MIAMI — Pope John Paul II wrote his “Letter to Artists” in 1999 to encourage Catholic participation in the arts. One group of Miami filmmakers not only took him literally — they also named their film festival after him.
The John Paul II International Film Festival, which will be held Feb. 17-26 in Miami, is the brainchild of 7eventh Day Media, Inc., made up of husband-and-wife team filmmaker Frank William Brennan and actress Laura Alvarado, along with social worker Rafael Anrrich.
“At first, we planned to do something extremely local and purely Catholic,” said Alvarado, co-director of the 2011 festival. “Yet, with a name like John Paul II, we knew it couldn’t be strictly Catholic and we couldn’t host it in some parish hall. To reflect John Paul II’s pontificate and his teaching, we needed to get out of the parish and into the community.”
The inaugural festival took place in Miami in 2009. The 10-day event featured 29 films. It attracted more than 2,100 attendees from across the U.S., Europe and Latin America and drew support from universities and a Jewish community center in Miami.
The organizers said the initial festival was a success.
“People were leaving the theater radiating with a passion for John Paul II’s teachings, a newer understanding about what our faith teaches and how much we have in common with those of other faiths,” said Alvarado. “We’re all human and in need of love, dignity and forgiveness.”
Sister Helena Burns, a film school attendee and religious sister with the Daughters of St. Paul, an order devoted to spreading the Gospel using the media, was one of the attendees.
“The Church needs to be doing so much more to support films,” said Sister Helena. “Festivals like this are a great way for little films to get distribution. They raise awareness, give audiences and filmmakers an opportunity to talk, and allow the film industry to further itself.”
On a practical level, one of the goals of the organizers is to take films that might otherwise get overlooked and give them an audience. In the film industry, the exposure that a movie gains from film festivals can be enough to catapult it onto the big screen.
For example, winning the Toronto International Film Festival’s “People’s Choice Award” in September 2006 eventually led to the film Bella obtaining a distributor for its 2007 release.
Something similar has already happened with the John Paul II Festival. The festival’s 2009 opening and closing films both went on to bigger developments: The opening film, The Mighty Macs — about the true story of tiny Immaculata College winning the first national championship in women’s basketball — gained a distributor and will open in theaters on April 1. The closing film, The Human Experience, had limited distribution. After a Harkins Theaters’ representative saw the movie, it opened on a handful of screens in Harkins Theaters in the Southwest last year. Dollar for dollar, the film ended up ranking eighth in the country on opening weekend.
And festival moviegoers were excited about the film too. “We brought The Human Experience to the John Paul II Festival,” said Joe Campo, the film’s executive producer. The film was nominated for the People’s Festival Award and Reel Rose Award for Best Feature and, according to Alvarado, received a fervent welcome by the Miami community.
In 2010, Alvarado and Brennan took a hiatus from the festival to get married.
The 2011 official selection is a “bold” lineup, according to Alvarado.
The theme for this year’s festival is “The Mystery of Love.” Twenty-eight films will explore that topic at four different locations throughout Miami, including the Coral Gables Arts Cinema, two locations at Florida International University and a theater at the David and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center.
The selection includes documentaries on religious life, family movies, films about saints, and a movie about the very person whom the festival is named after.
This festival opens with Out of the Darkness, a documentary about Shelley Lubben, who left the pornography industry for a life in Christ, and ends with Nine Days That Changed the World, Newt and Callista Gingrich’s documentary on Pope John Paul II’s historic trip to Poland and the resulting collapse of communism.
Alvarado expects that approximately 80% of the filmmakers will be in attendance, as well as some of the films’ actors.
While the festival is unable to give monetary awards, it will present awards for best documentary, live action and short, as well as the “People’s Festival Award” — chosen by the audience — and “The Mystery of Love Award” for the film that best represents the year’s theme.
“The films live off honors,” said Alvarado. “When they can put the laurels on their trailers, that’s a big deal for them.”
Festivals like this one also provide an opportunity for filmmakers and filmgoers to meet.
Bill Harvelle, a lay Catholic campus minister at Florida International University, participated as a panelist during the 2009 festival, and he is doing so again this year for five of the festival’s films.
“The value is that a festival brings together people in the Spirit, who see films not just as Christ versus culture, but who find Christ within culture,” said Harvelle, who created a “Faith and Film” program at Florida International University. “Films can be used to help Catholic Christians better understand sacramentality — that God can meet us in art.”
“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1999 “Letter to Artists.” “Art must make perceptible and, as far as possible, attractive, the world of the Spirit, of the invisible, of God.”
“We need more film festivals of this genre, because of the state of what’s going on in the world,” said Campo. “Hopefully, this is just the beginning.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
2011 Official Selection
Out of the Darkness
Documentary on Shelley Lubben’s journey from the pornography industry to a life in Christ and the redemptive power of love.
Corbin Bernsen plays James Moore, a former pastor who comes to the aid of a childhood friend who is accused of a crime he doesn’t believe he committed.
No Greater Love
British filmmaker Michael Whyte’s documentary goes inside the Carmelite monastery of Most Holy Trinity in West London.
Follows Paige Williams’ cross-country journey as she explores the distance between her upbringing and her current lifestyle.
Ramona & Beezus
Based on Beverly Cleary’s book, young Ramona Quimby helps her family face its biggest challenge.
The Holy Roller
A struggling preacher is tricked into starting a church in a night club by its unscrupulous owner.
St. Bernadette of Lourdes
A film about the Marian apparitions in Lourdes, France, in 1858, retold through the talents of children.
Director Ash Greyson explores the topic of abortion through the eyes of those who were nearly aborted.
Strong Bodies Fight
The story of the University of Notre Dame boxing team’s annual intramural charitable “Bengal Bouts” to fight poverty.
The Power of Friendship
A fictionalized documentary about the friendship between two 13-year-old girls, one Polish and one Jewish, during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II.
The Last Summit
The film examines the profound impact that a good priest can have through the story of Father Pablo.
A documentary that reveals the joys and anxieties of those who are drawn to religious life.
A film following those who take pilgrimages to Lourdes seeking healing.
Nine Days That Changed the World
Newt and Callista Gingrich’s documentary that demonstrates how Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in June 1979 led to the creation of the Solidarity movement and the downfall of communism.