Photojournalist and crew member Robert Bowling
recounts the adventure of being part of a motion
picture production, based on the true story of the
Waodani tribe of Ecuador, the martyrdom of five
missionaries in 1956, and the ensuing miracles of
redemption and forgiveness.
Story and photographs by Robert Bowling
From left, Producer Bill Ewing, Director
Jim Hanon, and Co-screenwriter Bart
Gavigan meet to discuss how a
storyboard will become reality on film.
Rob Bowling on set, crouching down,
but ready to spring into action... or
possibly, jump out of the way!
Just kidding! The Embera actors and
Jack Guzman (fourth from left) pretend
to spear Director Jim Hanon for a
Rob poses with the real Mincaye (in
black) during a visit by some of the
Waodani during production.
The Hotel Melia served as home-base
for the 10 week shoot. The pool was a
welcome cooling sensation on many
evenings, and especially on Sunday,
the only day off for the hard-working
Here I am, hunkered down in the corner of an actual tribal hut late at night when, suddenly, a boy shouts, “Moipa,
Moipa!” and all hell breaks loose. Spears fly, people scream, mothers grab their babies, and the large bamboo
and grass hut vacates under a gruesome attack. As the natives race outside, warriors and women with machetes
from another tribe are waiting. Complete bedlam ensues.
“CUT!” the director yells, and the activity quickly ceases. Our tribal actors return to their hammocks, the spears are
carefully raised back up their titanium guide wires, and many of us crew members reach for yet another Gatorade.
Such is the on again, off again world of a major movie production.
It’s my first such movie gig after stints at three newspapers as a photojournalist, and it’s my third day in Panama on
the set of “End of the Spear.” I’m the still photographer, resulting in what would become my usual clandestine
position squished, squashed, or perched in some god-awful spot attempting to fulfill my duties of taking hundreds
of PR shots without rankling any of the sometimes testy crew.
A few weeks hence we were getting into a groove as we chronicled the true story of warring tribes of Waodani
natives in the Amazon basin of Ecuador in the 1950’s and the then-infamous attack on American missionaries.
Anthropologists have since learned that there was a 60% homicide rate as a way to settle disputes among these
tribespeople. Someone took your food, your manioc root? Spear them. Someone looked at your sister the wrong
way? Kill them. Hmmm. This may sound familiar to some within our own culture.
In 1999, when approached about telling their story on film, the Waodani initially said “no.” But when told about the
Columbine shootings and the violence in most U.S. cities, the elders met and decided, “if our story could help your
people not kill like we use to, and live well like we do now, then you can make this movie.” And they became
advisors to the production and even taught the Embera people of Panama to act like the Waodani of Ecuador.
The Embera people were an amazing blessing to the entire project. They, too, met with their elders and decided
they must help tell this story. Only four North Americans would act as Waodani, the rest were Embera, very sincere
and naturally talented actors. (See page on Embera coming soon this website.)
We were now well into day shoots, still 12 hours long, but often with a refreshing breeze coming up in the
afternoon, and, a more normal sleep cycle. On this day we are re-creating the “bag-drop” used by the five
missionary men in 1955-56 to reach the remote and violent people. An attempt is made of circling the single prop
Piper airplane high above in a tight circle while the container at the end of 2000’ of line reaches a quiet central
point down below. But it just won’t work today. The original Nate Saint had perfected the technique, but our stunt
pilot, his son Steve Saint, an experienced jungle pilot in his own right, just hasn’t had enough practice.
So we use a rigging crane and simulate the bucket coming down to earth as the quizzical natives run out of their
huts and grab the machete gift and the photos showing the missionary men adorned with Waodani headbands.
One scene requires a teenage girl to grab onto the bucket and try to fly away with it. She wants to reach her sister
Dayumae, who ran to the foreigners years before to avoid the tribal culture wherein offspring were often killed
along with a dying, (speared) parent.
The first week is all night shooting. “Breakfast” at
5:00 PM, set call at 6:00, and we work all night until first
light. It’s sometimes exciting with the spears flying or
natives running about, but other times it is excruciatingly
boring while lights and cables are moved, extensive rails
are built into the dirt for the camera dollies, and, in the
waning hours before daybreak, zombie-like crew chug
their 20th hydration-of -choice in the muggy jungle night.
We were all quite thankful to stumble back to the Hotel
Melia, (formerly the CIA “School of the Americas” near
Colon, Panama) and attain blissful sleep in an air-
conditioned room. No one really cared what the hotel
use to be. We were just glad we had A/C and a
Night shoot - a crew member yawns in the wee
morning hours as the opening tribal scene is filmed.
It's amazing how many people it takes to ensure
each scene comes off just right.
Click photo to enlarge
The crew is becoming more of a family now as we hit our
stride getting the work done in the hot, dusty
environment. Marge Saint Van Der Puy, widow of Nate
Saint comes to visit and is a delight for all the crew to
meet. What a wonderful and historic journey I am on to
be involved with this project and meet Marge and Steve
Saint, Kimo and Mincaye of the Waodani, and the
visionary producers who are determined to tell the story,
both in documentary form (Beyond the Gates of
Splendor) and now a dramatic version, End of the
Marge Saint Van der Puy visits the set
and shares a laugh with camera
operator Mike Johnson. Ginny Saint,
Steve's wife, looks on.
Executive Producer Mart Green on one
of his many visits to the set. Seen
here with his son, Brent, who worked
as an assistant in the camera
Click photos to enlarge