On July 9th 1850, the Bab, the forerunner to Baha’u’llah, was executed in Tabriz, Persia by a firing squad of 750 men. The Bab, which means “the Gate” in Arabic, was a Messenger of God whose role was to herald the coming of the latest Manifestation of God: Baha’u’llah. In 1909, after being hidden away for more than half a century, the Bab’s remains were finally interred on Mount Carmel, Israel.
On a spring evening on May 22rd, 1844, Siyyid Ali-Muhammad announced that He was the bearer of a Divine Revelation whose aim was to prepare the world for “Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest,” a Messenger of God known as Baha’u’llah. Baha’is refer to Siyyid Ali-Muhammad by His title, the Bab, which is Arabic for “the Gate,” and that eventful evening is celebrated every year by Baha’is around the world.
New Documentary Film ‘The Gate’: An Interview with Steve Sarowitz
About a year ago I got a call from Rainn Wilson asking me to have a chat with a guy who wanted to create a feature length documentary about the Bab. His name was Steve Sarowitz. He was an entrepreneur and had absolutely no experience in getting a documentary made, plus he had only recently become a member of the Baha’i Faith, but we had an amazing conversation for a couple of hours over the phone about the idea, and I have to say that his enthusiasm and determination for making the documentary was contagious!
Now a year later, Steve actually did it! He made the film, and I’m so excited to let everyone know about it! It’s called The Gate: Dawn of the Baha’i Faith, and it’s a visually stunning documentary, rich with interviews and reenactments. It tells the story of the life of the Bab and describes some of His Teachings. Engaging, captivating and creatively put together, this film will be of interest both to those who have heard of the Bab and His Teachings, and those who have never heard of Him.
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I was raised Jewish and first heard about the Baha’i Faith in college. While I immediately liked the idea of progressive revelation, I didn’t start studying the Baha’i Faith immediately. Instead, I spent my time and energy on my business career, founding multiple companies, including a company that went public in 2014. After that company went public, my wife and I became very active in philanthropy. I began studying the Faith in my mid-40’s and declared as a Baha’i in 2015 at the age of 49. Three days after I declared, I e-mailed my friend Farsheed Ferdowsi, telling him that I was now a Baha’i and that I wanted to retire and focus on teaching the Baha’i Faith. Farsheed suggested that while perhaps I could reach hundreds of people over the course of a few decades of teaching the Faith, making a movie instead could potentially introduce the Baha’i Faith to millions of people. Within an hour, I received a completely unrelated e-mail introducing me to Peter Samuelson, a well-known movie producer, about working with him to help foster children. Peter’s most successful movie was Revenge of the Nerds. We talked that day and I agreed to help him with the foster children. I also mentioned the idea of making a movie and Peter suggested that I fly out to Los Angeles to meet with him. By 2017, almost 2 years to the day that Peter and I first met, we had become good friends and we filmed our first interview for our film in Peter’s home.
Baha’i Blog: What was the main idea behind the documentary ‘The Gate’? What is it about?
Our film is a documentary about the life of the Bab and the dawn of the Baha’i Faith. It shows how the Babi movement was born amidst a worldwide expectation of the coming of a promised Messenger among Jews, Christians and Muslims. It follows the exciting life and teachings of the Bab and His mission to herald “The One Whom God Shall Make Manifest”, which, of course, turned out to be Baha’u’llah. The film features interviews with both Baha’i and other scholars and authors, reenactments which were filmed in Southern Spain and an on-camera narrator who helps weave the entire story together. While having an on-camera narrator is not typical in many documentaries, our inability to depict the Bab on-screen made this a better option for us.
Baha’i Blog: Why was it important for you personally to make this documentary?
The world is in dire need of the Teachings of Baha’u’llah. While in some material ways, humanity is better off than it has ever been, we are suffering spiritually and many people are experiencing anxiety and a lack of hope for a better future. Almost all of the major issues we suffer from can be traced back at their source to disunity and strife. Baha’u’llah claimed to be the Divine Physician for our age and thus we Baha’is must endeavor to bring His medicine to an ailing humanity. While we are not looking to convert people into becoming Baha’is just by watching our movie, we are looking to interest many of them in investigating our Faith further. Ultimately, our goal is to help eradicate the notion that different religions should compete with each other and replace that idea with the Baha’i Teachings on the oneness of God, the oneness of His Messengers, the oneness of religion and the oneness of humanity.
Baha’i Blog: What were some of the challenges in making a documentary about the Bab, a Manifestation of God, and how did you overcome this?
The first challenge was that I had no experience as a filmmaker. I would love to tell you that I overcame this problem with intelligence and skill, but the truth is that this project has been the beneficiary of Divine guidance. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been introduced to some amazingly talented people who have helped make my dream of making this film a reality. Shortly after I left Los Angeles in 2015, I was introduced to Bob Hercules, a very experienced maker of documentaries, by Steve Zacharias, who happened to be the writer of Revenge of the Nerds. Ironically, it was another friend who introduced me to Steve, not Peter Samuelson, the movie’s producer. Bob Hercules soon agreed to direct our film. Next, I brought on Ed Price, a Baha’i author whose knowledge of the Faith I admired. Ed has contributed greatly to the project, as well as my own knowledge of the Baha’i Faith. Ed suggested that we add Kathy Hogenson, another Baha’i author and long-term friend of his to our team. He also suggested that we reach out to Dr. Nader Saiedi, one of the foremost scholars in the world on the Bab, to see if he would be interested in joining our team. Fortunately, Nader graciously offered to help us and has been an integral part of making this film.
I was also introduced to Adam Mondschein, who plays Mulla Husayn and has become a co-producer. His wife, Yaani King Mondschein, did a great job as our narrator. Our interviewees were gracious and helpful as well. Rainn Wilson, Justin Baldoni and Shabnam Mogharabi, who runs Soul Pancake, have helped me as advisors. Rainn is also one of our interviewees in the film. One of the major challenges that we had to overcome is the prohibition of depicting the Bab, meaning that we were making a film without ever showing its main Character. We used Baha’i consultation to find solutions and drew greatly upon the experience and skills of Bob Hercules and his business partner, Keith Walker, who is our Director of Photography.
Another challenge we faced is finding a broader audience for our movie, beyond just the Baha’i community. While Christian movies enjoy an existing audience of millions of people, our community is still small and cannot provide a broad enough base for our movie by itself. To help us overcome this, we ask every Baha’i who sees this film to bring a couple of friends to see it with them. We did focus groups with people who are not Baha’is to make sure that the film would resonate with them as well. While Baha’is have been more enthusiastic in their praise of our film, we received generally positive feedback from other people as well, even though we were testing with a rough cut which was far inferior to the finished film. One of the other challenges was to make sure that we interacted effectively and respectfully with our National Spiritual Assembly and the Universal House of Justice. Because this movie is being produced as a service to the Faith, the last thing I wanted to do was to produce a movie which they felt was not worthy of its subject matter or hurt the Faith in any way. We collaborated closely with the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States throughout the entire project. It was an interesting experience, especially for Bob Hercules, who is not a Baha’i, and Jan Sutcliffe, our editor, who is also not a Baha’i. Melding the diverse contributors to our project into a single united team was another challenge, but thankfully, one that did not prove to be difficult. One of my favorite experiences was watching our American team seamlessly integrate with our Israeli film crew to beautifully capture Yaani King Mondschein’s narration at the Shrine of the Bab.
Baha’i Blog: How do you hope audiences will be affected, or what do you hope people will walk away with after they’ve watched ‘The Gate’?
For Baha’is, we hope that this movie will contribute to energizing communities by telling the inspiring story of the Bab. Many Baha’is know the history of the Bab but very little about His teachings. We hope that this movie will help educate Baha’is themselves better on His teachings. We hope that Baha’i communities around the world embrace the movie as a teaching tool as well. Our main goal for everyone else is to introduce people to our Faith and encourage those who want to do so to investigate our Faith further. Our original plan calls for us to make a series of movies, including movies about Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Tahirih, with the goal of providing much-needed information about our Faith in movies to the world at large.
Baha’i Blog: Are there any interesting stories you can share briefly related to the making of, or the process in getting a documentary like this made?
When I first declared as a Baha’i in February, 2015, I declared in front of a painting at the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette that depicts approximately 100 martyrs who were killed by the current Iranian government. Clearly visible in the photo almost directly behind me was Farsheed Ferdowsi’s father, who had been a prominent Iranian businessman. As I mentioned before, Farsheed was the one whose idea it was to make the movie, just three days after I declared. It wasn’t until months later that I noticed that the people in the portrait were numbered and that Farsheed’s father was number 49, which was my age at the time I declared.
Figuring out how to handle the non-depiction of the Bab was interesting. At the request of the Universal House of Justice, we spent a day filming a series of test shots to give it actual samples of how the Bab could represented on screen, such as only showing His arm, His hand or His shadow. In the end, any depiction of the Bab whatsoever not permitted. The point of view (POV) technique, where the camera is used as if it was His eyes, was used extensively in the 1976 movie about Muhammad The Message. The POV technique was also disallowed. Even showing another person conversing with the Bab was deemed unacceptable. The non-depiction was a challenge for Bob Hercules, our director and Keith Walker, our Director of Photography. However, we worked as a team to develop several workarounds that eventually were approved, including substituting still photos during those segments of the film where someone is interacting with the Bab.
Getting our movie to air nationwide across the USA on ABC was quite a coup. This happened with surprisingly little effort on our part. It started when Layli Miller, the Founder of Tahirih Justice Center, was interviewed for a movie that aired on ABC about different Faith groups helping refugees. The non-profit behind that movie, IBC (Interfaith Broadcasting Commission), put out a request for submissions of documentaries on religious subjects for them to air on ABC. Most of the movies that they air are about social justice and religion, how people of different Faiths work to make our world a better place. However, I was thrilled to see that one of the categories was “movies about the founder of a Faith”! If you think about it, it would be very difficult to make a documentary about a Founder of a Faith that is centuries old, like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism. In most cases, we have very little actual documentation about the lives of the Founders of these Faiths. However, we have far better documentation about the lives of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, since They came so recently. This enabled us to make a documentary about the Bab with actual evidence and pictures of some of the people involved. I responded to Debra Gonsher Vinik of IBC and told her about our movie. In most cases, she requires a rough cut before she approves our movie. However, because Layli had impressed her so much during her previous movie and because of the credentials of Bob and Keith and the solid financial status of our movie, she agreed to move forward without seeing a rough cut of the movie. It wasn’t until after we had signed the contract with IBC that Debra was at last able to see the rough cut! There have been many interesting confirmations while making this film. One interesting one was the choice by Bob Hercules, who is not a Baha’i, to start filming our reenactments in Spain on May 23, 2017, the anniversary of the Declaration of the Bab. Exactly a year later to the day, we are screening the film in the Washington, DC area with Layli Miller!
Baha’i Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The early feedback from Baha’is has been very encouraging. I just received this comment from a small group of Baha’is who watched a completed version of the film. “We just finished watching this film. It was AMAZING!!!!! Absolutely stunning, inspiring and historic. People were moved to tears.” Our test focus groups among people who are not Baha’is also gave us positive feedback on our film. Many people were surprised that they hadn’t heard such an amazing true story before. Almost all the participants were curious to learn more about the Baha’i Faith after seeing the movie.
Baha’i Blog: Where can people watch ‘The Gate’?
People can watch The Gate at premieres in Los Angeles (May 9th), Chicago (May 12th), Stanford University (May 17th), San Francisco (May 18th) and Washington, DC (May 23rd). In addition, we have over 150 requests for local screenings from Baha’i communities around the world.
Also, as I mentioned, previously, the film will be airing nationwide in the USA on ABC starting on May 13th. It should appear on about 75% of their stations. Last but not least, we will be selling DVD’s and online streaming of our movie as well. You can find out more about how your community can host a screening or how to obtain a copy of our movie at www.thegatefilm.com
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, Steve!
Find out more about The Gate and where you can watch it, by visiting the film’s website: thegatefilm.com.
Naysan is passionate about using the arts and media to explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Back in 2011, Naysan started up the Baha’i Blog project, channeling his experiences in both media and technology companies to help create a hub for Baha’i-inspired content online.