Filmmaker returns to Kansas for short film about guns

Anabaptist influences abound in film about faith, firearms and family

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Cinematographer Derek Fisher (of Wichita) frames up while Director Emily Railsback helps to organize Dutch Blitz cards with local actors Aleen Ratzlaff and Katherine Hamm. The scene took place at a potluck and featured Mennonite foods made by Hillsboro resident Brenda Hamm, and the dialogue was largely improvised. Photo: Emily Railsback

Concerned about gun violence in her Chicago neighborhood and a breakdown in public discourse on a national level, Emily Railsback did what any filmmaker would do.

She went to Hillsboro, Kansas, to make a movie.

Railsback, who teaches film at Columbia College Chicago, returned to where she grew up July 24-29, 2019, to produce Fear Not. She expects the film will be available online this fall.

The fictional short film looks at gun violence from a Mennonite woman’s perspective. After a teacher who grew up in the conservative Holdeman Mennonite church is forced to carry a gun in school by a state mandate passed with support of her politician husband, her faith is awakened when a new pastor arrives.

“It’s her struggling with her faith. She was raised by thinking of her faith as a box. She left that, and now she’s finding herself in another box that’s bigger,” Railsback says. “It’s now her first time to figure out her views in relation to her husband. Do you follow your faith or your marriage, and what if those disagree?”

Railsback, who is still a member of Parkview MB Church in Hillsboro and attends Chicago Community Mennonite Church, said she had worked on a script for a feature-length film for nearly two years.

“I always knew I wanted to center it in the Midwest with women and social activism, but it really turned into more about gun violence in the last year,” she says.

Railsback received a Chicago Digital Media Fund grant for work on social activism, which requires a short film. She plans to use that product as a “proof of concept” to convince a production company to invest in something bigger.

“It’s a hard story to sell because it’s an unknown world to companies that make films,” Railsback says.

She wasn’t the only one having a Kansas homecoming. While many locals fill supporting roles and background extra positions, Railsback’s friend Kristen Bush has the lead role. Bush, who grew up about an hour away in Sterling, has appeared in several television series. Both are excited to set a story in the places they grew up.

“We feel so much freedom in the Midwest on the prairie, and we don’t feel those stories are told this much,” Railsback says. “. . . We feel many women in the Midwest have really fascinating stories. They have a sense of strength and endurance you don’t find in other places.”

A practical location

Shooting a film in Hillsboro about a Mennonite community made sense for both practical and artistic reasons. When Railsback put out a message on Facebook looking for set locations and volunteers, the responses rolled in.

“There are so many moving parts—catering, lodging, casting locals. This has all just come together, and we can’t pay everyone,” she says. “But so many people are coming together to support this. That couldn’t happen in Chicago. That’s a sense of community you couldn’t get.”

Scenes were shot at the elementary school, First Mennonite Church and Norel Farms Bakery, and the timing even coincided with the Marion County Fair demolition derby.

If anything, rural Kansas may look too authentic on film.

One scene features a Mennonite potluck. Who better to play gossiping Mennonites than the real thing?

“I want to blend fiction with reality in a neorealism way,” Railsback says. “There’s a scene with Dutch Blitz where they’re eating zwieback and verenike. . . .  Visually we’re showing lots of open skies. We could do that other places, but getting people who can play Dutch Blitz? In Chicago I would have to teach them, and it would take too much time.” 

Authentic viewpoints

Somewhat ironically, Railsback sees small-town Kansas as a better medium for telling a story that highlights multiple viewpoints. Both she and Bush are concerned about rural/urban divisions. They see the project as a way to rebuild bridges of understanding that have been torched by social media stereotyping and name-calling.

As part of her research for the script, Railsback returned to Kansas and wrote down what she overheard sitting in coffee shops—like the anecdote an old timer told his buddies about a bobcat coming through his yard.

“In a big city we would just say ‘let’s eliminate all the guns,’ but in small towns there are realities that guns are needed,” she said. “So, there are people in this story who are really against guns, some who are on the fence and a politician taking money from the gun lobby to support his campaign, so I’m trying to authentically represent different viewpoints.”

Running through it all is a concern about Christians condoning violence.

“I love the Mennonite faith and its pacifist roots,” she says of her hope to depict a kind of Christianity that gets overlooked in movies. “That’s something I really connect with in the Mennonite faith. I want to tell a story that inspires people who are younger and growing up seeing Christianity being more about violence and war,” she says.

The short film will be released online at emilyrailsback.com  and humboldtgator.com.

This article was first published in Mennonite World Review and is reprinted with permission. 

Tim Huber
Tim Huber is associate editor of Mennonite World Review, an independent journalistic ministry that has published a newspaper since 1923.

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