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!

 

 

 

 

 

9/11 Scared the Shit out of Us

I teach English as a Second Language.

Well, that’s not actually true.

Yeah, that’s not entirely true. It is not just me. There are several of us who go every week: Raul who is 84 and might just be the Dos Equis “World’s Most Interesting Man” who has been part of English Conversation Hour for 17 years. There’s also my friend Mijin who volunteers alongside us. She’s a professional English teacher in her own country and she recently aced an English competency exam. There’s also Lisa, a housewife from Louisiana who is there most weeks.

I don’t teach it-it is a conversation hour so we sit in a circle and talk about different stuff from week to week. Sometimes one person dominates, sometimes we break up into small groups, sometimes we pair up and sometimes everybody takes a turn to talk.

It is not a second language. Most of the participants grew up speaking one language at home, another language in school and maybe even some additional ones before taking on English. My own grandma grew up speaking only German at home. She didn’t learn English until she went to kindergarten. Eventually, everybody hated Germans so she squished the language far down & to this day does not remember a word of it. What about your grandparents? Or theirs? Who hated them when they first got to the U.S. If your ancestors are Catholic, that’s an easy one-I can give you a whole list of everyone who hated ’em.

This past week at English Conversation Hour, I looked around the room and there were people who once lived in Iran, Dominican Republic, Columbia, California and Saudi Arabia. Now, we all find ourselves in Charlotte, NC either by choice or circumstance. I did not choose to live here but my husband’s job has brought us here. I share that in common with several people in the room.  We talked about our upcoming weekends, our families and methods we’ve found useful for taking on new languages (my personal fave is to use the free app DuoLingo. I learned Italian in 8 months last year, inspired by the progress I’ve seen in English learners).

Like a lot of my fellow Americans, certain images come to mind when I hear the word “Iran” or when I see a woman with a hijab (headscarf). Similar images come to mind when I heard the word “Beirut” or hear Arabic spoken. 9/11 scared the shit out of us. I’m going to say that plain and simple. I was a campus minster at the time and so grateful we had daily Mass that day on campus. It was packed. The priest read from the liturgy meant to be read “In times of national crisis.” He cried during it and the floodgates opened with lots of scared people crying our eyes out. I spent the night next door to my house, sleeping in the chapel of the Franciscan and SSJ sisters who lived next to me. I literally showed up with my sleeping bag and pillow, not wanting to sleep alone in my apartment that night.  We’d never thought much about Islam at that point. But, since 9/11 scared all of us, it has been hard to separate 9/11 from Islam and Islam from 9/11-like the red and white components of a candy cane, they seem twinned in our minds.

Also twinned in our minds are images of Muslims and terrorists. The point of terrorism is to terrorize people and their hope is to have ramifications beyond the individual actions that they do. When the fear/terror of terrorism begins to be invoked by our own leaders to terrorize us, the bad guys have won. Their point has been made. Their branding has taken hold and now they sit back and relax while others continually scare us. I’ve read that more people are accidentally killed by toddlers than terrorists in the U.S. in a given year, yet we’re all paranoid now, aren’t we?

Just sitting around a room together in Charlotte, talking about simple things like family and travel and days off, we realize we have more in common than we have differences. We worry about the same categories of stuff, we like good food, music has a place in our lives, we want what is best for our loved ones. If you wonder where immigrants come from, sometimes it is as easy as looking at some recent history of the U.S. being involved in something in their home country. Do you know anyone who emigrated from Vietnam in the 70s, 80s or 90s? Or from Iraq in the 90s or 2000s?  If so, guess what, they were most likely “on our side” during whatever was going on over there at the time. That’s why they have the preferential status of refugee.

I’m taking a basic filmmaking class at the local community college this semester. Our instructor was teaching us about lenses and filters, f stop settings, glare and reflections tr-1when he told us that the widest range of skin tone from the lightest to the darkest skin is really just a few shades apart in the grand scheme of the color wheel and its zillions of colors. I’ve seen photos on facebook of Franciscan friends holding a quote from Jesus, “I was a stranger…” I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to sit in a room of adults who all have a common goal of working on a new language together. I’ve also been able to experience being a stranger in many countries over the course of my travels (to 23 countries) where I was one of few Christians or few Catholics (heck, that’s the place I grew up in the NC mountains), few white people, few Americans, few English speakers, etc. I just ask you to remember that once upon a time, your grandparents or great grandparents were reviled. Businesses had signs up to warn Irish or Italians not to bother coming in. I’m going to continue going back to spend an hour a week with English conversation hour and I hope people continue to come, from all over the world to sit in a circle and talk about simple things. Sometimes we have little pot lucks and get to sample chocolate from Italy or a casserole from Columbia. Although I may have been inundated with negativity associated with the word “Iran” or with negativity about a woman who wears a headscarf, when I actually sit next to someone from Iran or someone with that head covering, we talk and listen, remembering that just like, in the grand scheme of the colorwheel, where our skin tones are not that different, neither are the things we hold dear: our husbands, our families, their well-being, our friendships and even stuff like whether the app called Mango really is better than the one called DuoLingo when it comes to learning another language. (I recommend DuoLing0.)

God bless America.

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.

Waiting for Test Results (and Marshmallows)

You know that feeling of waiting for something?  Think about when you or a loved one was waiting to find out how someone did on an SAT, a blood test or the Bar Exam. It can be awful, can’t it?  In that strange time span of hours, weeks or months, you wonder what has happened. The funny thing is that the facts and reality are already there and have been in place for some amount of time. The test is over, finito, done.  It is like celebrating your 50th birthday. Friend, at your 50th birthday party, you’ve already just spent a year working toward being 50!

49 year olds may want to take a short break here while they realize they are already in their 50th year.

In the case of waiting to hear the results of something, what you are waiting for is the information to be interpreted and shared with you. In the case of medical test results, The Funny Business is already at work, networking, getting business cards and making itself known (to your cells, organs, bloodstream or what have you). Or, maybe The Funny Business is chilling and laying or low or maybe has “left the building” altogether. You are among the last to know as the lab techs who tested it, P.A. who interpreted it and nurse who calls you all know these facts before you do. If they get them too close to 4:55pm and traffic can be nuts outside their building, forget about it, you’re not finding out until tomorrow.

Waiting in times like this can be hard, even for people of faith. When we claim to be people of faith, we like to toss about keywords like trust and hope.  We can whip out a ttgreeting card to a troubled friend quicker than you can say “where are the stamps, honey?” We can post memes on Facebook with the cheesiest platitudes that we wouldn’t dare use in real life but there’s a kitten and it sounds positive and our friend (or facebook friend) is hurting so we go for it. The hard part about being a person of faith is when you actually have to live it out and the rubber meets the road. The hardest part of chastity is when you encounter someone and have actually fallen head over heels in love with them. The hardest part of serving the poor is when there’s one right in front of you and she annoys you, makes bad decisions, approaches you the wrong way or is rude to you. These ideas of trust and hope (and everything else we claim to hold dear) have to be real to us in these absolutely real moments of our lives otherwise, we are just poking our sticks in the fire without taking the risk of putting a marshmallow on one. Yeah, most marshmallows come ttout burnt and taste utterly disgusting but if we’re too afraid of how they might come out to risk it, we will just spend the evening fruitlessly poking at coals and yes, maybe accepting a square off the Hershey’s bar and a few squares of Graham crackers but WHO ARE YOU KIDDING? Those cold, timid things (cold squares of chocolate and graham crackerness) are no match for the sugary goodness of a hot, dangerous, messy s’more. Let’s back up here. The point is that real life happens sometimes, even when it seems like we are doing all the right things and living the right way and when these moments hit us, we get to see for ourselves how much we believe in these otherwise transcendent, elusive concepts like faith and trust and hope. If you failed the driver’s test, then what? You’ll schedule another 4 hour day at the DMV to go again. If you find out you failed the Bar Exam, then what? You’ll sell all your law school books on ebay and do what you always wanted to do-go on walkabout for a year ( I’m guessing here). If you fail the blood test, then what? Well, first come the stages of grief, each coupled with a microbrew of your choice, and with the awesome part where you find out what faith, hope and trust mean when its time for you to actually rely on them.

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

St. Clare’s big thing is that she insisted on living in a way that meant her monastery did not have the usual failsafe measures in place. She insisted on living out poverty not for its own sake but because it meant relying on God to see them through. Of course, one of the ways God works is by moving the hearts of regular people like you and me to give people like St. Clare and her sisters food, blankets and elbow grease when the roof starts to leak. She didn’t set up a fund with a cool logo, she didn’t accept dowries from those who joined her and she insisted that the monastery have only enough land to grow food for themselves rather than owning lots of land and becoming landladies to the local people who would then farm the land. Her mettle was tested every day and she wanted it that way. Oh, mettle, that’s a cool word. Here are some synonyms: spirit, fortitude, strength of character, moral fiber, steel, determination, resolve, resolution, backbone, grit, true grit, courage, courageousness, bravery, valor, fearlessness, daring and spunk. If you’re afraid of your marshmallow turning out bad and that keeps you from roasting one, you’re missing your spunk, kid. Get it back.