Rural India, 1974

The scratchy music and narration blared from a single speaker and masked the usual nighttime din of the Indian countryside. A hundred transfixed faces – some wizened by decades in the sun, others still glowing with childhood – flickered in the light from the screen.

The whole village had gathered to watch movies, projected by a car battery-powered projector onto a sheet stretched between houses, while a cassette tape player added words and music separately. Here, as in most villages, there was no electricity; movies and television were only available in the big cities. Black-and-white films like “Rat Control," “Safe Village Well," “Growing Fruits and Vegetables” and “Cholera” were the usual fare.

The highlight of this night, however, was a three-episode filmstrip, The Life of Christ, rendered from vivid paintings in a traditional Indian style. Regardless of the villager’s beliefs, the story stimulated debate and excitement – particularly among those whose faith had already been nurtured by village-based community workers. Johanan, an Englishman and part of the community development project showing the films, found these movie nights, and the delight and conversation they generated, particularly satisfying.

India, Present Day

Johanan settled onto the hard bench seat for the twenty-hour train ride to the station at the literal end of the line. The India whipping by his window was a very different country from the one in which he had shown the film strips about Jesus. Electricity, television, mobile phones and even computers were now available in even remote places. “But still,” he thought. “There is a need for the story of Christ to be both heard and seen.”

This belief in the power of faith expressed in local artform had sent Johanan on what became a ten-year journey to relocate the old film strips.

Originally, the movies had been assembled from hundreds of hand-painted pictures created in the 1930s by a single sister in an order of nuns. Primarily intended as hand-held illustrations for village talks, pioneers in early audio-visual technology had photographed the panels and made them into the filmstrips that eventually circulated all over the country during the 1970s when Johanan was working in India. Their beautiful colours and vivid South Asian style had captivated viewers and Johanan had never grown tired of introducing people to Jesus’ story through these beautiful works of art. But the library that had distributed them had long since stopped operating and no one else was interested in the archaic medium.

Now on his way to a tiny city in central India, Johanan was nearing the end of the search. After many dead ends, he had one place left to try – an obscure Christian bookshop whose name and address had been on some of the old filmstrip scripts – perhaps they might still have an archive.

When he arrived, Johanan found the small bookshop and, connected to it, a now-defunct Christian Arts Centre with a functioning recording studio and an archive of Hindi Christian music and radio programmes.

Off of a seminar room, behind a locked door, lurked an abandoned film library. The air conditioning had failed twenty years before and all of the 16 and 35mm films left to decay. Potentially explosive fumes had seeped from the deteriorating film stock and filled the room. The removal was a slow, delicate process. But – it was all there! The collection of artwork Johanan had for so long searched for was found.

The rediscovered filmstrips are now being digitized. Johanan is praying that after editing, these and other resources can be made available through bookstore networks and for free download and distribution across India. These lost resources, found in a dusty, forgotten room, ready for the Master's use once again.

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AuthorSarah K.