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Rhinelander filmmaker releases documentary, using art to start conversations about community

The City of God is a recently released 90-minute documentary that explores how one Haitian community approaches development. It was produced by Rhinelander’s own Nate Sheppard.

When Nate Sheppard first started working with Lemuel Ministries in Haiti, he knew theirs was a story he wanted to share.

“I immediately fell in love with their whole approach to poverty alleviation and development of the local people,” Sheppard said. “I felt really strongly that I wanted to tell their story through film.”

So he set up his camera and pressed record.

He started by interviewing the ministry’s founder, Manis Dilus.

Dilus founded Lemuel Ministries to develop Haitian communities by investing in the people who live in them.

“As a Haitian leader,” Dilus says in the film, “I need to find a way so I can keep my people here. That’s why I’m working so hard.”

Dilus’s work has changed a lot of peoples’ lives.

Nate Sheppard talked to those people too.

He took videos of the Haitian countryside, of sunrises, water, trees and homes.

“It was very rough at the very beginning,” Sheppard says. “A fair amount of that footage actually ended up in the final film, but I did not know what I was doing with the camera at the time.”

It was the start of a five-year project to make a documentary film.

Sheppard returned to Haiti many times to capture video footage.

The City of God screens in a theater
Nate Sheppard
Nate Sheppard Media
The City of God screens in a theater

Afterwards, he spent years relistening to interviews, coming up with a compelling story line and even composing his own music for the film.

“I’ll tell people somewhat jokingly, but mostly seriously, that I wanted to make a movie so that I could compose a soundtrack,” Sheppard laughs.

His final product is a 90-minute documentary called The City of God. It’s now screening in theaters across the Northwoods.

It’s goal, Sheppard says, isn’t to showcase abject poverty in Haiti.

“My goal would be not for you to watch the film and be like ‘oh, we need to go help those people in Haiti,’” Sheppard says. “There is such a thing as helping in a way that hurts or makes it harder.”

Instead, his goal to show how people in Haiti are working together to lift each other up.

That’s a lesson Sheppard believes we can apply here, to communities in northern Wisconsin and Michigan.

“My greater desire for the film is to inspire viewers to then take that principal into their own communities,” Sheppard explains. “For them to ask, who are the vulnerable in our own communities? Who are the people that we can invest in as the next generation and what do they need to be able to thrive in our own communities?”

For Sheppard, one way of helping his local community thrive is sharing art.

“Part of what I love about this is that I get to share art with my local community,” he says. “My hope would be, as much as the themes of the film deal with poverty alleviation and dignity, I also hope that it can be an opportunity to inspire other budding filmmakers and the next generation that is stepping into a very chaotic world.”

Sheppard already has plans to teach lessons in filmmaking. And for those who aren’t ready to make a documentary, Sheppard hopes just watching his will generate meaningful discussions.

“That to me is what art is capable of in somewhat of a unique way,” he says. “[Art] is able to help us get around some of the language that we think we understand with regards to a particular issue, and then opens our hearts to genuine dialogue and sets us at ease.”

So even though Sheppard’s film is finally finished, his work isn’t. By investing in local people in the arts community, he brings the message of his film to life.

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Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.