Ten participants joined Sr. Rose and I for a weekend full of movies, prayer, reflection, and fellowship. The annual National Film Retreat was held on July 27-29, 2018 at the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. The theme for this weekend was The Cry for Justice. It gave all of us the opportunity to consider the topic of social justice from multiple angles and perspectives. All the films were chosen to bring to the participants’ consciousness issues that may not be as well-known or spoken of in society, such as, health care for those over 55, the hidden homeless who live in motels, and those who demand our justice system to respond to hideous crimes. Through the practice of cinema divina, the participants entered into the films and the Scriptures in a spirit of prayer and reflection.
Social justice helps us to reflect on our responsibilities as members of a society. In our highly individualistic culture, consideration of the poor and vulnerable can stir our hearts and spur us to action on their behalf. Why? Because God calls us to care for one another and uphold the dignity of every human being. Catholic social teaching holds this as the first principle and the guiding commandment of all that we do as a society. Yet, in many cases, people are often marginalized and forced to the peripheries of social interaction. For whatever reason, they find themselves in economic ruts or victims of the endless red tape of government bureaucracies.
We began by watching the British film, I, Daniel Blake, a heartrending story of a 56-year-old man who, due to a recent heart attack, cannot return to work until his doctor gives approval. In the meantime, he seeks government assistance in order to survive but finds himself in a bureaucratic black hole. In the meantime he offers his assistance to a hard-working young single mother who also cannot cut a break to make it in society. It’s a sad story we can all relate to in some way realizing that the systems to help those in need are broken themselves and frustrating to navigate.
The second film screened was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. While this movie is tough in language and violence, it speaks to a profound sense of redemption and grace that comes out of darkness and sin. It is very Flannery O’Connor-like. The filmmaker purposefully places her book A Good Man is Hard to Find in the hands of the advertising agent who sells the billboard ads to Mildred Hayes, the mother of a young woman who was raped and murdered. She seeks justice from the local law enforcement for her daughter whose case has gone unsolved. Her simple but controversial billboards stir up mixed feelings and discussions around town. Through all her pain and struggle Mildred seeks closure for the regret she feels over her relationship with her daughter. Officer Dixon, who is a cocky and anger-laden young man, loses his badge when a new chief of police comes into the station, but reconsiders his life when he reads a letter left him by Chief Willoughby before he dies. Both he and Mildred seek to find the culprit. This film challenges one to dig deep into the messiness of humanity to discover grace at work and to question our understanding of justice.
The third film, “The Heart of Nuba,” is a documentary about Doctor Tom Catena, a New York native who went to the Nuba mountains in South Sudan to care for patients at the Mother of Mercy Hospital. He is the only doctor for a million people. A Brown University graduate and football star went to Africa to find meaning for his own life but also to be of service to those less fortunate. His life is fully dedicated to these people. Beginning with morning prayer and rosary in the compound chapel, he works twelve hour days (and on call 24/7) ministering to those who come to the hospital with multiple ailments including those injured in the bombing of the Nuba mountains by the Sudan’s own government who desires the mineral-rich mountains for themselves. Dr. Tom’s loving dedication to these people is more than admirable. His college friend, Kenneth Carlson, made this film as a way of bringing forth the injustice of the dictator and war criminal, President Omar Al-Bashir, to international awareness. Because of this film, the President has stopped the bombings of his own people.
After Saturday evening Mass and dinner, the participants watched the film, The Florida Project. This story centers on 6-year-old Moonee and her friends who live at the low-rent motels just across the highway from Disneyworld. It focuses on the struggle of people who cannot pay for a monthly apartment rent, but who live hand to mouth every week able to pay for rent at the cheap motels. The plight of the hidden homeless brought the participants into a profound and emotional reflection on how real this situation is in our own neighborhoods. Some even shared what some church groups are doing to assist those who live in these situations.
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project (A24)
The last film on Sunday morning was the delightful true story, Hidden Figures. This film speaks of the prejudices that African-Americans faced prior to and even after the Civil Rights Movement. It is the story of the African-American women who were the human computers at NASA in the early 1960s. One in particular, the mathematician, Katherine Goble, was the only person in NASA at the time that could handle analytic geometry. Not only did she help calculate the take-off and landing trajectories of John Glen’s historic orbital flight, but she also helped to change the culture toward women and people of color at NASA. It is a topic of justice that is still pertinent today.
As one of the retreatants commented, “It gives me the chance to dig deep into a particular subject that I would normally gloss over. This retreat was fantastic!”
If you missed this retreat, there is another one coming in October 5-7, 2018 at the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. The theme for that film retreat is: Against All Odds. If you are interested to register or would like more information, go to: bemediamindful.org/filmretreat.