Even in the midst of grief, two Manitoba filmmakers found a way to tell a story of unbelievable hope.
Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke run the commercial production company At First Sight Films, but after Gray and his family experienced a life-changing tragedy, a larger purpose for their expertise in the visual arts came to light.
"A few years ago, my brother-in-law was killed, and my personal faith was really put into crisis," Gray said. "I was really struggling with how something this tragic could happen to a good family, and [asking] is there really life after death. I didn't really think about that before, but suddenly I was grappling with what does eternity look like, where is this person now?"
That's what prompted Gray's initial search for answers, bringing him to numerous stories of individuals who had passed away, experienced heaven, and then come back to life.
"As I started doing some research, I found that it wasn't just one person's story, it was multiple stories; multiple people saying the same thing."
Though skeptical in the beginning, the consistency in these survivor's accounts is what sparked Gray and Radtke's interest in creating Discovering Heaven.
The short documentary follows Captain Dale Black, a Christian and the only survivor of an airplane crash in Burbank, California. Near death, Black experienced angels and a glimpse of heaven before coming back to life.
"The story is important because it hits on multiple themes, ones that everybody at some point is going to have to talk to themselves about, where they're going to go when they die... the amazing part of this sort of story is that we've been able to have an opportunity to maybe get a glimpse of what this might look like," Radtke explained. "It's an opportunity to tell the story of what people have experienced."
The journey in bringing this story to the big screen for Gray and Radtke was an emotional one. "It was very personal for us to go through that process," shared Gray.
"Meeting Dale was quite an amazing experience," echoed Radtke. "He has this experience, doesn't know what to do with it, doesn't know what to say because he thinks people will think that he's crazy... he's never the same after... he doesn't see the world in the way that we see it.
"To film him, to interview him, and just to actually talk and hang out with him, that's what we were trying to convey in the film, and I think we achieved that. When people watch it, they feel the authentic nature of Dale's personality and his story... we just wish everybody could meet him."
Already, the film has received several awards, including Best Documentary Short at the Fastigious Film Festival in Los Angeles.
It's a story of incredible hope and one that Gray and Radtke are thankful to have had the opportunity to share.
Discovering Heaven will premiere for the first time in Winnipeg during the Real to Reel Film Festival on Friday, February 23 at 6:30 p.m.