Daniel Bielinski’s latest filmmaking effort is a Western crowd-pleaser, regardless of North Dakota pride
North Dakotans take pride in their state and its history. That’s why our interest peaked when we heard about a film that was shot and set in North Dakota. “Sanctified,” a 2022 picture from filmmaker Daniel Bielinski, is a Western with strong Christian elements that offers a thrilling ride!
I, along with the rest of the Spotlight editorial team, attended the film’s Fargo premiere at the Fargo Theatre, as well as a post-premiere Q&A with a select portion of the cast and crew. Learn more about the creation of the film and its biggest takeaways in this spoiler-free review!
The Plot (Without Giving Too Much Away)
Set in the late 1800s, an outlaw (Weston) attempts to take his share of money, break away from the bandit lifestyle he’s been involved with and start a new life. However, he doesn’t make it too far before those he once associated with catch on to his plan and punish him for going against their way of life and order. Hanging on to life by a thread, Weston is beaten, battered and on the cusp of death.
Canticle Productions Faith-based Films
Canticle Productions is a North Dakota-based film and theater production company that often intertwines faith and spirit into films. “Sanctified” is no different, as the film touches upon faith and sacrifice with religious undertones.
However, he’s soon met by a nun (Sister Hildegard) who is traveling through the Badlands. She nurses him back to health in exchange for him guiding her to a Church in Williston. A deep friendship develops between these two unlikely people as they learn to work together to survive their dangerous journey, while she forces him to question his faith in Christianity. As they travel across the state together, they come face-to-face with a range of threats and allies.
The Journey to Premiere
While the film’s vision had been crafted years before its release, it took much longer than anticipated to bring the film to life on the big screen. Bielinski wrote a first draft of the film’s script, aptly titled “Wes & Hilde,” back in 2018.
After showing the script to the film’s director, Nickolaus Swedlund, they worked together on new ideas and rewrites until they had the final product that we know today.
Before the filmmakers could begin filming, however, the small production company required a Kickstarter campaign to fundraise a production budget at the beginning of 2020. Soon after, work on the film had to shut down, as did production on every other film in the industry, due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020.
Once protocols were in place to ensure the safety of the cast and crew when filming during a pandemic, work was soon underway to complete the ambitious project out west. Once the project was off the ground, it was filmed, edited and completed with much fewer obstacles and roadblocks. Now in its premiere stage, the film is being showcased in theaters across North Dakota, as well as the Twin Cities Film Festival.
“For me, the most impressive part of the film was the special effects. There is one very powerful near-death scene at the beginning of the film that felt very real to me.”-Brady Drake
Over a brisk 90 minutes, Daniel Bielinski’s (Outlaw Weston) and Tiffany Cornwell’s (Sister Hildegard) collaborative chemistry put on an entertaining performance and captured the audience’s attention. Sister Hildegard questions Weston’s faith on their journey throughout the film, keeping Christian elements at the helm of the film and critical to the plot.
At the film’s core, it’s about a nun and an outlaw on a road trip together. The film often sees the characters poke fun at one another, balancing the grim nature of the film with a lighthearted relationship between the two leads. While this banter back and forth did get plenty of laughs from the audience, it did make for somewhat unsteady pacing throughout the film, as it often went from a casual joke to an intense scene within moments, or sometimes even simultaneously. However, these confusing moments were kept brief as the narrative pushed along during the film’s short runtime.
While a straightforward plot at the surface, “Sanctified” offers no shortage of twists and turns as the narrative expands beyond a simple Western plot. The film starts as a simple tale of a man (Weston) looking for freedom from his group and a new life. However, what transpires is a tale of unexpected friendship, betrayal and more.
As the film came to a close, the audience was greeted with a somber, yet satisfying, conclusion. While it may not have been the ending that everyone was hoping for (or expecting), it was a fitting one indeed that came with more satisfaction than confusion or disappointment. When the lights rose, the cast, crew and credits were all greeted with applause from the audience as they discussed the acting, cinematography and other aspects of the feature film.
“I enjoyed the storytelling aspect of the movie, especially the small attention to detail. At times, the pacing felt a little slow, but overall I enjoyed the show! It’s fun to see a historical part of our state told through this story!”-Geneva Nodland
Above all else, one of the standout aspects of the film is the breathtaking cinematography from beginning to end. The beauty of North Dakota is showcased on full display as the backdrop to the story. Taking pride in filming near Medora and the Badlands, the cast and crew present during a post-premiere Q&A extensively emphasized the beauty of the surrounding area during filming.
“As a photographer who works a lot with lighting and color, the colorgrading really enhanced the drama of this film and made it feel overall more passionate and authentic—exceptional work by the “Sanctified” film team.”-Josiah Kopp
The Post-Premier Q&A
Following the film’s Fargo premiere, actors Carl Swanson (Emmett), Daniel Bielinski (Weston) and Allan Demaray (Little Hawk) emerged from the crowd to take questions and offer behind-the-scenes details to let the audience in on the movie magic that was required to bring the picture to life. Read a sample of the audience Q&A below to learn more about the creation of the film!
Did you base the plot on any specific story? What was your reasoning behind making the film?
“This is considered to be a historical fiction film, so it’s set in a real place and time, but the characters are all completely fictional. I thought it would be a lot of fun to put a nun and an outlaw on a road trip together.” – Daniel Bielinski
Did you face any troubles during production?
“It was fascinating because we were in the middle of nowhere. We had a camp where we stayed called Badlands Ministries as our ‘home base’ of sorts. Luckily, all the locations where we shot were pretty close because it was a hassle getting all of the people, horses, carts, lighting and cameras out there.” – Carl Swanson
“We were very lucky to have excellent weather, except for the week or so prior to filming when it snowed for two days. It was an absolute blizzard right before we started filming, but it thankfully melted right in time. For the most part, production went pretty smoothly without any major mishaps.” – Daniel Bielinski
Where did you shoot the majority of the film?
“Badlands Ministries Bible Camp is located about 10 minutes south of Medora. We also shot at a rancher’s place about 20 minutes south of Medora. We tried to keep it pretty confined to that area, with the exception of the church. The church was actually a schoolhouse that we dolled up in production and post-production to look like a church. That was about 45 minutes north between Medora and Watford City.” – Daniel Bielinski
What are your plans with Sanctified next?
“As of now, the film will continue its run around North Dakota. We started in Bismarck, on September 30 and October 1, and its run just got extended for another two weeks. It’s been doing really well at Grand Theatres in Bismarck. We played in Belfield and Watford City. We’re going to Minot, Grand Forks and Williston, as well as Medora and the Twin Cities Film Festival at the end of the month. It will also play in a whole bunch of theaters that you can see on sanctifiedfilm.com. There are roughly 25 theaters or so that will be running the film across North and South Dakota. By the end of the year, the goal is to finalize deals with sales companies and distributors to get it on streaming platforms such as Amazon and Hulu so that people can see it not just in North Dakota, but around the world on streaming platforms.” – Daniel Bielinski
For more information on upcoming showtimes and where to see the film next, head to sanctifiedfilm.com for the latest updates.