Winfrey’s cable network OWN was about a year old at the time and struggling to find its niche in the crowded world of entertainment cable channels. Winfrey told the crowd at the “Belief” premiere screening in New York City on Wednesday that she spent time praying for guidance under the oak trees at her home near Santa Barbara.
The transition was particularly hard because she was coming off such a successful run with her daytime talk show. “Doing (‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’) was like breathing to me,” Winfrey said. It took time for her to understand that “finding the diverse lanes of programming that an audience would respond to would take time.”
But when producer David Shadrack Smith of Part2 Pictures brought her the idea for an “epic” TV series examining the nature of faith and belief in cultures around the world, Winfrey had a light-bulb moment. “This is it,” she said. “My heart opened up.”
Smith and his team spent three years researching and filming a series that focuses on the stories of individuals that reflect the practice of faith from a perspectives around the globe. Smith and directors Michael Davie and Eric Strauss joined Winfrey for a Q&A after the screening, along with Reshma Thakkar, the subject of a segment in the opening installment, “The Seekers.”
“Belief” bows Sunday and will air over seven consecutive nights. Winfrey noted that they couldn’t incorporate every faith under the sun. “We didn’t want it to go on for 40 days and 40 nights,” she joked.
The first episode details the experiences of an evangelical Christian teenager in Alabama; Thakkar’s pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela bathing ritual along the Ganges River; the Bar Mitzvah celebration of a boy in a tiny Jewish community in Budapest; and a dying Aboriginal elder’s effort to pass ancient traditions down to his 11-year-old grandson.
“The stories found us,” Smith said when asked how they found their subjects. When the “Belief” team arrived in Australia to shoot the aboriginal segment, the initial subjects they’d lined up backed out, yet they met another man while driving into the area where filming was to take place who offered the poignant generational story. “It was one of the remarkable serendipitous moments which yielded such beautiful fruit.”
Davie added that the process of making the docu-series that filmed in 33 countries on six continents became an exercise in belief itself. “It was about getting up every single morning and having the faith that we could do this,” Davie said. “It became our religion for three years.”
Among those who joined Winfrey at the post-screening after-party were Barbara Walters, Common, Deepak Chopra, Mehmet Oz, Arianna Huffington, “CBS This Morning’s” Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, actress Phylicia Rashad and director Ava DuVernay.
(Pictured: Oprah Winfrey with Barbara Walters at the “Belief” after-party)