July 6, 2000 - Critical Mass Films: Six years ago, Douglas Wells was a spirited U.S. Peace Corps volunteer working on the tiny northwestern Estonian island of Hiiumaa

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Estonia: The Peace Corps in Estonia: July 6, 2000 - Critical Mass Films: Six years ago, Douglas Wells was a spirited U.S. Peace Corps volunteer working on the tiny northwestern Estonian island of Hiiumaa

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Six years ago, Douglas Wells was a spirited U.S. Peace Corps volunteer working on the tiny northwestern Estonian island of Hiiumaa

Six years ago, Douglas Wells was a spirited U.S. Peace Corps volunteer working on the tiny northwestern Estonian island of Hiiumaa

An Estonian Postcard to the World’

‘Freedom’s Ring:’ The story of the Hiiumaa bell

By Jaclyn M. Sindrich

First published in "The Baltic Times" July 6, 2000

Six years ago, Douglas Wells was a spirited U.S. Peace Corps volunteer working on the tiny northwestern Estonian island of Hiiumaa. He had come from Omaha, Nebraska three years before, just when Estonia had regained its independence after 50 years of occupation by the Soviet Union. Assigned to help facilitate the island’s economic development after the long period of isolation, he worked as a small business adviser at the local tourist information center.

One day that spring, Douglas writes in an account, he was at the center as usual, looking forward to the new tourist season. Suddenly, an old man with a thatch of white hair burst through the door and cried, “Are you Douglas Wells?” Douglas, taken aback, replied that he was. The man looked at him intensely and lowered his voice. “Do you still have that metal detector?” he asked.

Douglas told him he did have a metal detector. The old man grabbed his wrist, and cried, “You’ve got to help me!”

The day that had begun like any other quickly changed, and the events unfolding thereafter would stay with Douglas for a long time to come.

The old man turned out to be Jetter Tull, a friend of one of the five men from a sleepy village called Emmaste on Hiiumaa island who, in in 1943, during the turmoil of World War Two, decided to rescue a treasured symbol of their village from Nazi pillagers: the church bell. The men climbed up into the bell tower in the middle of the night, took down the 400-pound solid brass bell, and buried it in the forest.

They planned to return and dig up the bell and take it back up to its tower as soon as the danger had passed. But the war raged on. Some of the men escaped to the West, others became victims. When the war finally ended, Estonia was sealed off as part of the Soviet Union, and any hopes of recovering the bell had all but disappeared.

As the years passed on, rumors circulated around Hiiumaa that one of the men, who was now on his deathbed in Sweden, had secretly retrieved the bell and cashed in on it. His loyal friend, Jetter, made the trip to Estonia to find the bell at last and clear his friend’s name.

He excitedly brought a reluctant Douglas Wells, metal detector in tow, to search sites in the forest, but the bell was nowhere to be found. Then, that December, Jetter received a tip on the bell’s whereabouts from the only other survivor, who had been living in Canada.

An iron-willed Jetter dragged Douglas back out in torrential rains to look once again.

Douglas swept his metal detector around and around, but still, there was only silence.

The two were ready to give up, with the freezing rain soaking their clothes, when Jetter urged him to try one last spot near a construction site.

This time, they were lucky.

The buzz of the metal detector was unmistakable, and soon, after 40 years under the earth, the bell of Emmaste Church was pulled to the surface.

The celebration began.

The people of Hiiumaa were in disbelief; tears of joy erupted throughout all of Estonia.

On Christmas Eve morning, President Lennart Meri declared that his salary for that month would be given to Emmaste Church for restoring the bell to the tower.

Meri personally thanked Douglas, and said in a national speech: “The hidden [bell’s] exact location faded from memory, but the memory of the bell waiting for its time to come burned bright. . .Let the wondrous return of the Emmaste bell to its tower be a present-day Christmas present to all Estonian people.”

Douglas Wells stayed for four more years in Estonia, then returned to the United States with his new Estonian wife, Kairit.

But the story of the bell was not put to rest.

Last year, independent Hollywood film producer for Critical Mass Films, Joel Waters, approached Douglas, and bought the rights to his story.

Reporter Jaclyn Sindrich interviewed Douglas and Joel about their experiences with the Emmaste bell story and its film adaptation-in-the-making, to be called “Freedom’s Ring.”

Baltic Times (BT): How long did it take before you realized the impact of this discovery?

Douglas Wells (DW): I knew it was a big event, considering it got out on the [Associated Press] wire and got a lot of press in Estonia, plus it drew the attention of the Estonian president!

BT: Do you still keep in contact with the people from Hiiumaa?

DW: Oh, sure. I keep in touch with the info center folks and others on a more or less regular basis. I helped them revise the guide book I wrote back in 1993 which is now published in several languages. I really loved being on Hiiumaa and it still has a special place in my heart.

BT: Where is the old man that found the bell with you? And the one that was in Canada?

DW: Jetter Tull shuttles back and forth between Sweden, Tallinn and Emmaste. I don't know about the guy in Canada.

BT: Where had you published a story about your experience?

DW: Well, the bell story had been in the "City Paper" and in a few other Estonian-American publications. I am working on a book now which contains a lot of other short stories from Hiiumaa Island and these shorts have already been in Hiiumaa's newspaper, plus Estonian-American newspapers in Canada and the U.S.

BT: How much control do you have over the content or making of the film, if any?

DW: I do have input into the making of the film which was the reason I went with Joel over some others that were interested. Things are still in the early phases.

BT: Are you going to work on the film?

DW: I will advise and give any background they may need.

BT: What are you doing now?

DW: I now work for the State Department as in information management specialist in the Foreign Service. I'll be headed to Hong Kong in October.

BT: How long has it been since you have been back to Estonia?

DW: I left in 1998 and haven't been able to go back since then, because of a lack of cash.

BT: How has this experience changed your life?

DW: Well, I learned a lot from Estonians and there are a lot of humorous and touching things that happened, the most important being meeting my wife while on the island. It changed my life in the sense that because of Hiiumaa I got to work with the UN and the Estonian Tourist Board in Tallinn, which led to a stint at the Estonian embassy in Washington.

BT: What do you hope this film does for Estonia?

DW: That is really the core issue. I really would like people to know more about Hiiumaa and Estonia and this is a wonderful opportunity.

BT: Can you please tell me how this project came into being? Mr. Wells approached you?

Joel Waters (JW): Actually, I approached Douglas in October 1999.

BT: What did you think when you first read his story?

JW: I was very aware of the story because I served with Douglas in Peace Corps. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukmerge, Lithuania from 1993-1995. When I first heard the story, shortly after the events happened, I found it extremely moving. When I ran across the story again in 1999 I found it just as moving. It was then that it suddenly occurred to me that this would be a great movie. To me it was much more than a great idea, it was a calling. My Christian faith is a very important part of my life, so for me, telling this story was not just about sharing my connection with the Baltics or telling a Peace Corps story. At its core I think this story is about the power of faith, and God’s enduring grace. That being said, we have no intention of making this into a Christian film. While it has a spiritual message to it, this message will be presented in a form that transcends any specific religion.

There are few stories that can consistently draw an emotional response out of people, particularly in this day and age when the evening news desensitizes us to violence and suffering. For me, there is only one film that consistently draws from me an emotional response: "It’s a Wonderful Life." I doubt many Balts are familiar with this film, but just about every American knows it. The film was made in 1946, and still every year at Christmas it gets so much airplay on television, that it is difficult to escape. People want to feel something when they go to the movies. "It's a Wonderful Life" is still as popular today as it was 55 years ago because no matter how many times you watch it you can't escape being drawn to tears. I believe the "Freedom's Ring" story has exactly these qualities that will make it not just a great film, but an enduring classic.

BT: Had you ever heard of Estonia previously?

JW: Of course I had, but I think most Americans have not. We really hope that this film will serve as an Estonian postcard to the world.

BT: What contact have you had with Estonians regarding your film?

JW: Well, obviously we have been working closely with the Estonian embassy in Washington. The people at the embassy are very supportive of our effort, and it is due to their efforts that we secured the endorsement and financial support of President Meri. Estonian MP Mari-Ann Kelam is also very supportive of our effort, and is helping to spread the word. It seems that everyone recognizes the quality of the story and what a great opportunity this is for Estonia. We are also going to be in Toronto next month for Esto 2000. We hope to raise some investment capital while we are there.

BT: Have you visited Estonia?

JW: I haven't been back since 1994, but we are planning a trip in August.

BT: Do you plan to film on location, in Hiiumaa?

JW: Yes.

BT: Are you aiming to include the participation of native Estonians in this project? If so, on what levels?

JW: We hope to cast some Estonians as supporting cast, and we will certainly hire many Estonians to the production crew. The principal actors, however, will be mainstream Hollywood actors. It is important that our principal cast be actors that will draw an audience. For instance, we would really like to have Mena Suvari [Estonian-American who starred in “American Pie” and “American Beauty”] play the role of Douglas Wells’ love interest, Kairit. Kairit, who is now Douglas's wife, made that casting suggestion, and I think its a brilliant idea, although we have not yet contacted her regarding the role.

BT: Have you gotten any investors yet?

JW: We are in negotiations right now regarding the primary film financing. Since the deal has not been signed, I am not free to discuss who the potential financier is, but my confidence is high that we will eventually come to an agreement. Of course President Meri for is one of our contributors. White's Electronics, the company that manufactured the metal detector which Douglas Wells used to find the bell, is definitely on board for some product placement. We also hope to find some investors next month at Esto 2000.

BT: How much will your film cost?

JW: We have yet to work out a budget, but our best guesstimate is $5 million USD.

BT: What progress have you made so far?

JW: In order to make a great movie the elements are a great story, a great script, a great director, great actors, and lots of money. Thus far we have a great story, we do not yet have a great script, but we have a great screenwriter in Wayne Lehrer, so the great script is imminent. Wayne Lehrer is also a very talented director, money is also in the works so I think we are in great shape.

BT: Where will it be released, and when?

JW: In movie theaters. My best guess for the release of this film is possibly Christmas 2001, but more likely Christmas 2002. We definitely see it as a Christmas release.

NOTE: Readers can view Douglas Wells’ full account of his experience, “The Hiiumaa Island Christmas Bell,” as well as learn more about Critical Mass Films, the company producing “Freedom’s Ring,” at http://www.criticalmassfilms.com

For a Hiiumaa Island Web page featuring Douglas Wells and his work, see http://www.hiiumaa.ee/~douglas

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Story Source: Critical Mass Films

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Estonia



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