When Laura Hinson was still a student, she directed a movie called “As We Forgive” about the healing and reconciliation that took place after the Rwandan genocide. That film won a student academy award. Since those student days, she’s gotten married and had two children, but she’s also continued to exercise her craft and art as a filmmaker. Her movies often focus on women. Her latest effort is “Many Beautiful Things: The Life and Vision of Lilias Trotter.”
Lilias Trotter was a rising star in the art world of the late 19th century in England. She was the protégé of John Ruskin, who was arguably the most famous artist and art critic of that era. The reason most of us today have not heard of her is this: She turned her back on what was likely to be international art world fame to become a missionary to Algiers.
Laura Waters Hinson’s film tells the story of Lilias Trotter, but also explores what it means to have to choose between fame and fortune—the temptations of the world, and the calling to serve God.
Warren Smith: When Lilias Trotter went to Algiers, she was not giving up a failed career, but one that was on the rise.
Laura Waters Hinson: John Ruskin, one of the most famous art critics of her day, believed she could be one of the greatest painters of her time if only she would commit her entire life to art.
This was a question for Lilias. The film really centers on this decision that she had to make either to sell out everything in her life to the world of art, including the fame and the fortune that was promised to her in the art world, or to follow a very different call that she began to feel stirring in her heart, which was ultimately a call to Algeria.
WCS: What did she do in Algeria?
LWH: She funded her own mission to Algeria. In about 1888, she took a trip with two of her friends. She became a missionary to mostly the women and children in Algiers, but also she did a lot of building up of a mission band that went out into all kinds of small pockets of tribes in the desert of Algeria, where she became friends and developed great relationships with the Sufi mystics and began translating the Bible into Arabic and doing all sorts of amazing painting of the desert to send back to her people in England, so they could see what the people in Algeria looked like.
The film tells the story of this great decision she made, but also about her life in Algeria and the incredible painting and art that came about as a result of that decision to go to Algeria.
WCS: Laura, you and I spoke several years ago after “As We Forgive” came out. One of the interesting things about that film was that it became a very personal story for you. Even though it was a story about forgiveness in Rwanda, there was also an element of forgiveness that was necessary in your own life and your relationship with your husband.
This film, the story of a woman artist who has to choose between [the missionary] life and the life of the artist. Do I sense a theme here? Do you see yourself in Lillias Trotter? Do you pick your topics based on what is going on in your own life, or does that influence your passion for your subjects?
LWH: I hadn’t thought about it like that. I definitely think that her story has deeply impacted me as an artist. Artists are so self-critical. We’re so afraid of failure. We’re afraid that the thing we’re working on may be the very last thing we ever do, whether that’s a painting, or a photograph, or a film, or song.
The life of Lilias Trotter was about this incredible re-orienting of what really matters. How do you really define success when you know God? How do you really define a life well lived when you know God?
That didn’t mean that didn’t mean that she forsook her art. In fact, her decision to move to Algeria resulted in an explosion of her art, but in a very different way than it would’ve been if she’d stayed in London and lived out the calling that John Ruskin had for her.
Yeah, I think for me her story has been a part of my own wrestling as an artist and particularly in the vein of what does it mean to be successful.
WCS: What does it mean to be successful as an artist, especially whenever you are a wife, a pastor’s wife, and a mother—as you are? Do you feel that tension?
LWH: I feel it every minute of every day. I feel an absolute torn-ness in my heart. I am a pastor’s wife. I have two small children, and I want to be giving of my spirit, my life, my energies to these other callings that are very real, but I also have this deep stirring in my heart that I can’t escape, to be an artist, to be a filmmaker, to tell stories and to tell stories that impact the way people view their lives and view God.
God’s made a way for me to balance it. I don’t balance it perfectly. There’s the ever-present tension. In Lilias’s life, she never felt the tension go away. She said her biggest self-doubt was when she actually did pick up the paintbrush and feel how much she hadn’t progressed because she hadn’t devoted her whole life to it. I do sense that as a filmmaker. Most filmmakers can work 12, 14 hours a day for months and months on a project. I can’t do that. I have children. I have a husband. I have a church.
I have to trust that the few hours I get each day to give toward my art will be enough. That I give my best to those hours.
WCS: It is interesting that for most artists, immersing yourself in the vision matters. Living life can sharpen one’s vision. But most artistic endeavors also require an apprenticeship in the craft. I would say that’s especially so in filmmaking, where there is a lot going on. There’s the cinematography. There’s the sound. There’s costume. There’s the writing of the script, or storyboards. There are a lot of techniques to master, a lot of crafts to master. Sometimes that mastery can only happen if you put the time into it. But living life away from the set can sharpen one’s vision.
LWH: I find that actually having these other responsibilities and callings of motherhood and being a wife actually make me more productive as a filmmaker. In fact, since having kids, I’ve produced three films, which is a lot more than I ever produced before having children.
In a way they inform one another. I think being a pastor’s wife, being a mother, make me a better filmmaker. It also is just I know I have a limited period of time. I use that time so efficiently in ways I never did when I had all the time in the world. I see it as a benefit. Those other parts of my life come to bear on my filmmaking in ways that maybe other filmmakers don’t have exactly.
WCS: I found it remarkable that you have Michelle Dockery, who a lot of folks will know from “Downton Abbey,” as the voice of Lilias in this film. Also, John Rhys-Davies for Ruskin. Rhys-Davies was Gimli in “Lord of the Rings” and has done a million other things, the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” movies, for example. First of all, how did you get these guys for an independent documentary film?
LWH: Part of the way that we’ve told the story of Lilias is to use her journals and her letters between her and John Ruskin. When I was thinking about who is the voice of Lilias Trotter—this woman of such intense strength and determination to go to Algeria as a single woman—I thought Michelle Dockery. I love “Downton Abbey.” I love Lady Mary Crawley. She is the lead character in that show. The gravity of her voice, the beauty of her voice mixed with her determination and seriousness—I just thought, that is the voice. She was the first choice for me.
We had a producer in London who was connected to her agent. We were able to make that connection. She responded almost immediately that she wanted to play this part. I was shocked. To my knowledge, I don’t believe Michelle Dockery is necessarily a Christian. But she is absolutely a person of peace and a person who is really so drawn to the humility of Lilias. That’s what she kept telling me when we were doing the recording. She said, “I just. . . . It’s Lilias’s humility that strikes me.”
It was just an incredible thing to get her and not to just to get her, but to get her heart and her passion for it. She ended up filming a live interview with us. You really just hear her voice in the film, but she also did a promotional interview with us and just went on and on. She’d taken notes about all the parts she wanted to talk about. That was extremely encouraging.
John Rhys-Davies was also a good friend of our producer in London. They had worked together on some radio shows in London. When I heard he was a possibility, I thought, “Absolutely. His voice is just incredible.” I met him over Skype. He was in New Zealand filming a show. We had to do that remotely, but he was incredible to work with and has actually done some wonderful press on our behalf, which we’re grateful for.
WCS: C. S. Lewis famously talked about what he called “chronological snobbery.” That’s the tendency we all have to look at history through the lens of the time in which we live. We want to turn Spurgeon or Bonhoeffer—or Lewis himself—into our image of the modern-day evangelical who shares every jot and tittle of our theology and shares our cultural biases. I’m wondering about Lilias Trotter. Would we recognize her today as somebody who was an orthodox evangelical Christian, or are those labels not helpful?
LWH: I would imagine so. At that time to be a single woman using your own money to go spread the Gospel for decades of her life in Algeria and North Africa, you would probably call her an evangelical of her day for sure. She was a Protestant, a part of the Church of England. She went very independently. She formed her own mission band. In fact, the formal missions agencies of her day rejected her application because she had a heart condition. She said, “Okay, fine. I’ll go by myself.”
She had a deep heart for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and sharing with the Muslim people. What she did differently, though, as a missionary—a lot of people will say she was 100 years ahead of her time in terms of missions. She became a part of the culture. She learned the language. She learned to draw and to create materials that artistically resonated with a Muslim sensibility.
She lived among the poorest of the poor, much like a Mother Teresa. She was very quiet in the way that she evangelized. She built relationships. She didn’t come in and condemn their culture and their way of life. She worked to integrate [the Gospel] into their everyday life. She met people at their place of greatest need.
She was teaching women to read. So many of these women were being rejected by their husbands and cast out for younger wives. Little girls never got an education. She was educating women and girls. She was teaching reading. She was teaching job skills to women because of their lot in life. She was, in so many ways, a radical, and yet [in] so many ways she was just being like Jesus. I would say definitely she was a very orthodox Christian.
WCS: Laura, maybe this is a gap in my education, but I’ve never heard of this woman before. I’m wondering how you discovered her and that her story was worth telling.
LWH: Very few people, I think, have ever heard the story of Lilias Trotter. I was approached by a group of people . . . including the author of the biography of Lilias Trotter, a woman named Miriam Rockness. She had connected with some arts patrons, Brian and Sally Oxley, the producers. Miriam expressed her longtime vision, hope, dream, to have a film about Lilias made. The Oxleys said, “We want to help make this happen.” They formed a small board that went out looking for a director. Somehow they found me.
I’d never heard the story of Lilias. I didn’t know any of the people on this team. It really was out of the blue, and it quickly became apparent that this was now a call on my life. I had the first conversation with Miriam, a phone call [that] ended up being two hours long. We just knew that we shared the same vision for the story.
Our vision for the story is that it could be a film that is not just for Christians. It’s for a PBS audience, or for an audience that might have an interest in women’s history, or in art. We really want it to be a film that could live with different audiences. That’s really in my heart as a filmmaker: to create films that start conversations between people who are Christians, non-Christians, people from all walks of life.
When I realized they had that vision, I was sold. I was onboard. I realized the life of Lilias Trotter was worth telling, that she was a remarkable person. Very few people know any real stories of historical women of faith. There aren’t a lot of them out there. For that reason alone, I was so proud to be a part of telling her story.
Image copyright Oxvision Films.
Warren Cole Smith, an investigative journalist and author, recently joined the Colson Center as vice president for mission advancement.