A new Adventist-produced television series, Encounters, is primed to make a global impact.
Published on: 08-28-2022
The space for real conversations has become ever smaller in a world mired in conflict, suspicions, hasty answers, and deeply held convictions. That’s why Encounters, a recently released true-to-life series spearheaded by Hope Media Europe in Germany, offers a unique opportunity to foster real and meaningful conversations with those who may have no association with Christianity and a Christian worldview.
“Encounters is a tool for reaching people who are searching or who are not yet Christians, and [is designed] to start a conversation with them about spiritual things,” says Sven Fockner, principal script author and coproducer of the five-part series that went live on July 1.
Fockner, together with director Adrian Duré, began work on the series more than seven years ago. The TV show depicts the experiences of two university chaplains at an international Christian university somewhere in the heart of Europe, and the challenges they face in their work, dealing with young adults grappling with big questions.
How It All Started
“The original idea,” says Fockner, “was actually to develop it as a Bible course for our Bible correspondence school here.” Early one morning in late 2014 Duré came into Fockner’s office and told him: “Hey, I’ve seen a show about a therapist. We could do something like this with a pastor and his work.” Both immediately saw an opportunity that could be filmed in a studio, and was more economical to produce for TV.
Before the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas, United States, Hope Media Europe decided to invest in a one-day “shoot” as a proof of concept to show stakeholders, with the invitation to help fund the product. The feedback they received was extremely helpful—and encouraging. Gilbert Cangy, who then served as director of the General Conference Youth Ministries Department, suggested to pivot from a pastor to a chaplain because many young adults live every day in a university setting and would resonate better with that context.
The Hope Media Europe team took this advice to heart, and started the long process of fundraising. The budget they considered necessary to produce a quality TV show was above US$1 million, and they were off to a good start, with several large entities committing funds. Because of a number of changes beyond their control, however, the financial situation changed rapidly in 2017. “We lost about four fifths of our budget in one week,” says Fockner. Two partners had to pull their support. It was the lowest point of the project.
“That Gave Me Hope”
A WhatsApp message from a friend teaching at River Plate Adventist University in Argentina offered a new perspective and encouraged the team to push forward. Duré, originally from Argentina, had sent the pilot show to a professor who showed the pilot to his students and asked them to offer their critique. One of the students, who had just tragically lost her best friend in a car crash, was experiencing devastating depression. She struggled to get out of bed in the morning or to motivate herself to go to classes. But on the day the professor showed the video, she found enough motivation to get up and go to school. After he showed the class the 20-minute episode of Encounters, something unusual happened for the student. She resonated especially with the final sentence the chaplain shared with one of the students onscreen: “I am with you on this journey.” It was as if God had spoken directly to her. God would not leave her alone in her pain and loss.
The professor forwarded a WhatsApp message the student had sent him to Duré and Fockner: “Where can I watch it?” the student wrote. “That was so powerful. That gave me hope.”
“That’s when Adrian and I looked at each other and said: ‘Wow.’ This was just one day of production, and it helped a person,” remembers Fockner. “We should do something. No matter how limited the budget will be, we will do whatever is possible—and it will be a blessing to at least someone, one person.”
Duré adds: “For me personally, one of the most important purposes of Encounters is telling simple stories.” Like all our stories, these true-to-life realities contain problems, struggles, pain, and hard situations. “Some of the solutions [to these difficult experiences] can be found through dialogue and discussion with others; others find their solution in the Bible,” continues Duré.
Encounters was back on track—with a smaller budget but with the same drive to tell stories that would help an audience ask real questions.
The Big Questions of Our Lives
Encounters features the work of two very different university chaplains, Alex and Sofía, and how their lives intersect with students studying at a Christian university close to Frankfurt in secular Europe. The slow storytelling of Encounters offers insights into life stories facing pain, a cancer diagnosis, the quest for purpose, relationship struggles, the question of human suffering and justice—and many more. This is not an action series, but one that helps the audience see developments as protagonists struggle and grow and wonder. It feels real, and many times viewers will catch themselves wondering about the responses Alex and Sofía would give as they engage the big questions their student clients raise. What becomes clear, however, is that the chaplains’ own lives aren’t free of anxieties, fears, and challenges. The script writers didn’t produce some unbelievable stereotypical hero characters whose lives feel disconnected and unreal. Instead, they offer authentic people played by actors who understand their craft.
Some of the big issues touched on in the scripts of the five episodes of Encounters include the quest for meaning in life, the sense of self-worth that many of us (regardless of age) have struggled with or are still wondering about. Death and human suffering, fear, doubt, the existence of evil, and the question of where we come from are also touched on in the episodes. Along with relationship issues involving love and the big unknown of the future, they all represent credible questions in the mind of young adults and others living in our communities.
The anticipated audience of the series focuses on non-Christians living in a secular context. While the context of the unnamed Christian university is secular Europe, the themes are relatable to non-European audiences. Fockner remembers some of the comments he received from broadcasting partners located in Brazil: “We don’t have something like this. We don’t have something for those who are really struggling with faith, for people for whom the Bible is not a given but who wonder about this book.”
This relatability was not only achieved by careful scriptwriting but also reflected in the broad international cast of actors representing distinct cultures. The series was shot in English and is currently being dubbed and subtitled in six different languages. It was recorded in three weeks from September to October 2021 in Germany under COVID-19 restrictions. Additionally, the Hope Media Europe team also produced five study guides that can be used with Encounters in the context of small groups, evangelistic meetings, or even for responding individually to the issues raised in the series.
Encounters would never have seen the light of day without the strong support Hope Media Europe received from many of the unions of the Inter-European Division (EUD), covering such countries as Austria, Switzerland, Romania, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, and Germany. Other important international partners were the North American Division (NAD) communication department, the South American Division, which will feature the production on its video-streaming platform feliz7.play. com, as well as the Inter-American Division (IAD) communication department, whose reach covers many Spanish-speaking countries in Central America, including the Caribbean. Later the South-Pacific Division (SPD), representing Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands, joined the partnership and committed finances to the global project.
The Power of Storytelling
Duré, the project’s director, highlights the power of touching human lives through careful, true-to-life storytelling. “Storytelling and the way you can touch specific topics is very effective,” he says when asked about the decision to produce a TV series instead of a documentary or other possible genres. “I can see this movement toward storytelling not just in the secular film industry but also in the growing world of Christian media productions,” he adds. “Storytelling can really touch and go directly to the hearts of people.”
Scriptwriter and coproducer Fockner reminds us that “Jesus told a lot of stories, and He used parables to teach. Some Bible texts tell us that He taught nothing without using parables. I think there’s a lesson in what Jesus does, and we should imitate that, because the stories we remember much better than an abstract teaching, for stories connect with our emotions.”
Christianity is not just an intellectual agreement to a certain number of truths, but our ability to invite people into a meaningful relationship with their Creator and Saviour. “There is an emotional aspect to it,” says Fockner. “Stories are really predestined for conveying an emotional message.” Stories can reach the inner core of a human being beyond just sharing mere facts.
Fockner was struck by the craft and ability of the actors to communicate complex emotions, convictions, and realities. “The actors really leaned into this and brought out the best in the message. It was amazing to see that.”
Encounters premiered at the Sonscreen Film Festival at Loma Linda University in April 2022 and went live on July 1, 2022. Asked if there are plans for another season of Encounters, Fockner replies: “Yes, of course, we would love to continue. There are a lot of unresolved questions. We do have the screenplays. We are ready, but now it depends on the reception the show will get and donations. We have already started the crowd-funding project on our website.”
Encounters sits right at the cutting edge of Adventist media work and follows in the footsteps of those who were willing to use new creative forms and media to tell the old story of our desperate need for salvation and grace.
“I Left Changed”
The following offers short excerpts from a longer interview that Adventist World associate editor Gerald Klingbeil conducted with Ivana Consolani, an Argentinian-German actress living in Spain, who played chaplain Sofía Serrano, one of the key characters of the Encounters series.
GK: Ivana, I found it intriguing how you really connected to your role. What attracted you to this production and role?
Ivana: There were many reasons. One was the spirit of human beings overcoming struggles, their difficulties. I love those topics. I think human beings have a lot of potential to give, and it’s awesome to find ways to untap that. The other reason was to have the privilege to play a Latina, from Latin America.
How did you prepare for the role of a university chaplain at a Christian university?
I had a lot to learn and to relearn. I did a lot of research on the topics, on Bible studies, because my role was an expert. Sofía is a theologian and has a PhD on the subject. In preparing, I spoke with chaplains in universities, in Sagunto [at the Adventist college in Spain], for example. I also talked a lot to director Adrian Duré about Christian lifestyle.
Did any of the existential questions that are tackled in the five episodes somehow resonate with you in your own life? Were they relevant questions?
Yes, so many questions were eye-opening and [offered] new perspectives to approach and to reflect on in my personal life. I realized that other people, regardless of their backgrounds or religious affiliations, ask these questions about purpose and meaning.
Do you think that a nonchurched secular audience can relate to these big, existential questions?
Yes, everybody has these questions. The stories that Encounters portrays are very real. People from every country or every background will be able to identify with the stories that the characters are in—that’s international. They will watch the stories and be like “That happened to me” or “That happened to my sister or a friend of mine.”
This has been the first time you worked with an Adventist media production. What did you think of the experience?
I loved it, and I will tell you why and what happened. It was my first experience in a big project, like a TV series, so I was very nervous. My takeaway from this experience was the supportive and kind, loving set we had. That was unique because everybody was so kind and respectful. This doesn’t happen in every organization. Speaking personally, I left changed. If you operate from a place of love, the outcome is always much better.