Catholic Filmmaker’s Historical-Fiction Film, ‘A Heart Like Water,’ to Be Offered Widely Soon
The wordlessness of the film draws the viewer deeply into the drama of life on the prairie
While researching life in 1800s Dakota Territory for a historical-fiction film project, Catholic filmmaker Dan Bielinski discovered a poignant sentiment exemplifying the sacrifice inherent in the lives of early American settlers.
“For the first generation, there was death. For the second, there was want. Only for the third there was bread,” he repeated recently during an interview discussing his work, noting that he’d culled the quote from a Black Sea German proverb.
“The settlers weren’t coming (to America) for themselves, for their own happiness and fulfillment, but so that their children and grandchildren could have the lives they dreamed for them,” Bielinski offered.
The proverb not only encapsulates the hardships our forebears experienced, but hints at the faith that sustained them. These two elements are a central part of Bielinski’s work through his film company, Canticle Productions, based in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he also directs the theater department at the University of Mary.
Currently, Bielinski is leading a series of in-person film premieres throughout his state for his latest creation, A Heart Like Water, soon to be offered more widely online.
One of his first stops was in Fargo, where, at the iconic Fargo Theater downtown, Bielinski and one of the actors offered a Q&A following the showing.
The film’s premise was drawn from North Dakota historian Linda Slaughter’s From Fortress to Farm, and these words in a chapter: “On New Year’s Day, 1872, our baby died, but so intense was the cold that it could not be buried.”
Slaughter’s testimony plays out in the film immediately with an opening scene showing a man trying to dig a grave, futilely, with his shovel hitting against the hard, frozen earth. Later, it emerges again as the camera widens to reveal that not only one grave, but several, have been dug, each marked with a rudimentary cross made of sticks and twine.
The suffering deepens from there, but a glimmer of hope eventually emerges, peeking out first through trickles of flowing water from melting snow in the spring.
The film borrows its title from Lamentations 2:19:
Rise up! Wail in the night, at the start of every watch;
Pour out your heart like water before the Lord;
Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children,
Who collapse from hunger at the corner of every street.
Behind the Scenes
Bielinski began his life in Wisconsin in a large Catholic family, studied theater at Ave Maria University in Florida, and spent his early adult years trying to make it as an actor in New York City while pursuing his master’s degree at Columbia University.
When wooed to Bismarck to direct theater at the University of Mary in 2018, Bielinski, a father of five who was growing “tired of schlepping kids up and down subways,” along with the “endless moral battle of work versus values,” took a chance on North Dakota, and soon began researching the history of his new home.
From his grounding comes a sensitivity toward the subtleties and tenderness of life for which our world seems to be thirsting. Though he prefers revealing Christian undertones more covertly than one often finds in many of today’s faith-based films, Bielinski said he aims to show a “rightly-ordered world” in his work aided by his Catholic lens.
Wordless Yet Emotion-Filled
The 45-minute film is fairly unique in that, save some spoken Scripture passages and a sung Norwegian lullaby, it is mostly wordless.
The only other spoken words come from a Native American character, in a language few will understand, who shows up at a crucial moment in the film. When later asked what his words were conveying, actor Allen Demaray, a father of seven and member of the Three Affiliated Tribes from New Town, North Dakota, explained, “I was calling upon the Universe, Our Holy Father, to come have pity on this one (the mother).”
The wordlessness of the film draws the viewer deeply into the drama of life on the prairie in that era of struggle. The intimacy of camera angles in so many of the scenes makes viewers feel as if they, too, are in the sod house, experiencing the extreme and perilous conditions along with the characters.
“The early drafts of the script did have dialogue,” Bielinski shared, “but it quickly seemed apparent that it trivialized the suffering and sacrifice of these people,” so it was eliminated. “The only words I really want to hear when we’re viewing such great sacrifices anyway are God’s words — hence the words from the Book of Lamentations.”
Bielinski said that in studying the accounts of settlers in preparing to write the script, the theme of loneliness ran prominently through the stories. “Not only were they isolated and lonely, set apart from society and other communities being in Dakota Territory, but even within the family there was a lot of isolation.”
That “unspoken tension” comes through in the couple’s interactions in the film. “They love each other, yet they’re enduring so much suffering together,” he said. “How do you make a life together under those conditions?”
Faith Enters In
When asked the reason for making Scripture so central, Bielinski said it’s one thing to show people suffering over the course of a movie, and another to ask, “What is the context in which we are to face suffering in our own lives?” adding, “What was the Rock on which people relied on then, as well as now? I think faith was a big thing for the settlers coming in at that time … and I wanted to honor that.”
Demaray said that in his first viewing of the film recently, he was sitting next to one of his young daughters, holding her hand, and noticed her tears dripping down her cheeks, as were his own. “It’s not just talking about it, but you feel (the heartache),” he said.
And yet, the ray of sunshine, too. “In the end, (the mother) had purpose again,” which she found in motherhood itself, he said. “That’s one of the most powerful things to be in this world — a mother.”
Bielinski also gave the audience a peek at his next film, Sanctified, scheduled to come out this spring.