Finding the funny in faith
Television series set in Winkler will reflect Christian values
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A Winkler resident who sees the funnier side of her faith tradition wants to share the laughs with a television audience.
Life in the predominantly Mennonite community in southern Manitoba is more than pandemic controversies and protests, suggests Tina Fehr Kehler, but also one of joy and jokes.
“This is not about laughing at anyone,” says the co-writer of the situation comedy Maria and the Mennos, set in the southern Manitoba city.
“We have our foibles. We’re not making jokes at the expense of anyone.”
The 13-episode series will feature Maria, an extroverted and independent Filipino Canadian woman who married Nate, an introverted nerd from a conservative Mennonite family. The couple move into the Winkler home of Nate’s parents while they save money for their own house.
That mix of cultures, generations and personalities should provide more than enough comedic opportunities, says Kehler, who produced and acted in a series of short Low German video series aimed to dispel some of misconceptions of the COVID-19 pandemic for a conservative Mennonite audience.
“We’re looking for what’s the common theme, and it’s about relationships and trying to understand each other while living with people who come from different worlds and different worldviews,” Kehler says about the upcoming production.
The tone leans more to that of TV sitcoms like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Kim’s Convenience, she says, rather than the cutting insights of the Daily Bonnet, the satirical Mennonite news website run by Steinbach author Andrew Unger.
Some theological issues, like differences between Protestant and Roman Catholics or what kind of Mennonite family Maria marries into are not addressed head on, says producer and writer Paul Plett, but the series does tackle cultural aspects such as traditional Mennonite and Filipinos food, thrift shopping, butchering hogs, and singing hymns and karaoke.
“I’m super excited to pack in as many hymns as possible, to pack in that church flavour,” says the Winnipeg-based Plett of Ode Productions, who has explored his own cultural and religious heritage in his documentaries I am a Mennonite and Seven Points on Earth.
Picked up by Yes TV, a religious broadcaster based in Ontario, the show will reflect Christian values and won’t feature violence, nudity or obscenities, says Plett, who is working on acquiring other distributors for the half-hour series.
He hopes the upcoming production, scheduled for release in September 2023, will dispel some myths about Mennonites, while exploring universal themes of love, acceptance, and cultural differences.
“Most people have never heard of Mennonites, but if they have, they think they’re like Amish people,” he says, referring to the Anabaptist sect known for simple living, plain dress and avoidance of modernity technology.
Instead, he says these characters — some Mennonite, some Filipino — will drive vehicles, cook with electricity, and speak Low German or Taglish — a combination of Tagalog and English, and live their lives in a small city. Filming is scheduled in Winnipeg to start in January 2023, with exterior shots filmed in Winkler throughout the seasons, says Plett, who describes it as a “microbudget” production The producers are auditioning actors throughout August.
After two years of his community of 14,000 making headlines repeatedly for low vaccination update and opposition to pandemic protocols, Mayor Martin Harder welcomes this lighthearted take on Winkler.
“The movie is more fun than fighting vaccine requirements!” says Harder by text.
In addition to poking fun at the quirks of Mennonite family, the series features a strong-minded Filipino woman as the titular character, something actor and writer Hazel Wallace wishes had been portrayed while growing up in Winnipeg in what she describes as a “half Filipino, half white family.”
“That is so rare but so important,” says the University of Manitoba music student, whose acting credits include the films Cheerleader Abduction and A Kiss Before Christmas.
“It will be the representation I lacked.”
The series should resonate well beyond Filipino and Mennonite circles and speak to anyone who has faced generational or cultural clashes in their own families, says Plett.
“If you don’t know anything about Mennonites culture or Filipino-Canadian life, you can still relate,” he says.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.