Twenty years ago, Austrian filmmaker Christian Vuissa had a dream to start an LDS Film Festival.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vuissa wanted a venue where LDS filmmakers could network and showcase their work.

The festival was organized in 2001, and while not affiliated with the LDS Church, it carries the strength of LDS filmmakers, directors, actors and producers.

In 2006, the festival found a perfect venue at the SCERA Center for the Arts in Orem and that is where it remains housed.

Over the two decades of programming, the films selected and presented by the festival have covered a wide range of trending topics — “feel good” films that uplift and inspire, as well as fun films with the simple intent to entertain.

This year the festival, which runs Wednesday through Feb. 27, kicks off opening night with a special screening of the highly anticipated film, “Witnesses” (scheduled to release this summer).

“‘Witnesses’ is the most significant and ambitious film dealing with the early history of the church and the translation of the Book of Mormon to ever be released on the big screen, and we are excited to be opening the 20th anniversary of the festival,” said Brandon Purdie, president and founder of Purdie Distribution.

The LDS Film Festival has grown tremendously over the last few years. What began as a short film festival, is now a major event that showcases an impressive array of feature films, special screenings and short films, according to Kels Goodman, director of the festival.

Goodman stepped in when Vuissa decided he wanted to spend more time making films and it was difficult to run the festival from Austria.

The LDS film genre is changing slowly and has its ebbs and flows over the years, according to Goodman.

“It’s definitely shifting,” Goodman said. “The main mission is to find the new talent.”

Goodman said that many times LDS members shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to good LDS cinema.

“We are a lot harder on ourselves,” Goodman said. “Each filmmaker seems to have to reinvent the wheel.”

Over the past few years Goodman has built relationships with producers, directors and writers of faith-based family films that are not necessarily LDS. He invites them to give workshops at the festival to give insight on why faith-based films are doing so well.

Goodman said these filmmakers know the method, they know the secret sauce to success.

There are so many untold stories from LDS history and perspective, Goodman said.

One such movie was “The Saratov Approach,” which premiered at the festival in 2013. It is a dramatic thriller film by Garrett Batty. It tells the true story of the 1998 kidnapping of two LDS missionaries in Saratov, Russia.

“ ‘The Saratov Approach’ reignited LDS film for a while,” Goodman said.

The turnoff point is getting funding for films. Goodman said those who contribute to financing LDS films seem to be the same few.

That still hasn’t stopped people for wanting good, even edgy films in the LDS genre.

Over the last 10 years, attendance at the festival has been steady, averaging between 4,000-7,000 visitors each year.

Since its inception, the LDS Film Festival has premiered dozens of theatrical releases and screened hundreds of films. Regional, national and international media have all reported from and about the festival, including The Associated Press, The Washington Post, and Premiere Magazine, according to Goodman.

The full lineup of films for 2021 offers over a dozen dedicated screening blocks, over 50 viewing hours and 40 films in multiple categories including: feature films, feature documentary, short film programs, short documentary programs, music video category, along with a high-performance awards show to end the festival. Filmmaker Q&A sessions after the screenings are another highlight of the festival.

“There is a rich history and a vibrant community of filmmakers that participate in the festival each year, we have been working for months planning a very special 20th anniversary. The festival provides a place to showcase the best films by new and emerging filmmakers, as well as our industry’s most talented directors, producers and actors,” said Michelle Moore, co-organizer of the festival.

The festival is an in-person event, according to Goodman. The SCERA Center for the Arts has been open through the COVID-19 pandemic and has large theaters and knows the spacing issue. All state and local protocols will be complied with including wearing of face masks, social distancing and use of hand sanitizer.

“While the pandemic stopped or delayed many productions in 2020, there were still filmmakers that put in the extra safety protocol and pivots to find ways to complete their film productions and the festival is excited to celebrate their work,” Goodman said.

In addition to screenings of classic LDS films and the films in competition, the LDS Film Festival will also showcase a Filmmaking Presentation Series featuring workshops, panels and insightful sessions with producers, filmmakers, actors and film distributors as they take you behind what you see on the screen, according to Moore.

Saturday’s awards show will include the presentation of the LDS Entertainment Lifetime Achievement Award to filmmaker Lyman Dayton.

“We are very excited this year to honor Lyman Dayton, his contributions to cinema as an LDS filmmaker paved the way for the many that followed and produced many memorable films the whole family can enjoy together,” Goodman said.

For more information on the LDS Film Festival programming and costs visit ldsfilmfest.com.

Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can be contacted at gpugmire@heraldextra.com, (801) 344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire

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