The philanthropist and director discuss the documentary Mully, which spotlights the doctor’s work rescuing orphaned children.
Philanthropist Dr. Charles Mully and Filmmaker Scott Haze
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Dr. Charles Mully and director Scott Haze. They join us to discuss their award-winning docudrama, “Mully”, which explores the extraordinary rags to riches story of Dr. Charles Mully, orphaned at age six and, armed with only an eighth grade education, he became a successful businessman, a millionaire, in fact, before giving it all up to save children’s lives.
Today he’s the founder of the largest children’s rescue rehabilitation and development organization in Africa.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. That conversation in just a moment.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station by viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: Delighted to welcome filmmaker, Scott Haze, and philanthropist, Dr. Charles Mully, to this program. Their docudrama, “Mully”, depicts Dr. Mully’s unlikely rise to wealth and power and his decision to give it all up to answer God’s call to save children’s lives.
Known as the father of the world’s largest family, his work has helped support more than 12,000 orphans in Kenya. Before we start our conversation, here now a clip from “Mully”.
Tavis: First of all, honored to have you both on this program. Thank you for coming on.
Scott Haze: Thank you.
Dr. Charles Mully: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Doctor, let me start with you. This is PBS. So you may not know how PBS works in the states, but we have time to talk here. You’re not in a rush. You can take time and tell your story. So let me start by asking you to tell your story of being orphaned as a boy yourself.
Mully: When I was five, six years old, that was a time that I found myself to be alone, abandoned by my parents. Where they went, I do not know exactly where they went. Life was very difficult. Lack of food, lack of shelter, love from anybody, so I started now begging food from anybody from the street, everywhere. So that was my life as a child.
Tavis: You were abandoned around six or seven, you said?
Mully: Five or six.
Tavis: Five or six. I’m sorry, five or six. So where do you go? I mean, I know you’re begging, but where do you go? Where do you live? Where do you stay? How do you exist?
Mully: Really, I existed so much on donation, on begging and, in fact, even scavenging from where any food anywhere it could be found. And, therefore, I had a grandmother and my grandmother was very poor and very old and, therefore, my own uncles, they could not [inaudible] to help me around, so they kicked me out.
So the life of begging as a child is so, so bad and, therefore, I faced a lot of difficulties like any child abandoned. Then I went on up to 16 years old with that kind of a life and also working in different places like, you know, child labor. You know, digging and doing something when I was a little bigger boy.
Then at the age of 16 years, that’s what like the climax of everything that, well, how do I live in this world which has got no love, and hatred, rejection, all these things which I was exposed to?
Tavis: Scott, tell me how do you get involved in this project and how does it become a documentary? I’m always fascinated because there’s so many great stories in the world, but only a handful become documentaries with Academy Award winners like Mr. Moll who are connected to this and great actors like yourself. So tell me how you get connected to this.
Haze: It was about four years ago the Kenya Westgate Mall attacks happened. It was a terrorist attack. A man named John Bardis was at the Clinton Global Initiative and President Clinton gave a speech about one of his friends who passed away in the attacks.
John knew of this man in Kenya that was changing the world, so he called me and said, “Would you be interested in telling the story in Africa that can change the world?” I read the book, “Father to the Fatherless”, and I said yes. That was four years ago.
Tavis: So you got a crew and packed up and went to Africa?
Haze: Well, yeah. I ended up hiring some of my friends. A guy named Lukas and Elissa Shay, Lukas Behnken. I own a theater, so I didn’t know what I was gonna do. It seemed overwhelming. The book seemed like a fairy tale or something that was a fantasy. After getting that call from John Bardis, five weeks later, my team, all four of us, we are in Kenya.
Tavis: That’s a quick turnaround.
Haze: It was.
Tavis: You’re living this life of a beggar child until you’re 16. What happens at 16?
Mully: At the age of 16 years old, something happened to me. I had really made up my mind why. It’s because I was completely, you know, fed up with the life of begging, the life of poverty and hopelessness. And then I wanted to take away my own life, commit suicide. And during that time, I was standing somewhere.
A young man was passing and he was a little bit older than me. I felt, wow, what can I do, God, a God whom I did not know? This man approached me and said, “I want to take you somewhere.” “I would like to go with you.” That moment was really a different time because I felt like, oh, somebody’s calling me to take me somewhere.
Then I followed him. We ended up in a church where I found young people. They were singing and dancing. They were full of joy and, myself, I was pale. You know, my face looked pale and a lot of bitterness, especially because of my father who used to beat me or used to create violence in our home when I was a little child.
Therefore, there came a preacher and the leader, you know, a pastor and then he was preaching. So hard, those days when I was that age and I can still even today remember that he said there is forgiveness of sin.
There is forgiveness for whoever feel that he has been offended by somebody else and this is the moment now to be able to say it, that you are completely upset. You don’t want to live in this world. This is the moment that he would pray for anybody like that.
Me, I felt the message was about me. I felt like all this time, it’s that somebody could give me good life, a new life. They talked about Jesus. That’s exactly what I had. And then I said, “Here I am.” And then I was prayed for and, after that, I got completely relieved of that anger that I had and the bitterness that I had.
I remember, even though I had never seen my own parents, I forgave them and I forgive even my own father. After only a few days later, I decided to go to the city of Nairobi. City of Nairobi to do what? To look for a job. I was knocking and knocking.
When I knocked at one of the houses, an Asian woman, came and then said, “Why are you disturbing us here?” I said I was very hungry. I’ve never eaten. Please help me. Then she was so masterful. She was very kind and she gave me work to do.
After six months, she spoke to her husband or the CEO of a big company, and then I was given a job there. I was employed as a clerk, promoted to become a supervisor, assistant manager and then later, I bought a vehicle, good secondhand vehicle, Ford Cortina [laugh].
And then that one, really it was my like dream, a new life. Well, I said no, I will not continue to enjoy life with a driving car and then going to work. I decided to start a business of taxi, taking people anywhere where they wanted to.
Tavis: So you’re like the original Uber [laugh]. You started driving people around in Kenya. Okay, go ahead. I’m listening. All right, you’re driving folk around in Nairobi. Go ahead.
Mully: And so I had many customers. I bought another vehicle. I bought buses. These buses could take people across Kenya and it was called Mullyways Express. That’s how I traded in that name. It was like a dream. It never took a long time. And, therefore, I grew up again on the side of [inaudible] and again on insurance company. So my company grew and I became a worth man. I had a very big house…
Tavis: You become a multimillionaire is what you become.
Mully: Well, I cannot call myself that way, but I felt like, yes, I had everything that I needed and my family then we would really go everywhere where we wanted. Really enjoyed ourselves. But, you know, something happened. I drove all the way to the city of Nairobi and then, when I was in Nairobi, there I found street boys, a gang of young people.
They set onto me and they said, “Well, give us money.” Then I said, “Why should I give you money?” I started having bad feeling. When I saw children crying, when I saw women carrying children and these women were in [inaudible] state, I saw myself in their faces when they cried.
Tavis: You had a flashback to what you had gone through as a young man. Is that when you made the decision that you were going to change your focus from making money to giving money?
Mully: Yes. After that, you know, for three years, it never happened in that year, 1986, but in the year 1989, November 17. I remember that day very well, that I could not work anymore. In my office, I decided to go home. I was feeling really so afraid. I was so afraid of myself. There was fear, and I became really sick. And I said let me go home.
I got in my car, I drove all the way, but I did not go the direction. I got lost. I found myself over 35 kilometers driving, not knowing where I was going. I started crying and I cried and I cried and I said, “God, what is that you want to teach me? What is that? Tell me now.” But I don’t want to go to the old kind of life.
Then I was pushed so hard through this spirit. “You are the one. You be the father to the fatherless. You take care of them. Take them to school. Feed them and bring them up.” So I said yes. I said yes.
Tavis: That’s the best way, just to say yes and not fight it [laugh]. When you got there, Scott, I’m curious and I’m sure there’s a moment. I’m sure there’s a moment when you arrived in Kenya and you were disabused of the notion that this wasn’t a fairy tale, that this wasn’t too good to be true.
You saw for yourself what he had been doing for these thousands of kids. Tell me that moment that made you lose this notion that it was a fairy tale.
Haze: Well, you know, it was my first time to Africa, so I touched down in Nairobi and I was driving out to his property, out in Ndalani. As our van was pulling up to his property, all these kids started surrounding the MCF van. And you could see it on the kids’ faces. They would come up and they would greet me and they would say hello to my team.
And in the smiles of — that’s what I take away from the film so much — after some of the scenes, I get emotional just thinking about is that you know that these young girls were either molested or mutilated weeks before. Here they are, they have hope when their lives were hopeless until they met Charles or Esther.
So the children and seeing the smiles on their faces and then, every morning when you wake up at MCF, you can hear the choir. As the sun rises, the choir, you can hear them singing. So there’s this sort of magical, spiritual place that you can feel immediately upon arriving.
Then getting to know Charles, at first I thought he thought I was pretty crazy at first. Because he had no idea what we were doing and a lot of people, I think, had been out to his land. We just immediately went to work, you know. It took a while for me to figure out who was gonna play Charles Mully in the film. I auditioned every older boy being an actor.
So I was like doing scenes with these like rescued children. Finally, I went to Charles after — we had breakfast every morning — and finally, I said, “Charles, the only person who can play you is you” because still he looked so young. He plays himself as a 40-year-old.
He finally agreed, which was a huge blessing because he’s running a whole operation, MCF. Then he basically turned MCF into Mullywood. We called it Mullywood. We needed a set built. He had built this set…
Tavis: We got Hollywood, Bollywood and now Mullywood, yeah, okay. I got it [laugh].
Haze: And another thing was the kids that were orphaned and rescued became part of our film crew.
Tavis: I was gonna ask you about that too. Because the kids became part of the film crew, which is a beautiful thing, but help me understand — and I’m always fascinated about how these decisions are made on documentaries or films — the decision to have Charles Mully play himself, I get.
But then you have the film being narrated by him, by his wife Esther, and by eight of their children. Tell me about how you made the decision that that was the best way to tell the story through the voices of his own family.
Haze: Well, I think some of the stories that when he — there’s a story in the book that’s in part of his life called [inaudible] where these kind of stories that really rely on faith and miracles happened and God really showed up in miraculous ways, it seemed very impersonal to break the narrative of have somebody else tell that story.
The only person, I felt, could tell that story was Charles or Esther or the biological kids who had, at a certain point, thought their own father was crazy. You know, they didn’t know exactly what was happening. But all the things he said and the miracles did happen and the things he said did come to pass.
Tavis: When you watch this film, this documentary, and you happen to be agnostic or you happen to atheist, what is it in the story that you connect to? Because you’re not connected to his faith. You’re not down with that, so to speak, but what are you connecting to in the story?
Haze: It’s funny you ask that. I hired an atheist editor on purpose and I worked alongside him. And I think what you connect to is a universal thing that is undeniable, which is love. And the way that Esther loves the kids, the way that Charles loves Esther, the way Charles loves his own children and all the children. I think that love is the universal language that we all relate to.
So I kind of kept that as the thread, and in his faith. When times got hard, Charles stuck to his visions and his calling when he easily could have gone back to business. He knew that he was called to do something and it’s miraculous that he stayed faithful in those hard times.
Tavis: I did not know that that that was going to be your answer. I get surprised on this show every night. I did not know that was going to be your answer. In retrospect, or as I hear you share the story, Scott, it was a brilliant decision, I think. I think I know where you’re going with this, but I want to ask.
I think it was a brilliant decision on a project like this to hire an atheist editor. I think I get that, but tell me more about what you hope to get and why you specifically wanted an atheist editor for this project.
Haze: Well, the way I wanted to approach the film was, you know, I act in films and…
Tavis: Yeah, we know [laugh].
Haze: I mean, if somebody says…
Tavis: I’m being funny. We see you all the time, yeah, yeah.
Haze: Yeah. yeah. If somebody says, “Hey, we got a Christian movie we want you to act in”, there’s this stigma and a notion that those films aren’t made as well, right?
Haze: So for me, I wanted to basically tell the story where in “The Godfather”, I mean, Don Corleone was Italian. So I wanted Christianity and his faith in Christ and the way he walks to just be kind of like he was Don Corleone was Italian, and just really get down to the core fundamental values of storytelling, you know, characteristic storytelling.
I think that is what lends itself to the truth. People can read between the lines. They know when you’re lying, they know when you’re trying to make you feel something. And I just wanted to keep it really honest and — I could have gone many different ways in telling the story, but I wanted to keep it very straightforward. I think that it comes through without having to push those elements.
Tavis: Let me ask you personal question, if I may. It seems to me that it’s impossible to work on a project like this and not have your own personal takeaways. What were your takeaways? What did you learn from doing this?
Haze: Well, for me, this month, I have three movies that are coming out. “Only the Brave”, the 19 firefighters in Prescott, Arizona, who passed way. “Thank You for Your Service”, which is to honor our veterans. And the film I directed about Charles. I get emotional thinking about it because I feel that that’s pretty much all I want to do with my life is tell stories that can enrich lives, that have purpose.
And I feel so fortunate and blessed to be able to have done that with this movie. I just did a screening of the movie this weekend in Colorado and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And people were coming up to me saying their lives would be altered from this moment forward.
Kind of the DNA of who they are is altered after watching this movie. Being so committed to earning wealth or committed to your career, those values are great, but what Charles has done with his life, I’m grateful that it’s coming across in the film is what really matters is how to be of service to other people, you know.
Tavis: I’ve got one minute to go. Dr. Mully, I’m gonna give you the last word. What do you hope people will take away from this project?
Mully: Mostly my prayer is that people will be motivated to do what is good for mankind. Again, to show the power of God, God who is the creator of universe and the heart, that he delivered even today. And he can use us when we are failing ourselves. He can really do great things through us. It doesn’t matter who you are.
Even if you come from poor family or you have never gone to school, it doesn’t matter. He only really he’s interested with our heart. Because even like people look at, “Oh, you have done so great thing”, but then I don’t see having done great things. I’ve done what I am supposed to do for others.
Tavis: It’s a powerful project. It’s a documentary called “Mully” about the life and times of this brother right here and the work that he and his family continue to do in the country of Kenya. Scott, thanks for getting involved and bringing this to us. Good to have you both on the program, and congrats on the project.
Haze: Thank you so much.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.