When Melissa (DePaiva) Gibson returned to visit Palau in 2018, Bilung Gloria Salii, queen of Palau, took her to the ravine where she had been left to die. Queen Bilung planted a tree there in her honor.  Photo credit: Michael Gibson

March 31, 2022

Premiere of “Return to Palau” Documentary at Andrews University

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich.—On Saturday, April 16, a premiere of “Return to Palau” will take place at the Howard Performing Arts Center on the campus of Andrews University at 4 p.m. Admission is free. 

The documentary film tells the story of the DePaiva family who moved from Andrews University in 2002 to pastor the Koror church on the island nation of Palau, only to suffer a shocking tragedy. Through recently uncovered archival footage and first-person accounts an incredible true story of survival, faith and forgiveness emerges. The official trailer can be viewed on YouTube

Michelle Hamel, filmmaker, and director of the documentary is a 2000 graduate of Andrews University. Reflecting on the three-year process of creating the film, she commented, “I was repeatedly surprised at how multi-faceted and far reaching the story really was, and how with each new interview, connection, or found artifact, the story deepened and came into sharper focus. I hope the end result honors the legacy of the DePaiva family and expands the reach of their incredible story.” 

The worldwide premiere of the film took place on March 16, 2022, at the Palau National Gymnasium in Koror to a packed crowd of over 1,300 people, the largest indoor event in Palauan history. A second showing was arranged for March 19 to accommodate additional people who wished to attend.

Ruimar and Margareth DePaiva came to study at Andrews University in 2000.  Photo credit: Courtesy of the DePaiva family
Ruimar and Margareth DePaiva came to study at Andrews University in 2000. Photo credit: Courtesy of the DePaiva family

Surangal Whipps Jr., current president of the Republic of Palau and close friend of the family, shared the following: “Melissa’s life is a miracle and her return to Palau is a gift to our nation. We are truly blessed to have her share her story with us. On behalf of the people of Palau, I want to thank her for coming back and for forgiving us. She will always be one of us.” 

Both Melissa and her husband, Michael Gibson, will attend the event at the Howard Performing Arts Center, along with the filmmakers. Following the showing, Dwight Nelson, lead pastor of Pioneer Memorial Church, will interview Melissa and Michael about both the film and their personal experiences. A reception will be held after the event, including an opportunity to meet and greet Melissa and Michael Gibson. 

Psychologist Ann Hamel, producer of the film, led the team who attended the premiere in Palau. She said, “Melissa’s willingness to share her story is a gift not only to the people of Palau but to all of us. Her life is a powerful illustration of how God can take the most unthinkable tragedies and make good come from them.” 

The film is nominated for best documentary and best director at the International Christian Film Festival, one of the largest Christian film festivals in the world, which takes place May 4–7 in Orlando, Florida. It has also won awards and been nominated in several other film festivals. 

The Howard Performing Arts Center is a premier 850-seat concert hall on the campus of Andrews University. Founded in 1874, Andrews University is the flagship institution of higher education for the Seventh-day Adventist Church and offers more than 160 areas of study, including advanced degrees. Its main campus is in Berrien Springs, Michigan, but the University also provides instruction at colleges and universities in more than 25 countries around the world.

Designer: Matthew Hamel
Designer: Matthew Hamel


Office of University Communication