Few films this year have left me feeling more elated and hopeful than Rebecca Parrish’s sublime documentary, “Radical Grace.” It follows three key members of the “Nuns on the Bus” movement—Sister Simone Campbell, Sister Chris Schenk and Sister Jean Hughes—as they rebel against a Vatican-ordered censure by becoming involved in social activism. When I discovered the movie at this year’s AFI Docs fest, I hailed it as “one of the year’s best films,” and was overjoyed to see it win the Chicago Award during last month’s Chicago International Film Festival (the film is a co-production of The Kindling Group and Parrish’s own company, Interchange Productions).
There are some striking parallels between this project and Parrish’s interactive web documentary and engagement campaign, Protect Our Defenders, which shared stories of sexual assault survivors in the military, while calling for vital reforms in the justice system. “Both projects involve these large, intractable institutions—the military and the Catholic Church—while focusing on the people who have targeted those systems,” Parrish told me. “They are speaking truth to power.”
With the week-long run of “Radical Grace” at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center set to kick off this Friday, Parrish spoke with me about chronicling the sisters’ journey, her thoughts regarding Pope Francis and how Kartemquin Films shaped her approach to moviemaking.
When did you first become interested in issues of social justice?
I think it’s been with me for my whole life, as far as I can remember. It’s definitely evolved over time. My parents are socially active. My mom was a democratic campaign strategist, so she was very much in party politics and I was a little turned off from all that. In high school, I was the northern California youth coordinator for Human Rights Watch. We organized marches and in college, I was also involved in a lot of activism. After college, I realized that a lot of the organizing that we did was hurt by some of the interpersonal dynamics. There was a certain competitiveness among activists who would put people down for not being perfectly on point.
In college, I took a class called Socially Engaged Buddhism, and I got really interested in the idea of how you could approach social justice work as a spiritual practice. That seemed to offer one type of antidote to some of the dynamics that I was seeing, and when I was introduced to the sisters, I realized that they embodied another example of this idea. I don’t even think that they’re consciously trying to be an example to anyone. For them, on a personal level, it’s about living in alignment with their values. If they believe that something is the right thing to do, they’re going to do it. All of them would say that they are modeling their behavior after what Jesus did, and being with the people who are marginalized. Chris often quotes a phrase from the Bible, “On earth as it is in heaven,” and for her, that means she manifests God’s love by taking care of others and treating them well.
What drove you to spend five years making this film?
Spreading the word was certainly part of what drew me to this story, but the other part was simply that I wanted to be around the sisters. I wanted them to rub off on me. I identify as an agnostic and I identify as a seeker. Spirituality is very important to me, but I don’t identify spirituality as something that is exclusively religious. It’s just that sense of groundedness and interconnection and love and peace—feeling those things and embodying those things. I’m drawn to anything that’s about those principles, and I’m particularly drawn in when spirituality is tied into social justice and it’s not just about cultivating that for yourself in a separate way. It’s about cultivating it more broadly and with each other.
For a person like me who is agnostic and doesn’t necessarily believe in a higher power, I feel like the experiences I’ve had that felt spiritual have been in relation to other people, and particularly involve breaking down some of the oppressive barriers that we impose on ourselves. That’s the deepest spiritual experience I’ve ever had. I like that the sisters find God and the divine in their work for social change, and I find something like that too in my own work. We’re just coming at it from different angles.
How did you acquire the involvement of the sisters?
A friend of mine had worked with a group of sisters to start a school at St. Leonard’s Ministries, a high school equivalency program for people coming out of the prison system. This friend is an atheist and a queer activist. I had no exposure to nuns before I had done this project. All my images of nuns were stereotypes. It’s funny how when you see news articles about American nuns, they show pictures of nuns in habits. The sisters that they’re writing about are clearly not those sisters, that’s just their stock image. When I found out that my friend had worked with nuns, I was like, “How could you be friends with them? Wouldn’t they be uncool with the fact that you’re a gay atheist?” Then I met Sister Jean and she exploded all of my stereotypes.
My friend felt that the sisters’ story needed to be told, and I became interested in their story as well because of their spiritual activism. Our meetings with Jean started out as an on-camera research conversation. We had a great discussion and I asked Jean for names of other sisters to contact. Every time we met or spoke with a sister, we would ask her for more names of other sisters, while gauging whether they would be willing to participate in this project, and whether their work had a narrative arc to it. A lot of the sisters we talked to would say these amazing things on the phone but were not willing to say them publicly, because it was kind of a scary time. Investigations were going on, so the three main women that we ended up with were the ones willing to play a public role.
Have the progressive views of Pope Francis helped their cause?
Pope Francis is very progressive and is saying exciting things on a lot of fronts about economic justice and environmental justice. He’s definitely not as shut down as Pope Benedict was, and there’s not the culture of fear that there used to be in the church. On the other hand, he still believes that women cannot be priests and he sees a more traditional gender role for women, so this film’s message is still as relevant as ever. Pope Francis is like, “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” while Pope Benedict preached, “Hate the sin and the sinner.” [laughs] There’s a national organization based in Chicago called Call To Action that does social justice work and organizes Catholics to challenge injustices in the church. They’re partnering with the film, and one of the things that we’ve been talking about with them is how can we leverage the film for some of their campaigns.
We’ve discussed issues of women’s inequality in the church, as well as the recent firings of church workers. These people are tied to a certain ministry of the church, work at a food pantry associated with the church or work at a Catholic school, and they are being fired because they are gay and have married their partner. People may have known about their partner, but the fact that they’ve made the relationship official and public is unacceptable, since it goes against church teaching. That’s the argument, and it’s happening all over the country. It’s the new wave of discrimination spurred by the legalization of gay marriage. The same sort of persecution is happening to the sisters, just in a different part of the church. The reason why the church hierarchy came down on the nuns was because they’re something that they can target. They can’t tell everyday Catholics what to do, but they can target a specific group and bring disciplinary action against them.
Sister Jean is such an endearing presence in the film. I love how she insists on holding the door for people, even when she’s walking with a cane.
I don’t think she was holding the door to be nice, she was trying to hold her ground as if to say, “I can do this for myself.” Jean’s an amazing person. When we do our run at the Siskel Center, we’re going to have different panels every night with themes, and one of them is going to be in honor of Jean. I’m so excited about that. She’s from Chicago, so a lot of her people are here. I don’t even know what to say about her. She’s just so real. There was no filter with her, and fear never stopped her. There was never a barrier in how she connected with people. She was so genuinely good. As a filmmaker, it’s always my goal to have my subjects be more involved in what they’re doing, and that what they’re doing is much more of a priority than being concerned with the fact that they’re being filmed. With Jean, it was so easy. The guys that she was working with were always her priority, much more so than these people following her with a camera.
She’s also surprisingly open about her own doubts, and how she’s found herself questioning her own faith.
I’ve had other sisters come up and say, “I’ve felt just like Jean at times.” They feel like she’s vocalized something for them that they can’t vocalize themselves.
Part of what makes the film so compelling is your inclusion of countless small human moments that bring a great deal of texture to your subjects.
That’s everything. That’s what makes a story a story and not an essay. That’s what it’s all about for me—it’s that connection, that sense of a real relationship with people. Otherwise, it’s kind of dry. Obviously, it’s a balancing act because the more footage you have, the more you’ve got to deal with in post. Capturing those human moments requires a vérité approach because you don’t know when they’re going to happen. You can’t anticipate them, so you’ve got to film a lot to get them. We had about 300 hours of footage and we whittled it down to 75 minutes. It was usually a two-person crew, a camera person and a sound person. Oftentimes I was the camera person. Sometimes we’d have a crew of three people. Four would be very big for us.
The editing process was super-collaborative, and there were a lot of us involved in it. Towards the end, I came in and did a lot of editing, primarily because of a lack of funds, so I kind of dug in there at the end. Danny Alpert from the Kindling Group, who’s an executive producer on this project, had a huge role in story construction. When I was in the editor role, I needed him to give me feedback, and he’s very good at tightening things.
The score by Heather McIntosh finds just the right tone for the piece.
Oh yeah, she’s a genius. I’m so privileged to have had her come in. Amy Scott, who used to be a Chicago-based editor/documentarian, is good friends with Danny, and when we were trying to find composers, he asked Amy for ideas, and she knew Heather. I felt like this film shouldn’t have the typical stock soundtrack. We were looking for a blend of genres—indie rock and orchestral tones utilizing church instruments like organs and harps. Heather had the perfect skill set. After our rough cut was submitted to Hot Docs and accepted, we had two months to raise the money that we needed to finish the movie. So Heather worked on an extremely tight deadline, and there were nights where she didn’t sleep, but she was really connected to the material.
The approach to the score reflects a major theme of the film, that dichotomy between modern ideas and ancient traditions.
That’s awesome, and I think we tried to show that in many ways. The sisters’ faith values come from a very ancient institution and belief system, yet they’re applying it in the modern world, and they’re very connected with real people. The title “Radical Grace” has that same dichotomy. There’s an organization called Groundswell that works with faith leaders on social justice issues. When they were fundraising, they shared our trailer with their constituency, and they said, “The [sisters] look like your grandmother, but that’s their superhero disguise,” and I loved that. If you look at the sisters, you might make one assumption about what their belief system is, but when you get to know them, you receive an entirely different picture.
Since many sisters don’t wear habits anymore, they often wear a pin or necklace displaying a cross, and it’s usually a symbol of their order. In our title designs, we have the women’s symbol attached to the cross, which again visualizes that same juxtaposition. Before making this project, if I saw someone wearing one of those necklaces or pins, I would think that they were conservative and that if they knew me, they might judge me. After meeting these nuns, I’ve learned not to make an assumption about people simply because they identify strongly with their Christian faith. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they hold stereotypical conservative values.
I found it fitting that Susan Sarandon served as an executive producer on the project, considering her Oscar-winning portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking.”
She was raised Catholic and went to Catholic University of America, which is the only college in the United States that is pontifical. She also has a nephew who had some run-ins with his Catholic school. But with “Dead Man Walking,” she was the person who had gotten that film made. She had read Sister Helen’s biography, and she thought that it needed to be a film. Helen was onset the whole time and the two of them have a really strong relationship. Through Helen, Susan now has a connection to the world of the sisters. We came to her with the project. The Fledgling Fund funds social impact campaigns for documentary films, and they also just launched a lab where film teams participate. We were in the lab and one of the other filmmakers there had a connection to someone in Susan’s team.
I was struck by how the vast majority of great films I saw at this year’s AFI Docs fest were directed by women.
I’ve heard that the documentary realm is more accessible to women, and I think that a big part of the reason is that costs are lower, at least up front. So just on an economic level, it’s more accessible. I would say that the biggest obstacle for me, as a woman, is that the equipment is built for men. [laughs] The camera is made for someone with broader shoulders. There was a JVC shoulder mount camera that’s old and had a lot of technical problems but the build of it fit on my body. It was so great.
How has your work at Kartemquin Films influenced your approach to this project?
Gordon Quinn from Kartemquin has been a mentor to me for a long time. I was an intern at Kartemquin in 2007 right after college. I had seen a ton of Kartemquin films and definitely the vérité approach that I utilize is very much something that I learned through those films. I talked to Gordon a lot and had a lot of meetings with him during the process, just asking him for advice. When we started sharing the film with our peers, there were a lot of Kartemquin people who gave us feedback, such as David Simpson and Justine Nagan. The Chicago film community was a very valuable part of the feedback process. These people at Kartemquin don’t have time to watch other people’s films, and yet they’ll find a way to do it, particularly for former interns. They’ll really make that extra effort, especially Gordon. He’s super-available. Someone called him a “documentary Buddha” and I think that’s true, because of his ethics, which are so stellar.
What I love about the sisters is how they’re working toward the betterment of the human family, transcending ideological boundaries with their message of equality.
Yeah, that reflects our message of the social impact campaign for the film too. There are two components to the campaign. One component is this idea of living a calling. Many of us are called to do good. We see things that need to happen and we want to act, but life gets in the way. We focus on our own narrow daily needs and struggles. How do you cut through that to find your calling? It could be from a higher power, though I think of it as an inner calling. The other aspect of the campaign is reclaiming spirituality and faith as something that can be tied to social justice values and into inclusion and love and taking care of others as opposed to judging them.
There’s a judgmental version of faith that oftentimes is hateful and has a lot of certainty to it. It shows up in the public discourse more often than the sisters’ version of faith, which is a lot more open and exploratory and hopeful. Faith has a really powerful role in society, and great change can occur if faith can be reclaimed from the religious right. The majority of Catholics in the United States do not agree with the bishops, yet the bishops have all of this political power. They’re kind of a lobby. A big reason they have power is because they’re supposed to represent a huge sector of the electorate, but that sector is not in alignment with them. Our goal with the campaign is to urge those Catholics to speak their mind.
As a former Catholic myself, these women have given me hope.
That’s a huge part of why they were so big. People were like, “Thank you, I needed this.” Your church should be a place that is nourishing and uplifting, not hurtful and judgmental. People are craving the sisters’ vision of faith.
“Radical Grace” screens from Friday, November 6th, through Thursday, November 12th, at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Rebecca Parrish, producers Nicole Bernardi-Reis and Danny Alpert, and Sister Chris Schenk will be present for various screenings during the run. Click here for tickets and showtimes, and for more information on the film, visit its official site.