The most watched film in history

BBC News Magazine, July 18, 1002
By Giles Wilson, BBC News Online

Forget Titanic. Forget Star Wars and Gone With the Wind. They are small fry compared to the Jesus Film, which has been watched by more than two billion people. And now the people behind it have their eyes on a new goal… Iraq.

There’s no swearing. There are no sex scenes. There’s some violence, but that is integral to the plot. And ultimately there’s a happy ending.

That’s where similarities to Hollywood end, though. There’s no glamour, no stars, and certainly no Cecil B DeMille.

At first sight, Jesus, or the Jesus Film as it has come to be known, is an unlikely candidate for the title of most watched – and most translated – film. Shot on location in the Holy Land, and with a white British Jesus, it is instead a straight-faced retelling of Luke’s gospel. It was made in 1979, by coincidence the same year as Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

But how, while it is virtually unknown in the UK and many other Western countries, did it ever receive such an enormous worldwide audience? And how did it get translated into more than 760 languages and dialects, among them Uyghur, Jorai, Karakalpak, Hakka, Mongo-Nkudu and Nosu Yi?

The reason is simply the work of an American evangelical organisation, Campus Crusade. Funded by its supporters and well-wishers, it sends teams around the world, even where they are not particularly welcome. There they record new translations of the film, organise screenings to inquisitive crowds in improvised cinemas, and distribute copies to whoever they can.

Rather than concentrate on places like the UK, its focus is on the far corners of the world, although it has of late been sending unsolicited VHS copies to US households.

Among the crusade’s goals are to make a translation for every language. With some 7,000 languages on the planet it has some way to go yet.

But another of its goals almost guarantees that a degree of controversy will surround its work. Visit the organisation’s website and a banner advertisement will invite you to “Send videocassettes of ‘JESUS’ to Iraq”. And to help it speak specifically to Muslims, the organisation has a powerful new tool.

Rather than address the differences between Christianity and Islam, the project has made a new, 15-minute film, which highlights their similarities, particularly the common ground of the creation story. The new film’s British director, Andi Hunt, says: “The purpose of it was always to create context for the story of Jesus… Jesus is in the Koran, he’s a big part of the Islamic faith, so a lot of care was taken in the introduction to keep that viewer in mind.”

Even though sensitivities were heightened by the shadow of war in Iraq, the new film received its premiere in a village in a politically volatile – but staunchly Islamic – area of northern Egypt. The project members took a screen, a 16mm projector, and some leaflets.

Documentary-maker Deep Sehgal filmed the screening as part of a six-month venture to record the work of the project. His film, Selling Jesus, is to be broadcast in the UK on BBC Four next week.

“The events we witnessed were often bewildering,” he says. “But what struck us most was the utter normality of those who were willing to risk their lives for Christ.

“These are not Stepford Christians with glazed expressions and dogmatic platitudes. These are dedicated, caring and liberal people who believe that they have stumbled upon the one great Truth, and will die for their right to share it.”

From palatial premises in Florida, Paul Eshleman, the head of the crusade, looks the part of the archetypal American evangelist. And yet his words don’t quite fit the part, preferring for instance to be called a “follower of Jesus” rather than a Christian. “The word Christian is so loaded with things that have been done in the name of Christ,” he says.

Conviction is one thing – diplomacy is however another. Even the fact that the organisation calls itself a crusade pinpoints the delicacy of the issues at stake, particularly after President Bush used the term – and quickly dropped it – after 11 September.

Eshleman offers no apology for spreading the gospel he believes.

“People ask ‘Why do you go to those far away places?’ It’s because those people haven’t had a chance. That’s all we want to do – to give them a chance to hear the message of Christ in an understandable language near where they live.”

It is people like John Meyer, one of the team which goes into the field to make new translations of the film, who have put that vision into practice – and put the film into the record books. “I’m willing to lay down my life for Jesus, should it come to that,” he told Sehgal. “So if there’s a recording in a war-torn country, I’m more than willing to go. Or anywhere else, to be honest.”

Selling Jesus will be broadcast in the UK on BBC Four on 22 July at 2200 BST.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 24, 2003.
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