I have not done a movie review here so bear with me. The relevance may be understood shortly.
First, a quick disclaimer and some background.
I met the director and producer, Evgeny Afineevksy, after his film screenings of Winter on Fire (a Netflix documentary about the Ukrainian revolution which is “a must-see” in the context of today's current events) and Cries from Syria (a documentary about the struggle of Syrians that will give you much needed context and history to understand current events). After Cries from Syria specifically and after the normal q/a, a group of us had an interesting discussion with him about what was happening here in the US in the context of his previous film Winter on Fire. This was September 2017 — about 6 months after Trump took office — and he had some interesting thoughts and different points of view.
As I don’t typically follow specific filmmakers (sorry Evgeny), I had no idea that he had done this film and met him at another film screening about rebel nuns (Rebel Hearts) in Los Angels in the 1960s and 1970s. I expressed my surprise because the topic seemed so different than his other films. He told me about his newest, Francesco, about the Pope. I was still a bit confused and could not see the link between his previous films and this one.
Ten minutes or less into Francesco, the link was obvious. (I am really an idiot sometimes.)
Thoughts on the film:
In his previous film, Evgeny shows the incredible strength of human beings to fight for fundamental rights and for humanity (when faced with extreme oppression — his earlier films are not for the faint of heart).
And it is here that we can see the link to Pope Francis because in Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has a person who is fighting for fundamental rights and Humanity for all. He is willing to speak up to world leaders and he is breaking down other barriers by reaching out to members of other faiths and reminding everyone we are all one in our humanity. The actions of the Pope speak loudly. He even gave Evgeny unprecedented access to him to make this film. Evgeny is Jewish.
Evgeny and the Pope both find the places where people are most torn apart — where humanity is most broken in some ways but also where it is also sometimes most present — where people and countries with fewer resources offer help to many while others turn their backs.
Towards the end, the filmmaker points out that the Pope goes to those places because he knows the cameras will follow. Evgeny travels to those places with his camera and tells their story for the world so the world can understand and act.
Both give voices to the voiceless.
Both, as individuals, highlight the best that humanity has to offer in their care and concern for those suffering — even at personal risk.
Both highlight the needs of others and the power and resilience of the human spirit.
This is not a fawning idealized film about an infallible Pope. Evgeny significantly covers the Pope’s background in Argentina and the lessons he learned. He demonstrates that the Pope, through his life, has grown and changed to become the man and leader he is today.
He also covers the Popes initially mishandling of the sexual abuse accusations in South American and how he pursued the truth when he realized that he may be missing the full story and the significant actions he took when he found the truth. The Pope, demonstrating through leadership and action, that social justice is to be applied equally to all.
This, I think, should also cause us to look inward to see what more we can do.
Responses to the film:
This is where I have a ton of questions for the filmmaker.
I am wondering how the film has been received globally. Has he seen patterns in the comments in different countries? Also, has he noticed a change in the comments over time.
For example, at the end, it shows the global unity around the coronavirus. I think that the timing of when this film is screened would affect the feelings of viewers specifically in the United States. While we were never really 100% united around our response to this virus, the situation is far more divisive here than it was a year ago. The final scene is a reminder of “what could have been” instead of a celebration of unity as might have been felt a year or a year and a half ago. That said it is a reminder that we can and were relatively united.
And highlighting the Pope and his incredible role in breaking down barriers and promoting justice can trigger people who want those barriers and who feel safe with those barriers. Here in the US and perhaps in other countries, there is a battle over whether we will take a bridge or a wall approach to international affairs.
And, again, from a US Catholic Church perspective, there seems to have been a rise in the power of conservativism in the Catholic Church leadership over the last 2 or 3 years. I am not sure to what extent that is reflected further into the congregations but I wonder how leadership within the church has received it. (Or have they even cared to view it?)
This is a call to action for everyone but it goes strongly against political currents in some countries and in some religions. I am wondering to what extent he has seen that in his screenings and to what extent he has seen hope emerge in people who saw none.
On a personal note:
Coincidentally, Evgeny’s path has paralleled mine. I started studying wrongful convictions and worked to raise awareness — thinking that “if only people knew” — but I was wrong. While raising awareness did help, it did not create the shift needed for true, significant change.
I wanted to understand how/why good people could know about this and still sit by so then I shifted and started to look at what was driving the change.
In the film, one of the participants said that Pope Francis created a preventative construct and preventative dialogue to avoid conflict between different religions. This proactive approach is unusual. What we have in society today are leaders arming people with constructs and dialogues that are deeply damaging.
Figuring out how to disarm people from these narratives seems to be the key.
Raising awareness is a huge big step and it will be enough for some. We have seen that in criminal justice when it comes to police abuse of power. When I starting working in this area, my friends were aware but not moved — not moved enough to speak up. Now, with the proliferation of videos, they are now speaking up and pushing back a bit (and understand what the “big deal” was to me).
Awareness will help and is critical because the destructive constructs and the destructive dialogues have to be replaced with something else. Films like this give people a tangible something to grab on to which is critical. While it will feel unfamiliar, it will not be unknown which will make the transition easier.
But now people's minds are full of destructive constructive and dialogues. They were planted with fear and ignorance. They are being fed daily. Finding a way to undo this and planting the positive constructs and dialogues will be key.
This film shows us the potential of what can happen when it is done right by leaders. It is a film of hope. It is a film of beauty.
Evgeny’s films can be seen as follows:
Francesco — Discover Plus
Cries from Syria — Amazon
Winter on Fire — Netflix