As some of you know, I am splitting my time between Los Angeles and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I founded and operate a free children’s day care center that serves impoverished, unschooled street kids. When I am in Haiti I send daily journal entries to my supporters. What follows in the journal entry that I sent today from California. It contains some breaking news about my ministry…and also about this blog.
Thursday, August 11, 2016
The Feast of St. Clare of Assisi
No More Filming
As everyone knows, the Santa Chiara Children’s Center is named in honor of St. Clare of Assisi. Her feast day is celebrated today. As a Franciscan ministry, this is a very special day for Pax et Bonum Communications. I’ve penned a booklet on the life and spirituality of St. Clare. I would be happy to send a PDF file of it to anyone interested in learning more about the saint who followed St. Francis more closely than anyone else has ever done. Of course, I devoted a substantial chunk of my book The Sun &Moon Over Assisi to St. Clare. A revised and updated edition of that award-winning book is available in both hardcover and paperback from Tau Publishing in Phoenix, Arizona. St. Clare’s feast day is a perfect day to announce something that has been percolating within me for more than a year, namely a new focus for my ministry.
For much of the past sixteen years, I’ve traveled the world with two cameras…a 35mm still camera and a small video camera. I filmed the homeless, undocumented migrants, and refugees. I filmed starving kids with bloated bellies. I’ve filmed people scavenging in garbage dumps. I filmed people on the verge of death from an array of dreadful illnesses. I filmed people with leprosy and people with AIDS. I filmed severely injured people, some missing arms or legs, after an earthquake. I’ve captured unimaginable suffering – and death – through the lenses of my cameras. I also captured stunning acts of compassion. I’ve filmed in India, Kenya, Uganda, Brazil, Peru, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, the Philippines, and Hungary. I’ve also filmed in three major cities in the United States (Philadelphia, Detroit, and Los Angeles).
My films and photography present excruciating suffering. The suffering I’ve filmed around the world was caused by severe, unjust, chronic poverty. I’ve been to the worst slums on earth, where I witnessed the deepest and most profound levels of poverty imaginable. In these horrific slums I discovered what radical dependency on God truly means. But entering into the depths of unjust poverty has been a long, lonely journey, during which I’ve struggled with periods of doubt and intense spiritual dryness. Too often, sadly, my longing for God has waned and I’ve thirsted for things other than God. But no matter what we do or don’t do, God always sticks with us.
After ditching a long career as a television producer and executive at all three networks in both Hollywood and New York, I’ve made more than twenty documentary films on domestic and global poverty. But in reality all those films made me…made me who I am today. Each film I made taught me something about myself, humanity, and God. Each film took me deeper into the heart of humanity, deeper into the heart of God. Making those films transformed me and gave me new life. The films taught me about the importance of letting go, of self-emptying. They taught me about compassion and mercy, which are the wings of human life which allow us to soar, allow us the reach the heights of human existence, allow us to enter the realm of angels and saints. While each film I made helped me become a better person, I’m still far from the being the person I was created to be, the person I want to be. If I can make another twenty films, I might become a decent human being…perhaps even a saint. But I don’t have the time, resources, or energy to make another twenty films. At the dawn of 2016, I woke up to the reality that I needed to make yet another radical change in my life: I needed to stop making new films. But I didn’t know if I had the courage and stamina to make another radical change in my life…and to commit myself fully to our new mission in Haiti.
I was recently invited to make a film in a notoriously bad prison in Bolivia where a group of young, lay Franciscans ministered. I was impressed by their ministry and intrigued by the possibility of filming in such an intensely visual place as an overcrowded prison. I wanted to do it…but I had to say no. I just could not afford to spend the time and energy on this worthwhile project because it would be a diversion from our new mission. I was also invited by a missionary priest in Papua New Guinea to film his work in the remote hamlets high in the mountains. He also travels by boat up rivers in a rain forest. In some of the places where he ministers, he sleeps under the altar. It was hard to say no to him…but I did.
This past weekend I told a friend I would not be making any more films. She said that filmmaking was in my blood and it would be impossible for me to stop. I offered a little clarification. I would no longer make new films focused on the work people are doing on behalf of the poor around the world, which had been the thrust of my ministry (as illustrated in our motto Putting the Power of Film at the Service of the Poor) since 2001. But everything changed after starting our outreach to the impoverished kids in Haiti by creating the Santa Chiara Children’s Center in May of 2015. During the last year, I realized I’d rather feed a child than film someone else feeding a child. Moreover, feeding a child was personally more rewarding than making a film. This summer it has become crystal clear to me that my sole focus needs to be Haiti…not filmmaking. So, I am putting down my video cameras.
However, Pax et Bonum Communications is still a film-based ministry. We have two dozen films to promote and to present at schools and churches across the United States. We will still be a prophetic voice speaking out on behalf of the poor and marginalized. Moreover, we will release new films…but these films will be culled from hundreds upon hundreds of hours of footage in our library, footage that was shot all over the world but never incorporated in any of our two dozen films. These new films will be created by our film editors, with just a minimum amount of input from me. We have already created a film set in Kenya; once the composer in Ireland has completed the music score, we will release the film. The editors are currently working on films set in Uganda and Haiti. These new films will not be condensed versions of previous films, nor will they contain any references to the ministries featured in the original films. They will be distinctly new films that essentially will be visual meditations on the plight of the poor along with new reflections on the need to be one with the poor. I have been dreaming of doing something like this for years, but never had the time, as I was always rushing off to some new hellhole to make a new film.
With the very recent release of our new film – A Place for Kids to Be Kids – that documents the creation and life of the Santa Chiara Children’s Center in Haiti, Pax et Bonum Communications will cease making new films for other ministries. I am very proud of the fact that my films have helped so many wonderful people and amazing ministries over the years, helping them raise funds and attract volunteers. But now, the thrust of my ministry must be on Haiti and also giving my “poverty and prayer” presentations. I will be spending more and more time in Haiti.
Of course, as with everything in life, there is a financial element to this decision. On average, it used to cost me between $30,000 and $50,000 to make a film. When I was a TV producer, we spent more than that on providing fresh bagels on the set each day. That cost did not include administrative expenses, such as my salary, office space rental, and a host of other costs. For each film I had to find between 15 and 25 sponsors, individuals, organizations, schools, or churches willing to donate $2,000 to help me produce a film. This was a truly exhaustive and wearisome part of the ministry. We never charged the people and ministries featured in the films for our work. We, in essence, donated a professionally produced film to them.
But with the Santa Chiara Children’s Center I had to face a new reality. Feeding and caring for up to 70 kids a day, including paying for medical expenses, as well has housing 23 kids a night, was far more costly than making two films a year. To do both was not only a physical impossibility but also financially impossible. Doing both was not an option. For me it was an easy call: Santa Chiara was more important than making another film.
But there is more to this decision than just money. To make a film takes prolonged, dedicated attention. For instance, the film I made in Honduras in 2014 for the Medical Missionaries of Mary (nuns who are doctors and nurses) took about six full months of concentrated effort. I was only in Honduras for ten days…the rest of the time was spent writing and editing. We did not charge the good sisters one penny for all the production costs, including my plane fare. When the film (Rooted in Love) was completed and released, we sold 200 DVD’s of the film to the sisters at practically what it cost us to manufacture the DVD’s. Beyond those 200 units of the film, we sold only 22 films to individuals. For what it is worth, I think Rooted in Love is one of the best films I ever made. It is really beautiful.
I used to joke that “I made films no one wants to watch with money I don’t have.” Over the last 15 years I’ve endured withering criticisms over the length of the films. In our society, which is becoming more and more fast-paced, people simply do not have the time to watch feature-length documentaries. Everything needs to be reduced to a soundbite or bumper sticker. As a society we are showing signs of widespread attention deficit disorder. Writing has become tweeting. My films tried to not only tell the heroic stories of people living the self-emptying love of Christ by giving themselves away, the films also presented the theological underpinnings of the social dimensions of the gospel that stressed the being one with the poor and exemplifying the common good. I was not making simple, ten-minute promotional films. I was making serious films about a very serious subject: people literally dying from hunger and extreme poverty. The films contained spiritual reflections which hoped to connect the plight of the poor with the centrality of the message of Jesus. I often heard the films were either too hard to watch or too preachy.
103 people receive my daily Haitian Journals. Many readers have commented (and these are committed donors) that when they open a pdf file and see an entry is 10 or 12 pages long they do not open it…rather, they hope to read it later when they had time. The truth is that most of the longer journal entries featured photographs that comprised about 50% of the pages. The point I am making is that we are all squeezed for time.
For me, at my age, I need to spend my time wisely…which means I need to spend more time in Haiti and not waste my precious time trying to make a new film. Again, Pax et Bonum Communications will hopefully produce and release a series of films culled from a mountain of unused footage that I shot all over the world. These will not be fundraising films for a worthy organization. They will be visual meditations on the plight of the poor and clarion calls for each us in our own individual way to try to relieve the suffering we encounter in our communities and in our daily life.
I might also add, that I will only be putting down my video camera. I still intend to use my still camera to document life in Haiti and inside the Santa Chiara Children’s Center. These photographs will be sprinkled throughout the journals and used elsewhere, including our two webs sites.
One more thing. For about ten years I have been posting blogs on Word Press. Perhaps about 200 people subscribe. This has been a herculean effort. In recent months, I have posted very few blogs, as the daily journals from Haiti consumed all my time and energy. I have decided to suspend writing and posting new blogs. Essentially, the blog will be on hiatus. I will leave it up for readers who want to explore years’ worth of postings, most of which are very short.
A final word about money. I will still need to raise funds to make the films based on material that has already been produced. The cost of these “regenerated” films is far less than making a film from scratch in some far off location. I have a semi-retired editor working just three days a week on these One Human Family films. A second editor, who is college professor, works one day a week. Their meager salaries essentially comprise the cost of making the films. The thrust of my fundraising efforts will be geared to maintaining the Santa Chiara Children’s Center which is my top priority. Donors have the option of supporting our work in Haiti or supporting our efforts at making new films out of old material.
I apologize for the length of this epistle. If I had more time it would have been shorter. I want to end by urging everyone to visit the Pax et Bonum web site (www.PaxEtBonumComm.org) and check out the page listing all our films. It would be helpful if you ordered two or three of the older films, such as Endless Exodus and Room at the Inn, or one of our new films, such as Rooted in Love or The Smile of a Sick Child. Give some away to friends or family. All these films dramatically illustrate Catholic social justice teaching…and truly reflect Pope Francis’ impassioned call for universal mercy. It is a shame that these films are sitting in boxes in a storage unit…as we, as a ministry, had absolutely no marketing tools or expertise. You can be our sales rep.
I am very happy to announce on this special day that within a week we will launch a web site dedicated to the Santa Chiara Children’s Center: http://www.SantaChiaraCC.org I hope you can take a few minutes to visit the website and perhaps forward it on to your friends and neighbors. The new website will make it easy to make donations directly to Santa Chiara.