why we celebrate Easter."

Merrill said the film project offered him "a rare opportunity to combine what I believe as a Mormon and what I do as a filmmaker. According to the state's film commission, we built the largest set in Hawaii, next to 'Waterworld,' one that was prefabricated over several months and, miraculously, erected in 30 days."

Stretching 450 feet long, the set was supposed to have represented the city of Zarahemla, a Mesoamerican city of Mayan-style pyramids and ancient statues, with the story set between 20-30 A.D. Using the descriptive passages in the Book of Mormon, Merrill said that they hypothesize that the culture back then was a mixture of Olmec, Toltec, Mayan and Aztec.

"It's the story of Christ told from the perspective of people in ancient Central America," he said. "These people represent a missing thousand years of history, the ancestors of the Mesoamericans that lived from 600 B.C. to 400 A.D., a great civilization whose aftermath was the progeny as described in Mormon scripture. We needed a natural environment to double for Central America."

Merrill and his crew originally scouted Southern Mexico and Guatemala, Central American areas where Zarahemla may have been located, "but those places didn't have the infrastructure to handle film professionals.

"But, I must admit, there's also a little larceny in us all, and it was easy to opt to spend six months in Hawaii instead," he said.

Danish actor Tomas Kofod plays the Christ figure who visits the city of Zarahemla, populated by a cast of hundreds, most of them from Kauai, and including local-born actors as Al Harrington, Kimo Hugho, and Theo Coumbis and Hans Saito, both of Kailua.

The church-financed movie was filmed on high-resolution 70 mm, especially for the home base Legacy Theater at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where it's been regularly shown these past two years, and at the Mormon temple in Washington, D.C. (Merrill's first film for the SLC theater, called "Legacy," was about the Utah Mormon pioneers.)

"I was very satisfied with the making of 'The Testaments,'" Merrill said. "While I love doing period re-creation films, it was a challenge to re-create a period lost in history but recorded in ancient text. It was fulfilling on both a personal level, as a Christian and a member of the church, and as a professional, with all of the grandeur surrounding it, shooting on 70 mm and working with 500 extras, and the excitement of creating a movie and telling a story I believe in so deeply."

In the 25 years Merrill has been a filmmaker, he's been a two-time Oscar nominee, a winner in 1974 for his feature documentary "The Great American Cowboy" and a nominee three years ago for the IMAX film "Amazon."

Merrill's Whitelight Motion Picture Co. specializes in G- and PG-rated films, and he is developing several features, including one on Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian guide of the Lewis and Clark expedition and, later this summer, a 3D IMAX film about dinosaurs.

'The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd'

Where: IMAX Theater at the Polynesian Cultural Center, Laie

When: 7:30 p.m. daily (except Sundays), starting this Monday, through April 6. After April 6 it will be shown for an indefinite period at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with an additional 10:30 a.m. screening on Saturdays.

Admission: Free

Call: 293-3117

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