“Not Just Another Christian Film Festival”
Beginning October 29, the first-ever John Paul II International Film Festival brings a message of “faith through the storm” to Miami
John Paul II International Film Festival (official website)
A Christianity Today Movies article
By Steven D. Greydanus
At a glance, the festival selections include many titles that would be at home at, say, the Creation Film Festival or the Heartland Film Festival. There’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a moral parable about the friendship of two boys on opposite sides of a Nazi camp fence. Bandslam, a Walden/Summit musical-comedy-romance. Bella, an award-winning tale about a crisis pregnancy produced by Catholics but popular with Christians of all stripes.
But there’s also The 13th Day, a stylish Catholic-produced British indie about the 1917 Marian apparitions and “miracle of the sun” at Fatima, Portugal. And Duska, a documentary about Wanda Poltawska, a survivor of the Nazi Ravensbrueck camp and a lifelong confidante of Karol Wojtyla — later Pope John Paul II — who experienced a medically inexplicable recovery from cancer after then-Bishop Wojtyla wrote to ask the prayers of Padre Pio, a stigmatic priest (now a canonized Catholic saint) credited with a supernatural gift of healing.
Miami’s brand-new John Paul II International Film Festival (October 29–November 7) aspires to be a festival with a difference. Its organizers — social worker Rafael Anrrich, actress Laura Alvarado and filmmaker Frank William Brennan — are committed Catholics, and quotations from Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists pepper their website and their conversation. But they point to the late pope’s ecumenical appeal to Protestants — and his interreligious outreach to Jews and Muslims — as their inspiration for reaching out to filmmakers and audiences outside the Catholic fold.
I recently spoke via phone to Anrich, Alvarado and Brennan about their fledgling festival. Days before the festival opening, their mood was buoyant and positive — though at the end of the interview, answering the last question, Alvarado became emotional and her voice shook as she discussed their struggles and the challenges of living by faith.
It’s getting down to the wire for you guys. How’s the festival shaping up?
Laura Alvarado: It’s going very well. It’s been a very fast process. Usually film festivals take one and a half to two years to put together that first year — what it’s going to be about, getting sponsorships, getting the guests involved — and we’ve done it in nine months.
Frank Brennan: Our goal is to do not only the film festival — praise be to God if it goes through and if it’s a success — but we want to use the idea of creating a new evangelization. To do the John Paul II Music Festival, the John Paul II Art Festival, Theater Festival — all these different forms of art with the idea of the new evangelization which John Paul II was stressing for the laity to be involved in.
On your website you issue an invitation to all faiths — Catholic, Protestant and even non-Christian — but your festival is named after a Catholic pontiff. What kind of response are you hoping for from non-Catholics and what are you getting so far?
Alvarado: We’re getting a lot of positive feedback and a lot of energy from both the Protestant and the Jewish communities. Same thing from the Islamic community — they’re thrilled. It’s not so much that we’re just some Catholic kids putting together a festival as it really goes back to the pope, to John Paul II. [His message was that] human dignity and respect and love and forgiveness were all things that were granted to all people.
People relate to that, people react to that. We’re getting emails, letters, phone calls from all over the world. One of our sponsors is the Jewish community center here in Miami, the Dave & Mary Alper JCC, who are just ecstatic [about the festival] and are actually sponsoring us by giving us their theater for free.
Rafael Annrich: A lot of Catholics, unfortunately, don’t realize how much we share with our Protestant brothers and sisters. By really understanding the faith, we begin to realize that we all believe in Jesus, we all believe in God, and that’s what unites us together. There are obviously some basic, fundamental differences, but at the same time there’s so much more that we have in common — our love of the Bible, our love for Jesus.
Alvarado: A lot of the [Protestant] filmmakers understand that need to work together. And even filmmakers that aren’t Christian per se understand that there’s something going on right now with our culture, in which our kids are growing up so quickly and there’s a lot of violence and lack of human connection between people, and people want to bridge that, whether they’re religious or not.
There are a number of Christian film festivals out there right now. Why another one?
Brennan: Our title is John Paul II, but we are interfaith. We’re trying very hard to let people know that we’re interfaith. We’re not a Christian film festival. We’re not a Catholic film festival. We want to promote art. John Paul II said, “Within his artistic creativity man appears more than ever in the image of God.” You notice he says “man,” he doesn’t say “Christian.”
We’re trying to be not another Christian film festival, but an interfaith film festival that allows the art from these individual filmmakers to speak for themselves. If we can do that successfully, by the grace of God, I really believe we can get this message across, and be not just another Christian film festival.
Annrich: One of the things that inspires us about John Paul II is that prior to becoming pope, and even before becoming a priest, he was an actor. He used the stage through the Nazi invasion [as a member of the Rhapsodic Theater, a clandestine cultural resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Poland]. And that’s the same thing we’re trying to convey here through film, and eventually through music and other art forms as 7eventh Day Media continues, hopefully, on this great journey that we’ve been blessed to start here.
And yet, most of your films seem to be explicitly Christian productions. Would you be interested in showcasing films as diverse as, say, the 1995 Vatican film list, which includes the likes of Bergman and Fellini? Or the Tertio Millennio International Festival of Spiritual Cinema, co-sponsored by the Vatican, which has awarded its Bresson Prize to filmmakers like Theo Angelopoulos, Wim Wenders and Alexander Sokurov?
Alvarado: We do want to inspire Christian and religious filmmakers to use their art to express their faith. But we also want to include more people. Since this is our first year … unfortunately we did not get the response that we were expecting from, for example, Islamic filmmakers, Buddhist filmmakers, and even Jewish filmmakers. Not this year. Next year is a completely different story, I’m sure. And we’re praying. It takes a little more than nine months to get acknowledgment and get recognition that something like this exists.
Tell me about some of the difficulties you’ve faced.
Annrich: We’re lacking funds at the moment. When we started we were told, “During these times, you must be nuts to try to put together a festival.” Laura keeps shooting herself, because she came up with the title for this festival, “Faith Through the Storm,” and we’ve had a lot of storms.
Alvarado: Frank and I are getting married next year, and funds have been so low, a lot of the money going into the festival has been our savings for our wedding. We’re just going to have to have faith that taking some of this money to help God’s project come to life will bring some sort of reward in the future.
Faith is such a pretty word that we fail to realize that faith means trust. That’s what this festival has constantly been testing me with, trust: “How much do you trust Me?” It’s very easy to do God’s work when it’s on your terms: “Okay, well, I like to sing, so I’ll sing in the choir. That’s my way of giving to God.” That’s very easy to do.
I have had everything taken away during this festival. My freedom to have a job that would allow me to save up money for this wedding and for my future … I haven’t been able to do that. And it all just goes back to, “Okay, well, you trust Me, right? You trust that this is going to be for My glory? Then you have to stop worrying about it.” Faith through the storm.
It’s been that throughout the whole nine months. Nine months of a labor of love. And just like a mother goes through doubts and fears when she’s about to give birth to someone she doesn’t know — what’s it going to be? Will that person be successful? Are they going to flourish? Or will there be a lot of antagonism toward him or her?
We’ve never done anything like this. People ask us all the time, how many people do you expect? We don’t know. What kind of money are you expecting to make? We don’t know. If you had all the facts, there would be no faith. Especially with the recession and everything, we don’t know if it’s going to be a success. God’s going to provide anyway, and I have to trust that.