August 23 - Our Summer Making a Documentary

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two months since we arrived at English L’Abri and sent our first Art Within newsletter. It’s even harder to believe that it’s now been 2 weeks since the term ended. These past few months have been a whirlwind - but also, at times, surprisingly slow-moving.

After arriving at L’Abri, within a day or less, the two of us were eager to start filming and using the time to the fullest - especially Houston. The summer term officially started on May 12th, but we arrived on May 24th, so there was already a feeling of “playing catch-up” to quickly form relationships with other students and begin making the most of our time.

A Slow Beginning...

It became very clear in the first few days, however, that “quickly” was not going to be the way a documentary about L’Abri would go. L’Abri means “shelter”, and as such, many of the people who come to The Manor are there to rest, retreat, or recuperate from exhaustion or pain in their lives back home. Understandably, many people weren’t initially very excited about being filmed by two strangers they hardly knew yet. When Houston flew his drone over The Manor one evening to film the sunset, he heard later that a few people had been afraid they were being recorded while they were having time alone outside. Within a few days, it felt like misunderstandings like this were going to be rampant.

It was a difficult start to the term, trying to be present with so many lovely people but feeling like everything needed to be fast-tracked to use the time well. Luckily, the two of us had mentors: Lili and Josué Reichow, to help communicate during the documentary process. Josué and Lili are both L’Abri workers, former sociologists, and lovely people who have a vast appreciation of art as a whole. The two of them advised us to slow down significantly and experience the first 2-3 weeks of the term without filming at all, only investing our time into being present with the community and being known by the students around us. This was very hard advice to hear, especially as we watched so many wonderful moments slip past without being captured on film, but we heeded the wisdom…and slowly, gradually accepted that these early weeks would be for planting, not harvesting. Suddenly, it felt like God was directing our attention toward “people” over “project" - and we started to get closer with the community around us outside the context of filming.

The Turning Point

In the midst of the busyness, in our limited downtime: we had the chance to reunite with multiple friends from our previous terms at L’Abri, Houston managed to read through the first half of the Bible, Debbie worked on writing her memoir book, and for four Thursdays in a row…the two of us went to see Top Gun: Maverick in nearby Portsmouth Harbour - with multiple friends joining us as time went on. Ironically enough, God brought several deep spiritual insights out of Top Gun. One of them was the way that Maverick inspires his students that their seemingly “impossible mission” can truly be flown…by dramatically demonstrating it himself. This got our gears turning about how we might inspire our fellow students at L’Abri with what this documentary might look like with their involvement.

About three weeks into the term, the workers allowed us to use one of the weekly film discussion nights to show the students our previous documentary, Love In The Time of Corona, and our concept film for the L’Abri documentary featuring former L’Abri workers Andy and Lindsey Patton. Initially, we had only intended to show the proof of concept short film, but showing Love in The Time of Corona ended up being the most significant portion of the night. It’s a documentary about our long-distance relationship during COVID beginning at L’Abri, which made it feel very full-circle and showed the students a more personal side of our story. When the film ended, the whole room erupted into a standing ovation. The two of us had no idea what to do with ourselves - but it was a deeply meaningful moment we'd never anticipated. As it turned out, our film was more universal than either of us had realized; we assumed it was just a hyper-personal diary of our own limited story, but the portrayal of connection and resilience during the quarantine era resonated deeply with many others.

After showing both films, we had an open discussion with the community about our documentary plans, and ended with a prayer. Many of the students and the workers were very encouraging of our work and desires - one worker, Joel, encouraged people to see their participation in the project as “a way to bless other people” even if it made them initially uncomfortable. At the same time, many raised hard questions - mainly about how we could maintain the “shelter” as we tried to film in such a vulnerable setting. The best conclusion was to start slowly...and we decided that we would plan to schedule every filming session on the daily work-list, so that students would have the peace of mind of knowing when and where we would be filming.

Going into the term, our approach to making the documentary had been “assume everyone is okay with being filmed unless they tell us otherwise.” In the early weeks, as we walked with God down the quaint Church Lane every day, it became very clear through prayer that the more fruitful approach would be “assume no one is okay with being filmed unless they agree to participate.” It was a difficult change of mindset to make, but one that ultimately would produce more fruit and personal trust in the long-term. After our movie screening night, we requested that everyone come to speak with us personally in the next few days to tell us how they felt about being filmed, either in the background or in more focused interviews.

What a huge answer to prayer it was when almost everyone told us that we had their trust! In retrospect, it had been a massive answered prayer that we were able to show Love in The Time of Corona, because it gave people a glimpse of our story beyond this particular project…and made them want to be part of what we were doing next.

Filming (Really) Begins

In the next few days after the film discussion night, our filming finally started to get moving. We scheduled various work crews, like laundry and cooking and gardening, to film during each day. We filmed a myriad of tea breaks and settings of tables. And, excitingly, we interviewed our first set of workers: Josué and Lili.

After this important milestone was cleared, the term began to fly past. Some days were slower, but many were packed with various things to film from sunrise to sunset. We learned to navigate communication with the students who didn’t want to be filmed, and also how to communicate with the newly-arrived students who hadn’t been present for our screening. We said goodbye to new friends (Aron from Hungary, Nancy from DC, Colin from Scotland, and Francis from Canada!) who were leaving halfway through the term. And we definitely gained a few pounds of muscle from holding our camera rigs day in and day out.

The weeks weren’t without obstacles; the sheer exhaustion was one, but with so much of our filming scheduled in advance, the most difficult task was achieving any sense of spontaneity to capture those “in-between” moments that were impossible to plan.

Halfway through June, a small wave of maybe-COVID sickness swept through and left a few students quarantined during the day, hanging out on picnic blankets on the lawn. One of the students, Nick from the UK, said “honestly, it sucks to be sick here…but there’s no other place I’d rather be sick right now.” Even amid the sickness, it was moving to see the Lord’s care through people and their practical help, like bringing meals outside, coming to read poetry and play music, and taking extra work crews when several people were down for the count. Many of the students said one of the times when they felt most loved by God was when they were sick in the community.

It would’ve been a special period to capture - the difficulty and beauty of hospitality and community even when people are sick - but few people wanted to be filmed when they were in their “sick mode.” Situations like this happened frequently; no matter what you do, the most interesting things always occur off-camera.

The complexity and difficulty of making a documentary about community while living in community proved to be one of the more interesting parts of the story itself, and the topic came up frequently in interviews. It remains to be seen whether that question will be the crux of our film, but it’s certainly been the dramatic question of our summer...and it continually, sometimes reluctantly, made us realize the goodness of our limitations.

Moments of Glory

Many great things did make it on camera, though: we talked to American worker Sarah about her own experience as a student 20 years ago and her collection of medieval weapons and art. We shadowed Scottish worker Catherine as she picked wildflowers to decorate The Manor. We captured one of the weekly Monday morning prayer meetings, a staple of L’Abri life and a very vulnerable setting that would nonetheless be integral to communicating what the film is about. We documented the annual game of “Paper Ball Wars” stretching across The Manor property around July 4th. We filmed a Scottish Ceilidh dance during one Sunday evening. We followed a worker, Dawn, to the grocery store - and got subsequently kicked out for filming without permission. But hey, we got what we needed! We interviewed various students one-on-one and heard more of their individual stories, while also following groups of friends like AJ, Emery, and Ellie to the pub and on strolls down Church Lane. For all the students who claimed they would be “unnatural and awkward” in front of the camera, nobody came across that way; most people were outgoing and comfortable - almost to the point where we needed to find what wasn't comfortable.

Encouragement from Other Artists

Halfway through July, we managed to get away for a half-week in Oxford for The Rabbit Room’s annual Hutchmoot conference - a meeting of Christian artists from around the world! Andy and Lindsey Patton kindly allowed us to stay with them while they were there for the conference as well - and we both felt seen (and a little intimidated) by being around so many like-minded people with similar loves of beauty and truth. We went to the pub with singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson and his wife Jamie, met the wonderful and keen head of publishing at IVP UK named Caleb Woodbridge, talked to authors like Glen Scrivener and Alistair Gordon, and (of course) peered into the windows of the pub where CS Lewis and Tolkien first tossed around their ideas. It was closed for renovations! Houston also got to connect with Andrew Brumme, the director of a documentary series called Taste and See about the spirituality of food, and Pastor Matt Canlis, the main subject of the acclaimed documentary short film Godspeed. Both Andrew and Matt mentioned that their respective documentaries were filmed in the tiny span of 3 days - which gave both of us a much-needed relief that if we’d spent the entire summer filming, surely we’d have something!

The Home Stretch

The last 3 weeks of the term at L’Abri were nonstop. With the added pressure of a ticking clock, we finally managed to film some of the things that had been difficult to pin-down in weeks prior: multiple filmed lunch discussions, interviews with all the other L’Abri workers who hadn’t had time, one-on-one sitdowns with students who had been previously elusive, various songs and musical performances from people who had been practicing all term, a staged goodbye to avoid intruding on the real goodbye, as well as timelapses of sunrises and sunsets and every other gap we could manage to fill. We asked every question a hundred different ways and finally found threads that worked. We figured out who was most comfortable with the camera and shadowed those people throughout the days. We mustered the courage to ask everyone to sign consent forms to appear in the film. We almost ran out of storage on our hard-drives (over 20 terabytes!) and had to make room for more.

In those final weeks, any illusion of balance between “work and life” mostly collapsed; there was something to film almost all day every day. But the stories, images, and emotions we managed to capture were both glorious and real. It felt like the fact that the term was ending meant there was more vulnerability in everything we shot - and a stronger dramatic question in every interview about returning to the world outside.

And then, with a great sigh of melancholic relief, exhaustion, and gratitude…the term was over. The two of us stayed one extra week in Greatham with a lovely neighbor, Tricia Porter, to capture a few interviews with the elderly residents of the surrounding community - which gave us time to decompress and to document some powerful tales about L’Abri through the decades. But when we finally opened the door to our flat in Czech Republic and laid down our many bags of camera gear and clothes…it was good to be finished with one part of this story.

We thank God for these beautiful things:

  • A few unexpected and generous donations to Art Within during the summer...especially when we didn’t expect things would continue after we went radio silent!

  • The kindness, openness, and flexibility of the L’Abri workers to communicate and bend with us as we figured out the logistics of this crazy idea - especially Josué and Lili!

  • The openness of so many students to be filmed and interviewed during a season when they didn’t expect it - all so that it would bless others in the future

  • The honesty of the students who didn’t want to be filmed, and their meaningful presence during the term

  • The moments when the light was shining golden through the trees and our cameras were rolling...

  • The hospitality of The Pattons during our stay in Oxford

  • The safe arrival of Debbie’s brother and cousin, Ruben and Vojta, and their time at L’Abri in the final 2 weeks

  • The gift of seeing “Les Miserables” on the West End in London

  • Emery’s kindness in preparing Debbie’s childhood cake recipe for her 25th birthday in July

  • Our new friends Giedrius and Mette from Norway, and their healthy baby on the way

  • The hospitality of Hope Church, Tricia Porter, The Smileys, and The Johnstons

We ask prayer for these:

  • Continued financial support for Art Within to pay for post-production editing, an original musical score, color-grading, and the possibility of some limited additional travel

  • The process of editing some 40-60 hours of footage, which will be like carving a statue out of a massive chunk of marble

  • The preparation for our American wedding on October 29th

  • Safe travel for Debbie’s family during their first trip to America for the wedding

  • Houston’s final stretch working on his previous documentary project, The Movie Whisperer

  • The wisdom and creativity to steward the story of this film and these resources well, from beginning to end

We thank you so dearly for your contributions, both financially and spiritually, to the process of making this film and starting this company. It’s so meaningful to have you here. We’ll be sending more updates and glimpses of the film soon!


The Coleys

May 25th, 2022 - Filming the Documentary Begins

What a joy to be writing our yet first newsletter to you all! Or, depending on where you’re from, to y’all.

First, we’d like to thank you, the reader, for being here. We’d also like to thank many of you for helping to nourish the ground (through financial support, prayer, encouragement, or sheer interest) of this first Art Within project. It means a lot to have you around.

This past month has been a whirlwind of emotion and busyness. In April, we were finally able to connect and meet with our newly-formed board members for Art Within - all of whom are dear mentors to us. We had a great discussion about engaging the new needs that we are seeing in our culture, the church and the arts, and opportunities for the direction we’d like to go in future. Having all their voices around the (Zoom) table is very precious to us.

Before heading to America, we made a brief pit-stop at L’Abri in Greatham for two days to drop-off our camera gear at The Manor and reunite with some old friends. This was the first time in 2 years, since we met, that the two of us had returned to Greatham! Re-walking the paths we know so faithfully and finding them in lush spring, we were relieved that everything felt much the same as always. Needless to say, returning to the same little stone wall and seeing all those chimneys poking over the ivy was surreal.

When we arrived at The Manor, after walking the 2 miles from the Liss train station, the two of us were soon met by Ranald Macaulay - the original founder of English L’Abri (and husband of Susan Schaeffer Macaulay) who now lives in nearby Petersfield. Ranald came to the Manor on his bike to meet us for tea and talk about the project. He's now in his 80s, but as soon as he saw us in the driveway, Ranald came outside and said “which is the heaviest bag? I’ll carry that one!” Then he scurried into the kitchen to find the best tea, and we had a lovely brainstorming chat in the library. Ranald and Susan founded English L’Abri in the early 70s, and they are still active in the surrounding community. We were honored to have his insights and good humor.

Another piece of lovely hospitality we experienced in our brief two-day stay was from The Smileys, Tom and Lizzie, who offered us their Shepherd’s Hut (something like a tiny-house) to stay in their backyard for the weekend. Tom brought us fresh eggs from the chickens roaming free in the yard, told us about how the Shepherd’s Hut had been built by former L’Abri worker Doug Curry, and we had a great time getting to know the two of them better than we had before.

The night before we were supposed to leave for America, Debbie found her stomach very upset from some fish and chips we’d eaten at the pub that day - she was even developing a fever. It was so bad that we feared we might have to change the flight, but after some earnest prayer from our friends (including some of you!) Debbie thankfully woke up the morning of the flight feeling very refreshed.

We arrived in America on April 30th to stay for 3 weeks and be there for the high-school graduation of Houston’s sister, Haviland. These weeks were filled with many visits to family, a camping trip with friends, lunches with old mentors, late-nite Waffle House meals, a visit to the beautiful city of Greenville, a day in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, wedding planning for the autumn, and telling people about our documentary plans for the summer.

As far as “fundraising” for the documentary - though we feel hesitant to overuse that term - we were met with many surprises and answers to prayer even in those short 3 weeks. Two meaningful friends and mentors from Debbie’s church gave $5,000 when we didn’t expect it. Multiple family members reached out to contribute provision and encouragement. We received generous donations from churches that had been significant in our lives - some for years and others only for months. We are now at roughly $22,000 of a $37,000 budget - which is more than enough to get us started in these next months.

Through what the two of us would describe as a “divine appointment”, we happened to bump into the pastor of River City Church, Josh Turner, at a coffee shop along the Chattahoochee River and ended up having a very rich conversation with him about our shared vision for spiritual community, hospitality, and church life.

Haviland's graduation was a meaningful send-off where even she led the attendees in worship, and we got to visit her university in South Carolina to see what life will be like for her there. On the final Sunday we were in the states, we went to River City Church and received a lovely send-off and prayer from the entire church body. It was very meaningful to have so much support from a church community even when we were not able to be part of it for very long.

In these three weeks, the two of us heard the voice of God more strongly and clearly than we had in recent years - largely, we believe, because it has been (and continues to be) a time in which we are more reliant on him to provide our needs.

As of now, we are safely at English L'Abri and still recovering from jetlag - but we've already met many lovely people from England, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Brazil that we look forward to knowing more deeply as the summer continues. Thank you for your prayers and contributions; we are so thrilled to be here.

We thank God for these beautiful things:

  • For having supportive, wise, warm people on our new Art Within board

  • Andrea Sheppard offering to help with our company finances

  • Nate Shepperd committing to help with our sound and music

  • Debbie’s healing right before the flight to the US

  • Avoiding COVID in the US, even when one family member got it

  • Generous provision and divine appointments with lovely people

  • 56% of our film’s budget being completely funded!

  • Rich, growing time with Houston’s family in the states

  • Prayers and support from River City Smyrna and Stonebridge Church

  • Space to pray, brainstorm, and talk by the Chattahoochee River

  • Two (!) safe journeys to English L'Abri, and warm hospitality upon our arrival

We ask prayer for these:

  • That we will be able to trust the Lord even when he likes to surprise us, and have peace that we will make the film he wants us to make

  • That we will create natural friendships with fellow L'Abri students, learning to listen well, and gaining discernment toward when to record and when to pull back

  • That the Lord show us the next step after this summer, whether will we travel to other L'Abri locations, and refines our broader vision for Art Within

  • Continued financial support for the documentary and trust that we will have the budget God wants us to have

  • That we will develop a good workflow and rhythm as we use our camera equipment to capture beautiful images and stories

  • Good weather in England, the health and safety of everyone at The Manor, and a rich term full of growth

We anticipate a busy term, but hope to send out another newsletter with updates and photos sometime in June!


The Coleys