My 3rd Movie: 300 Years of Good

I’ve just spent the past month working on 300 Years of Good, a compilation of stories by women religious (a.k.a. nuns) from around North Carolina & South Carolina. I interviewed 15 sisters, 9 of whom are in this movie. There are 64 sisters in the Raleigh Diocese, 100 in the South Carolina Diocese and I’m not sure how many in my own Diocese but I’d guess around 100. I’d like to share some details of what this journey entailed and about what happened along the way.

In December, I was informed that I would receive a $1000 grant from National Catholic Sisters Week to show a documentary during this week in March. Not only is the money covering popcorn (for 80 people), soda (for 60 people) and a rented cooler ($20), but it also covered the cost of the making of the documentary. I did not receive any payment for my work. I have spent a few hundred hours planning, interviewing, traveling and editing but my time has been my own contribution to the project, a labor of love. Although this has been a very solitary experience, especially these past few weeks spent in our guest room/home office editing until well after midnight most nights, I have not been completely alone  and all sorts of people came out to help me along the way. I met Rachel at a filmmaker’s meetup in Charlotte in January. She sat down with me to help me figure out which days I could travel during February and in the past couple of weeks of editing, checked in on me. Friends like Courtney, Caitlin, Cathy & Sr. Eileen put on their thinking caps when I asked about sisters they knew in NC and SC. If not for those four people, none of these interviews would have taken place. Wow. I realize just now how important they were to the making of this. In the credits, I give thanks to two men: my own husband who supported this project wholeheartedly and Jim, who helped me learn a lot about South Carolina and bought me lunch while in Charleston.

In the Company of Women

I traveled to Cary, NC, staying at my friend Betsy’s house for the night with her cute animals and lively conversation.  I stayed in a hotel in Sumter, SC on my way to the very remote Kingstree, SC which did not seem to have any chain hotels nearby when I booked in Sumter (almost an hour away). I enjoyed 2 nights with the Poor Clare sisters in Traveler’s Rest, SC, enjoying the foods they stocked in the small guest apartment where I stayed. I enjoyed a delicious pot roast in Kingstree and lunch with the gentle and lovely fellowship of the Felician sisters there.  In Belmont, I got to meet several sisters who were archivist and a woman in her 30s who is a professional archivist as well. Their explanations of their work helped me find words for my own as I am also seeking to capture, preserve and share stories of women religious. I enjoyed breakfast and lunch in the main kitchen at the Belmont Mercy’s place, running into some sisters I’ve known from my 42 years, most of which have been spent in the Diocese of Charlotte.  In Cary, Sister Anne took me out for delicious burritos at a place with dozens of hot sauces (which I love) and treated me to interesting conversation and warm hospitality.

Three Movies

With delight, when I sat down after interviews to sort through the footage, I realized I actually have three movies sitting in front of me! This became clearer to me as I went along. Over the next few months, I will be putting together a separate movie for the Poor Clares and for the Felicians. Since I got to spend so much time with them and to film so much outside of our sit down interviews, I know these will be very colorful portraits, or rather, snapshots of what I saw when with them. Both happen to be Franciscan communities, so I might have to work a little harder and really think about how to incorporate some of Francis & Clare’s writings (my specialty) into the films.

What I’ve learned

Precepts I try to follow when making a movie include a.)don’t be preachy and b.)don’t try to teach someone a lesson through it. So, I will share what I learned and I believe that the stories are different enough that they will touch people in various ways. What I learned is that these women have drawn from a well within themselves that others do not have or have not found. I believe that well is kept filled by God by way of their community life, ministry, liturgical and sacramental life and especially by their own personal prayer lives.  They had so many stories that I had to leave out ones like how one person helped get a man off death row or how another one worked in AIDS care back when people with AIDS were treated as lepers. So many stories.  I know that not everyone is going to like this movie. That’s fine. I will be glad to teach anyone who wants a different movie what I have taught myself in the past 16 months so that they can go out and make the movies they want to watch.  My questions were focused on what these women have done and who they have met along the way. Those are the stories which appear in the movie.  I do not preach or teach in this movie but I do hope people are motivated to think about what they can personally do to reach out to others as these sisters have done.

Celebrating National Catholic Sisters Week

I got to show the film on Wednesday night to the campus ministry students of Winthrop University. My parents came up for it, Rachel and her mom came and several students and others .It was great to sit in the back row and gauge their reactions. After that showing, I put in another 20+ hours to bend and mold it and tweak it and cut off some excess so that it is the best movie my current abilities allow me to make. I am happy with it. In the coming weeks, I would like to find composer to create an original score. I need to continue to consider doing a voiceover narration, something I have eschewed so far since I feel it would be invasive and my whole point is to let people tell their own stories, as Francis would say, “without gloss” (summary and commentary).  I believe that 2017 will be a time for me to travel with the film to some convents, schools, campus ministries, parishes and film festivals. My respect for these women and what they have done is evident. I had zero agenda except to showcase some stories of women religious and am proud of the decisions I’ve made while traveling, interviewing and editing which have kept that priority at the forefront. I hope you’ll get to see it sometime. Invite me to your town to show it and we can watch it together!

 

 

 

 

 

Garbage Flowers

tr-trashflower-1
Garbage Flowers by M.G.

O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous…
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

(This passage is from the Gospel for yesterday. It is from the Book of Luke, Chapter 18.)

My friend Matthew took the above photo, Garbage Flowers,  on his way to his bus stop for work last week. When I look at it, it makes me think about the beautiful things we create and our attempts to share them with others. This image lingered in my mind yesterday when I went to an early service at a Methodist Church to hear my friend preach. Afterwards, my husband and I went to Mass at our parish. Because both followed the lectionary readings of the day, I got to hear the same Gospel reading twice. Above is an excerpt from the Gospel. It goes on to say that we’re not supposed to spend our time thinking of all the ways we’re more awesome than the next person and envying them for their success.  Garbage Flowers and this admonition to not be a “playah hater” merge in this blogpost.

I’ve made a couple of short documentaries in the past year. They are not perfect. I know that.  I am not a perfectionist. The worst part of perfectionism is that people allow themselves to be intimidated and afraid to the point that they will not let their work be seen by others. I have a relative who is a talented artist but doesn’t want others to see what she’s drawn. I have another relative is plain and simple, really good at what he does so he writes many plays each year, all of which are performed publically. I’m not as good at my art as he is, but I’m also not afraid to put it out there, like she is.  I created these films and decided to take the next, bold step of submitting them to film festivals. Each film has been accepted to one festival apiece so far. Each has been rejected from a handful of festivals as well. I’m waiting to hear back from a few others and of course, I hope they are selected.

In the meantime, another film has come to my attention. I’m in search of benchmarks as I wonder how I’m doing in this new-to-me endeavor, so I’ve been checking out the stats on this other film. I realize it is not a good practice and I need to stop doing it. It is like comparing apples and oranges. Our films are not in competition and they are two different things. However, Mamma Mia! It has the support of hundreds of people, almost two dozen organizations and a well-known Hollywood personality. When I learned all of that, I let it bother me because it got a lot more financial support than what I gathered for my films before jumping in.

When I try to temper that comparison and focus on my gratitude instead, I think about this:

I spent about $2000 (including $1000 given generously from National Catholic Sisters’ Week) and yes, had lots and lots of awesome people come forward to offer me other kinds of (non-financial) help along the way. People offered me places to sleep, generously took me out to lunch and kindly introduced me to the women who were featured in my films. Not only that, but many of the women featured in my films were recruited at the last minute. For example, I stayed with a friend in Philadelphia who discerned that it was not her time to be interviewed, but she told the women she lived with and as a result, I got to interview them and they are in it. This happened again and again along the way. I have so much more to be grateful for than to be envious of. About 10 people took a look at it before I released it, giving me much-needed pointers and tips. A musician from Scotland composed the music for one of the films, scoring it from beginning to end. He did this for the love of doing it and did not ask for any money. People came from all directions to help bring these films to life.

I get worked up when I think about this other film (just as the Gospel reading depicts someone getting worked up over other people) because the film uses the personal stories of several people to thrust forth its own agenda.

This is where the Gospel reading really hit a chord with me. As I compare my project with theirs, I get annoyed and angry and, yes, even envious. But, this Gospel reading tells me to get over that and to focus on my own stuff.

When I shift my focus away from this other film to my own work, I can reaffirm my commitment to work ethically.

My agenda for these films is to tell the stories of women who serve the poor. When you make a documentary, you realize there is a great moral task at time. There is a great ethical factor in every decision you make. Imagine you have 1 hour of footage from an interview you did with someone. The person is comfortable with you and likes you, so they speak freely after a while, as though they are speaking right to you. The camera is situated so that it is off your shoulder a bit. That way, they can talk directly to you, which allows them to relax and be open an honest, while the camera is right there, recording it all in an unobtrusive way. When you sit down to take a look at the footage, you realize the power you have in your hands. You can snip together pieces of an interview to fit any agenda you have in mind. In one interview I did, the person, as part of our friendly banter at the beginning, told me about some of the foods she did not like in a particular place where she once lived. This is a simple example but it illustrates the decision that must be made. Do I want the 3-4 minutes of this woman to be marked by this comment? It was made in an innocuous way as we were making conversation. However, it can be used to such an effect that it makes the speaker look like a jerk who complains. Of course, I did not use that footage, but you see my point about how easy it is to be the puppeteer. Anyhow, these kind of ethical decisions are made every time you piece together an interview.

When I shift my focus from seeking accolades…

The last thing I want to talk about is recognition, accolades and awards. I was fortunate enough to attend the two film festivals my two films have been accepted to so far. It was so awesome to sit in the audience and hear peoples’ reactions. I enjoyed answering their questions afterwards and yes, accepting their compliments. I hope to do this a few more times with each of these films. I also know that accolades cannot be my main goal. I guess the main goal is to create something beautiful and to release it into the world. I guess we don’t really have control over how many people see something or how they react to it, including the people who review films and make selections for festivals. I wanted to make a film which documents the stories of religious women (aka nuns) who serve the poor. I wanted them to tell their own stories, in their own ways. Out of the 1 or 1.5 hours of footage I gathered from each woman, I selected the story each one told which brought out the most emotion in her. I even have a hunch that this is something I’m supposed to be doing for the next few years, collecting their stories and packaging them in such a way that the rest of us can hear them and be motivated to serve the poor as they have.

What does this have to do with St. Francis of Assisi?

tra1Well, every post, movie, book, meme and video I make has something to do with St. Francis of Assisi, sometimes overtly. In this blog post, I think that there is a place for Francis’ admonitions to not be too hung up on our things. That even means the things we create-one’s “brainchild” for example. I think we can be excited about the stuff we create and put a lot of work into but that ultimately we have to let it go and let others do with it what they will.

I don’t know if this blogpost makes sense to anybody else out there. If it does, I’d love to hear about your own experience with this stuff (being envious, getting over yourself, filmmaking). Thanks for taking the time to read it, in all its glorious imperfections, and yes, you can make the Garbage Flowers your screensaver if you’d like.