US-based Singaporean filmmaker makes waves globally with his faith-based movies
by Janice Tai // October 20, 2023, 10:52 am
Donald Leow, a Singaporean filmmaker based in the US, reviewing movie footage with his crew. All photos courtesy of Donald Leow.
You may not have heard of Singaporean filmmaker Donald Leow, but you may have chanced upon his faith-based movies showing on board flights such as Lufthansa and Air China.
A popular film of his – Touched by Grace – was one of the top trending movies listed on Amazon Prime alongside Prince Harry and Megan Markle’s Windsor wedding in 2018.
Over the years, his films have also won awards in Christian international film festivals, such as in the International Christian Visual Media (ICVM) and the Christian European Visual Media Association (CEVMA). They are distributed through various platforms in Asia, the Middle East and other parts of the world.
How did a Queenstown boy end up starting his own film company in the United States (US) and producing five feature movies?
A Singapore childhood
His story started back as a 14-year-old teenager when he volunteered with Baptist Media to do movie screenings in churches all over Singapore.
Back then, going to the movies was a rare treat as tickets were expensive.
Donald did not mind sacrificing his weekends to haul the projector, screen and film to different churches for a chance to enjoy the films – largely from the US – and to do his part in these evangelistic outreaches.
“It was there that I saw the impact of movies. After each movie screening, there were always people responding, from salvations to re-dedications. Perhaps it’s because movies can be fun and non-threatening,” said Donald, now 61.
From that point onwards, his interest in media grew.
When he got his first pay cheque from a vacation job, he spent every single cent on a camera from Lucky Plaza. After completing his ‘O’ Levels, he worked as a media technician at Great Joy Media Centre, a one-stop media centre run by Baptist Media.
He loaned films out and cleaned and repaired them when they were returned.
From slide shows to movies
Whenever he was free, however, his creative mind took over.
He wrote short stories based on Bible verses, visualised the scenes and then took still photographs of those scenes.
By running 70 to 80 of those photographs in sequence and recording narration over them, he created a slide show for believers to use in their cell groups or gatherings.
“Many of the movies or cassettes that we loaned out were from the US. I wanted to make local resources for churches here,” said Donald.
At times, he imagined how nice it would be for him to go to the US – the movie capital of the world – to learn filmmaking techniques.
He spent 12 years at Great Joy Media Centre, equipping churches to do video production at a time when it was still a nascent field.
Then, he spent the next 12 years with Good News Productions as he wanted to delve more into video production work. He made TV programmes for churches in Philippines and produced faith documentaries.
It was with Good News Productions that he produced his first faith-based film that was shot in Hong Kong, called The Source of Love.
The film was well received and released in mainstream cinemas in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore in 2003.
“It sparked an interest in me that I could do it (make a movie) but I did not have plans to become a filmmaker as making movies is expensive,” said Donald, who had to move to Hong Kong for four months with his wife and Primary 1 daughter to produce the movie.
In 2007, Good News Productions International wound down its branch in Singapore and Donald, its executive director, found himself without a job.
A secret dream come true
He was on a work trip to the US when he heard the dismal news of Good News Productions winding down. When he shared it with his fellow board members at the ICVM, one of them, who owned a video production company, offered Donald a job to help him make movies the very next day.
The board members were all aware of what a hit his first movie had been.
“If you feel that this is what God is calling you to do, I will support you.”
For Donald to join his friend’s company – CDR Communications – he would have had to uproot his family to move from Singapore to the US. So he returned to Singapore to discuss the matter with his wife.
His wife, Sandra, gave a simple reply: “If you feel that this is what God is calling you to do, I will support you.”
His daughter Cheryl had just finished her PSLE that year and was already accepted into the School of the Arts (SOTA).
Receiving this unsolicited job offer from the US just one day after he lost his previous position made Donald wonder if God had opened this door for him.
“I was reminded of how, in my younger days, I had thought about how nice it would be if I could go to the US to learn and make films, though I did not pray about it or even tell my wife about it,” he said with wonder.
Taking a step of faith, he accepted the job offer one week later.
Donald figured that, if this was a door God had opened, He would also provide the necessary work visa and the funds to support his family while they waited in Singapore for the approval of the visa.
Month after month passed, but there was no news of the visa. The chances of getting a professional visa for Donald to work in the US seemed slim because the minimum requirement was a college degree.
“In the US, almost everyone had a degree. I only had ‘O’ Level certification, and I even flunked my Mandarin! Even for those who qualify, it was not a shoo-in as there was a fixed quota for visas and they had to ballot for it,” said Donald.
While the family waited for the visa in faith, Cheryl began her studies at SOTA. During this time, God also provided for them financially when a missions organisation engaged Donald for short-term work.
After waiting for a year, Donald was given his visa. It was only later that he and his lawyer found out that the US authorities had taken his professional skills into account and that Singapore had a special visa arrangement with the US at the time. The family’s waiting time had also allowed Cheryl to attend SOTA for almost a year before they had to leave.
Seeing God’s clear hand in this, the family moved to the US in 2008.
Apart from doing commercial video production work for CDR, Donald was given the opportunity to produce a movie called For the Glory in 2009.
From beginning to end, the movie production ran with uncommon smoothness.
“God gave you a gift, why are you burying it?”
“God provided everything, from the script to the funding. My company had no money to make the movie and we needed a six-figure budget to make one. I told God that I had never fundraised for anything in my life before and so, if He wanted this movie, He had to make it happen,” said Donald.
The script came first.
When they were looking for a home in the US, Donald got to know a real estate agent who was also the elder of a church. Later, he learnt that the man was a professional football player and that their pastor’s daughter had already written a script on his life. Donald saw it and took an immediate liking to it.
The issue of funding was next. Donald did not know who to turn to, so he simply started by telling his friends in Singapore about a possible movie that God was leading him to direct and produce in the US.
The money streamed in and, within three months, he had raised the funds needed for its six-figure production budget.
In 2010, the movie was released in the US and worldwide on online platforms.
Shortly afterwards, Donald left CDR Communications as he wanted to move away from commercial work to do full-time ministry instead.
The church that his family worshipped in was supportive and agreed to hire him as church staff … on one condition. He had to raise his own salary as they did not have any budget for it.
He did not tell his friends about his circumstances. Yet friends started sending him love gifts.
Despite the encouragement, Donald decided not to make further movies as producing one was such an expensive affair.
His friends, however, encouraged him further.
“’God gave you a gift, why are you burying it?’ they asked me. I told God, ‘If You want me to continue to do so, please give me the script and the funds for it,” said Donald.
On both fronts, God once again came through.
The same group of friends from Singapore funded his second movie. He also came upon a riveting script.
Touched by Grace – an anti-bullying family drama about high school friendships and politics – was produced in 2013 under StoneTable Films, the film company that Donald founded. The popular movie has since racked up over 2 million views on YouTube.
During that time, Donald and his family also began to plan for their longer-term future. His six-year visa would expire in 2014, and, at that point, they intended to return to Singapore.
However, his supporters urged him to persevere in making movies in the US, and his church graciously continued to keep him under its employment.
Once again, he decided to trust God to guide his path. With faith, he sent in his application for a US green card, despite the criteria appearing impossible for him to attain.
“Under the professional track at the time, one needed to have been awarded an Oscar, an Olympic medal or a Pulitzer prize, or to have something like a double PhD. And one needed to fit not only one requirement, but three out of 10 of the criteria,” said Donald, with a laugh.
“It would have been a miracle if we got it. But if God wanted us here, He would make it happen. I even asked Him to help us get it within four months as our visa was expiring and, without the green card, we would have needed to pay international fees instead of subsidised fees for our daughter’s schooling,” he added.
God not only performed the miracle, but in record speed time – the Leow family received their green card in four months.
That was when Donald knew that God’s plan for his family was for them to remain in the US.
Based in the US, but travelling all over the world to train others
“I believe there is a reason we are in the United States,” said Donald. “Apart from learning filmmaking techniques in one of the movie capitals of the world, it also gives us certain credentials that carries weight when we seek to work with other partners for production, distribution or training purposes.”
After producing another feature film, Badge of Faith, in 2015, Donald began training filmmakers in other countries so that they could in turn create their own movies that speak to their own culture and context.
In Mongolia, he trained Mongolian Christians in media production and equipped them with professional gear.
This has enabled them to use their skills to make a living as well as to tell more God stories to their peers.
In 2018, Donald brought in a professional crew to produce a movie, Once Upon a Time in Mongolia, with the locals.
Currently, he is also providing training and shooting another movie with the locals in a Southeast Asian country.
“This is a form of doing missions through media. There are only so many faith movies I can produce. My heartbeat is to multiply filmmakers who can produce quality productions in countries where there are few believers,” said Donald.
Along the way, God continued to show Donald that these movies were His project.
He recalled two occasions of divine intervention – in the US in 2015 and in Mongolia in 2018 – when he was filming two different movies, Badge of Faith and Once Upon A Time in Mongolia.
“In the US, the local police officer who was attached to us pointed out to me the looming, dark clouds and said we had 15 minutes before the clouds came and it would rain,” recalled Donald.
“In Mongolia, the line producer told me the weather was going to be bad and he showed me the map and the approaching clouds.”
In both situations, the team had already set up their equipment and the film schedule was tight. Having no time to lose, Donald instructed the film crew to pray for clear weather as they continued to work in faith.
In both locations, they were in a valley surrounded by mountains.
“Both times, God moved the clouds and the rain around us. In the US, it was raining all around us but it was dry in the valley for the whole day until dinner time. The rain only came when we wrapped up production and went to a restaurant for dinner,” said Donald.
“In Mongolia, it was our last day of filming before we had to fly out the next day. It was only when we finished filming for the day that the heavy rain came and flooded the roads. Thank God that it was only at the moment the crew had packed up and loaded the equipment into the bus that it poured.”
Looking back at his journey, Donald’s wife Sandra believes that it is her husband’s faithfulness in the little things that cemented God’s calling in his life.
“He didn’t have ambitious plans like, ‘Oh, I want to be a movie producer in 10 years’ time’. He just did whatever projects he had on hand well and it was God who opened the doors,” said Sandra.
“On hindsight, it may seem like a clear path but there were many periods of uncertainties along the way,” observed Donald.
“Do your best according to the talents and gifts that God has given you, and He will multiply it and take care of the rest.”
If your church wishes to host screenings of Once Upon a Time in Mongolia, you may contact Alex Lo at [email protected]
To support Donald’s latest movie, join its crowdfunding efforts here.
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