The Movie That Just Keeps Changing Lives
Now Bella Is Being Shown in Prison
BY Steve Weatherbe
November 1-7, 2009 Issue | Posted 10/26/09 at 2:12 AM
LOS ANGELES — Like many of Jason Jones’ best ideas, this one came in the middle of the night.
A member of the production team that put out the pro-life hit movie of 2006, Bella, Jones’ previous nocturnal brainstorm had instigated Bella Hero, a campaign devoted to putting a copy of the film in the hands of every visitor to a crisis-pregnancy center in the United States.
Next came Bella on Campus, which raises funds to pay for college screenings.
Now, because of a chance meeting with a New York City beggar, drug addict and ex-con to whom he had given a ticket to the movie the day before, he had a new idea and a new target market.
He instantly called up Tracy Reynolds, one of his key partners in Bella Hero, and pitched it: “Why don’t we screen Bella in prisons?”
On Sept. 30, 56 inmates of Gatesville Women’s Prison in Gatesville, Texas, kicked the new program off with a viewing that had many in tears. Recounts Reynolds: “One woman, who was in a wheelchair, said, ‘I’ve been here 27 years, and this is the best day of my life.’”
Jones’ idea relates to the fact that Bella is more than just the story of Nina, a young woman struggling to make ends meet in New York City and contemplating an abortion; it also tells how Jose, a once promising soccer player devastated by having killed a young girl through careless driving, and being jailed for it, turns his life around by persuading Nina to bear her child. He not only saves the child, he adopts her — and changes his own and Nina’s life in the process.
Consequently, the new campaign is called Jose’s Second Chance.
Bella grossed $1.3 million during its opening weekend, with only 165 screens, earning the second-highest per-screen average of any film in theaters that weekend. The film changed lives: first, among those who made it, then among many who saw it — and it continues to do so.
Actress Tammy Blanchard, who played the lead role of Nina in the film, became pregnant after making the movie.
“I never wanted to have children,” Blanchard said. “I felt it was pointless.”
Yet, her attitude changed after making Bella, especially due to the influence of the young actress, Sophie Nyweide, who played the role of Bella.
“I realized that having a child is about producing more love in the world,” Blanchard said. “That’s what life is about — love and hope.”
Bella gained its entrée into Gatesville through Discipleship Unlimited, an interdenominational prison ministry founded in 1973 to respond to the proliferation of prisons and prisoners in one small district of Texas.
Founder Linda Strom wants to get the film in all the prisons, but for the first showing, she picked the inmates of a special faith-based 22-month program that sequesters participants in their own dormitory every evening for education, training and spiritual instruction.
Bella is so powerful for this group, she said, “because these women have never experienced the forgiveness of God. But they have so much experience with pain they can easily experience the pain of the characters in Bella. And Bella says to them: ‘You can have pain and you can leave it behind and have new beginnings.’”
It’s no coincidence that Jones is one of those people who can readily identify with the pain of Bella.
When he was 16 in Chicago, a girl he was dating was forced into having an abortion against her will. Jones vowed to her that he would devote his life to ending abortion in America. He later became a Catholic, partially through meeting many Catholics in the pro-life movement.
He came on board at Metanoia Films in 2007, and, knowing nothing about filmmaking, concentrated on drumming up investors. He did a good job, and so did Bella: It has now grossed $39 million. Metanoia’s partners, including Eduardo Verástegui, have shepherded five more films to the preproduction stage.
They are seeking $105 million in private investment to finance them.
Verástegui, a Mexican matinee idol who turned his back on trashy and sexualized roles after rediscovering the Catholic faith of his childhood, spoke to and prayed with the inmates at Gatesville Women’s Prison after the screening.
Verástegui and Jones are eager to speak personally at any prison screening they are able to attend. At Gatesville, Verástegui got down on his knees, Reynolds reports, to pray and to tell the inmates, “I want to apologize on behalf of all the men who hurt you.”
Later, he spoke with each woman one-on-one, and the jail extended its visiting hours to accommodate the time needed to do so.
Jones says more than 100 women have credited the movie for their decision to bear their unborn children, and another 75 credit the Bella Hero program. He is keeping his word to his former girlfriend. Lately, he has heard from her: She is ready to go public in the pro-life ministry.
Tim Drake contributed
to this story.
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Victoria, British Columbia.
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