Band of Sisters
By Associate Mary Fishman
BAND OF SISTERS is a new documentary (finished in May 2012) about Catholic sisters and their work for social justice after Vatican II. The film is interested in the remarkable transformation U.S. sisters made in the past 50 years in their lifestyles, ministries, and spirituality, and in their understanding of their role as women religious in the world. The world premiere of BAND OF SISTERS at the renowned Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago is just a few days away, but I still can’t believe that I am the producer and director of this film, or any film.
I had thought about making movies since I was a teenager, at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago. In my senior year English class, we did a study of media and part of that was a unit on film. From that time on I thought if ever I could swing it, filmmaking would be my ideal career.
Instead of studying film in college though, I studied architecture, and loved that too. For ten years after graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in architecture and French, I was an architect in Chicago, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Strasbourg, France. I also got a master’s degree in urban planning at UCLA during that time, which was a period where I was really searching for a way to contribute to the world.
I then returned to Chicago to be with my mother and the rest of my family, and worked for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development in historic preservation and zoning for most of the next ten years. It was a great place to work, and boy did I learn a lot! But after a while that nagging feeling came back, that I really wasn’t doing what I was meant to do, day in and day out, and that there was something more that I could contribute for the common good.
I started taking night and weekend classes in film. I was uncertain about whether I could make a go of it, or if this among all the other choices I was batting around – affordable housing developer, restaurant owner, landscaper – was the way to go. Then I took this class where we actually got to handle film, editing by taping pieces of film together – the way movies used to be made before everything became digital. The teacher just gave us footage in random order and our exercise was to “cut” it together in the way we thought best told a story. The first time I ran my story through, on this hand-cranked viewer, I felt a thrill of recognition: I loved this! There was never any doubt in my mind after that that I was going to make films.
That was in 2002. Documentary filmmaking is not for the impatient, to be sure. It must have been that year that my co-producer and sister Pat Fishman, M.D. (who with me became a Mercy Associate in 2011) handed me a book called “Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives” by David Snowdon. It was a great book. It made the sisters come alive as warm, extremely generous, and funny. I had never had a nun as a friend, and had had no contact with any sisters since high school. Suddenly, I was seeing sisters as real people, with families like mine, and disappointments, and wonderful achievements in their careers. Patty said “you should do a movie about this” and so I started researching the 300-year history of sisters in the United States.
I was amazed at what I found, at the institutions that sisters built, the risks they took, and the sheer numbers of people whose lives they made better through education, health care and social services. I was equally surprised at the progressive thinking of so many sisters today, and at their expertise in advocating for social justice and human rights. The more I read, the angrier I became at the pervasive negative stereotyping of nuns in popular culture. That’s one of the things that motivated me to make this film. I wanted to help sisters get the credit and respect they deserve for all they have given to the United States and to the world.
At first the film was going to be historical, 300 years of history! Thankfully I got the idea to narrow the focus to sisters and their work for social justice after Vatican II when I was applying for a grant that was geared toward social activism. Once I made that decision, I started meeting the right sisters for the project.
Through a friend whose aunt is a Monroe IHM, I got introduced to Nancy Sylvester, IHM, a former national director of NETWORK and former head of LCWR. Nancy then brought in three of her friends, Margaret Galiardi, OP, Carol Coston, OP, and Mary Daniel Turner, SND, to be a focus group through a couple of conference calls, helping me set the scope and direction of the project early on. Among many wonderful observations about the work of U.S. women religious for social justice over the past 50 years, they stressed the idea that contemplation is essential in a life of activism.
This group also introduced me to the universe story, and how it was impacting the spirituality and mission of many women’s congregations. My world view and my understanding of our role as humans has been evolving ever since. I hope that viewers of BAND OF SISTERS will be as impressed as I am with the many doors that are opened, and the questions that arise, once one starts to look at scripture, the Christian story, and the natural world in the context of the universe story.
Around the same time I was talking with my focus group, I met Pat Murphy, RSM, and JoAnn Persch, RSM, through our parish’s new social justice committee. I was looking for a story that I could follow for a few years, and luckily their story of trying to get into the Broadview Detention Center outside of O’Hare airport where people were being deported, and the McHenry County Jail where immigrant detainees were being held, was just starting to unfold. I knew from talks with my advisor, David Simpson, a very talented documentary filmmaker, and from the many documentaries I watched, that the key to changing people’s hearts and minds is a story that draws them in emotionally, and characters with whom they connect.
For four years I followed Pat and JoAnn in their quest for justice for immigrant detainees. I think their compelling story will help a lot of people understand how shamefully our political and justice systems are treating our sisters and brothers from other countries, and how hard it is to change these systems- but that change can happen through prayer, community, nonviolent and strategic activism, and dogged persistence.
In making the film I traveled to 9 states and spent time with about 30 sisters in wonderful, deep conversations. Each locale, interview and shoot was memorable. I felt so lucky to be in the company of women who have led such dynamic lives and whose words still give me much to consider. In all we shot about 100 hours of footage, and gathered approximately 50 hours of archival footage and hundreds of archival photos to be edited into an 88 minute film. I cannot thank my editor Bernadine Colish enough for her fantastic work in putting the story together and making it flow, and in helping distill and portray the important themes and ideas in the film.
How wonderful the timing of the film’s release has turned out to be! I began seriously working on the film in 2004, and started filming in June, 2007. Even then, 2 years before the Apostolic Visitation and the LCWR investigation were announced, the conflict between U.S. women religious and the church hierarchy (over the role of women in the church, the rights and intrinsic goodness of gay and lesbian persons, the primacy of one’s conscience in making moral decisions, etc.) was a situation I was well aware of and wanted to address somehow in the film. But I never wanted to let the conflict take over. Often documentaries start with a conflict to pull people in, but for me, the heart of the story was in who the sisters are today and how they got here from where they were before Vatican II.
The transformation of U.S. sisters since Vatican II is deeply inspirational, and their work is a model for the rest of us to follow. In BAND OF SISTERS I wanted to focus on the marvelous work that the sisters are doing so there would be a record of it, and so that we might learn from it and join in the work. One of the lessons of Vatican II is that all are called to the same holiness. It is up to all of us to bring justice and goodness into the world. I hope that this message comes out clearly in the film. And as a movie-lover, I hope that people will really enjoy the movie!