Laura Waters Hinson did not exactly set out to become a critically acclaimed director — she was just trying to film the thesis for her master’s degree in fine arts.
But then her thesis snowballed into an internationally renowned documentary called As We Forgive and earned Hinson the Student Academy Award for Best Documentary. The doors of opportunity began opening, and Hinson is walking through them again with her latest film, Many Beautiful Things.
The film takes viewers on the journey of Lilias Trotter, an artistic prodigy who abandoned fame in order to pursue her calling to be a missionary among Muslims in North Africa. The film, which Hinson clarifies is about faith, but not “faith-based,” recently premiered at the National Gallery of Art and has played to sold-out crowds across the country. Hinson recently talked with us about the movie and began by giving us the inside scoop about its star, Michelle Dockery, of Downton Abbey.
1. Michelle Dockery has become a big name because of her role as Lady Mary Crawley on the hit show, Downton Abbey, and she does a great job with the voice of Lilias Trotter in Many Beautiful Things. Shoot straight with me: Was she anything like her somewhat stuck-up character on Downton?
No, not at all! Michelle Dockery was actually the antithesis of Lady Mary — she was humble, kind, down-to-earth and laughed easily. When I first arrived to the recording studio in London, the producer told me to go visit her dressing room and say hello. I was horrified; for the past six seasons of Downton, I’ve witnessed dozens of scenes of Lady Mary in her chambers getting ready, and I couldn’t imagine barging in on her while she got her makeup done. But when I slinked in to meet her, she was exceedingly gracious and lovely — and even better, she loved the story of her character, Lilias Trotter, and had even taken notes on the film so we could discuss. That amazed me.
2. Many Beautiful Things is the story of an extremely talented woman who was almost forgotten because she pursued her faith at all costs. How did you end up hearing about it?
About two-and-a-half years ago, I got an email from a woman I didn’t know, asking me if I’d be interested in directing a documentary on the life of Lilias Trotter. Now, I get quite a few strange emails asking me to make movies about all kinds of crazy ideas, 99.9 percent of which have no funding attached. But this email was different.
The note came from Miriam Rockness, the biographer of Lilias Trotter and arguably the world’s expert on her life. She represented a board of decision makers and a family that wanted to produce a film on Lilias’ life that could be taken to a wide audience. I look back now and think that was a life-changing email.
I became so taken with the story of this young, female artist who was torn between the London art world and her desire to serve women and children as a missionary in North Africa. The themes of calling, vocation and the meaning of true success were at the heart of the narrative. I knew I had to tell this story, and thankfully, I was brought on to direct the project.
3. I’ve heard that the documentary film world isn’t particularly warm to people of faith, much less people of Christian faith. Is there a part of you that’s afraid that this film, which has faith front and center, will undermine your success as a filmmaker?
Well, you’ve struck a nerve here. It’s certainly true that the film world is generally hostile to telling stories of genuine faith — it’s much more interesting to do an expose on corrupt church leaders than it is to tell an earnest story of a historic person of faith.
On the other hand, I think that many films that cater explicitly to Christian audiences don’t trust their viewers to draw their own conclusions or read between the lines. So what you often end up with is an extended sermon illustration rather than a true narrative that explores the good and the bad and everything in between. For this reason, I knew that Many Beautiful Things had to be different.
I wanted the film to inspire faith audiences as much as it would inspire a general audience, which is a challenge. Recently, the National Gallery of Art in D.C., one of the world’s most important museums, hosted the D.C. premiere of the film as part of its official film program. I was thrilled (and relieved) that the film was received by such an institution. I think it proves that the story is what’s most important — if a story is well told, anyone can be impacted and moved by it, regardless of their beliefs.
I also have another film coming out this year called Mama Rwanda that is about how women entrepreneurs are helping transform Rwanda into one of the fastest growing economies in the world. If any cynics in the film world are keeping tabs, I hope they will see that I have a diverse set of storytelling interests, some of which are related to faith and some of which are not. In fact, when I look back on my body of work, I’ve realized that I’ve made four films that feature women as lead protagonists — a trend I’d love to continue!
4. You marinated in this story for months. How did it change the way you see yourself as an artist and a believer?
Lilias Trotter made a radical decision in her mid-20s to follow a counter-cultural calling — a decision that probably didn’t make a lot of sense to people in her life, but that resonated with her soul. She then spent decades living out that call without fanfare and without much in the way of external “success” to confirm that big decision. And yet, she had a profoundly deep and persistent sense of joy throughout her life.
As an artist, I, like many artists, feel that we’ve given up other things in order to pursue what we believe we were designed to do on this earth. But it comes with a cost (typically financial security). In meditating on Lilias’ life over the past couple of years, I’ve begun developing a different matrix by which to judge my life — one that relies more on trusting the calling rather than looking at box-office returns or number of YouTube views.
It’s a daily challenge to try, in some small way, to emulate Lilias’ pursuit of joy in the midst of suffering and obscurity. It’s something I’ll work towards the rest of my life.
5. You won a student Academy Award with your first film. That’s amazing, but I wonder if it’s scary too. Do you ever fear that you’re going to be like other artists who had instant success in the beginning and then never really topped themselves?
Oh, man, these questions are killing me! Ha! A one-hit wonder? Yes, of course, I’ve feared this! However, we’ve had more public screenings of Many Beautiful Things in the last two months than we had in a full year of screenings with my first film. So while Many Beautiful Things won’t ever win an Oscar, it might go on to impact a lot more people. You just never know!
If I’ve learned anything from Lilias Trotter, it’s to trust what you believe you are called to do, regardless of the outcomes. As one of our characters in the film says, “The adding up is not really ultimately ours to see. Who’s to measure what is greatness?”