The Tailenders

PBS Premiere: July 25, 2006Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is The Tailenders about?

Adele Horne: The Tailenders documents Global Recordings Network, which is an organization that has the goal of translating Bible stories into every language in the world. The organization use low-tech hand-wind players to distribute those recordings. And the film follows them going to the Solomon Islands, India and Mexico as they make translations and distribute them.

For me, this film is about the power of media as a tool to change people's beliefs and their cosmology. It's about the power of people as consumers of media. I don't think that people are just unwitting consumers; I think they use the media messages they receive strategically themselves. The messages that the missionaries created on the recordings may not be used exactly the way the missionaries think they're used. So I'm really interested in how people use media for their own purposes and take a received message and use it in surprising and unexpected ways.

POV: How did you become interested in this topic?

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Horne: I first learned about Global Recordings Network, the organization profiled, because I grew up in an evangelical Christian family. My family was mailed one of these cardboard record players when I was about eight years old and it made a huge impression on me. Years later, as an adult, I kept thinking about that object and wanted to find out where it had come from. So I did some research to find out where it had come from and contacted the organization. I became really fascinated with the history of GRN, their methods and their use of media.

POV: How did your own background inform the film?

Horne: I grew up in an evangelical family, and although I'm not an evangelical Christian now, I was quite familiar with the world view, the language and the thought process of evangelicals and evangelical missionaries. I understood where they came from and what they were passionate about, and I think that helped me communicate with them and it also established a certain amount of trust between us.

POV: Tell us about how you found the main characters.

Horne: The two main characters in The Tailenders are Phillip, who's the missionary who goes to to Mexico, and Mario Garcia, who is doing the translation with Gospel Recordings. Phillip was based in the Los Angeles office and was quite open to me coming with him to Mexico, where I could film him. I think that in making a documentary you often follow the paths that open up to you, and so if a person is open and is able to speak articulately about what they do, that's a person you end up working with. And that was the case for Phillip.

In the case of Mario, I didn't know that we were going to meet him. I was with Phillip, who was doing a translation, and I was very excited to film that process. It was the first time I had seen the translation process. Mario was there to do the translation, and he was extremely articulate, and was very able to speak about his own position and relationship to his religious beliefs. He was very analytical, and I found that really interesting. I wanted to get to know him more, and so that's how he became the other main character.

POV: Could you talk a bit more about how Global Recording Network uses media for evangelical means?

Horne: One of the things I learned in making the film was the extent to which Global Recordings Network used marketing and ideas related to advertising in their work. I also learned that evangelicalism and Protestant Christianity has had a long history in using any form of media.

We know about televangelists on television, but it goes back much earlier than that, to really early newspapers and almanacs that were using high tech media of the time to evangelize very strategically. It's interesting because I think that in many ways evangelical Christians have a certain caution regarding media. They're somewhat skeptical; they often feel they're misrepresented by the mainstream media. But at the same time they're quite savvy users of the media themselves, so they have a kind of complicated relationship to media: they don't wholly embrace it, and yet they use it as a tool. George Bauer, one of the missionaries in the film, says that they take what the man makes and retool it for their own purposes. I think that's true, they use media but they're very selective about how they use it and they are very strategic about it.

One thing I think is really interesting is that Gospel Recordings was founded in Los Angeles, around the time that Hollywood was just beginning. There were a lot of radio broadcasting and recording studios just developing in Los Angeles, and I think that Gospel Recordings took some lessons from the mainstream media, from Hollywood and advertising, and that's very much a part of who they are.

POV: How did you approach the narration for the film?

Horne: As I recorded my own voice for the film, I certainly realized I was another voice among all these other voices you hear in the film. It made me think about the idea of the voice carrying meaning, or meaning being lost in speaking and hearing. Doing a voiceover for a film, from a filmmaker's point of view, is very tricky work because you want to give people some hints about directions that you find interesting to guide them, but you also don't want to constrain them or tell them too much, or box them into one interpretation of what they're seeing. And so it was a very fine balance to feel like I was saying enough but not saying too much.