The Filmmakers and the Martyrs of Charity
Meet the team behind the film about the murdered Missionaries of Charity sisters.
LONDON — In March 2016, news filtered through that four Missionaries of Charity sisters, the order founded by St. Teresa of Calcutta, had been murdered by Islamic militants in Yemen.
The brutal manner in which the nuns were killed and the fact that at the time of their deaths the religious sisters were working at a care home with only Muslim residents seemed to make the news all the more horrifying.
Now an Anglo-Yemeni team of filmmakers have come together to bring the story of these slain women to cinema screens around the world.
“This story has so many dimensions,” says Sherna Bhadresa, one of the British producers working on the project, not yet in production, entitled The Garden of Aden. She believes that the film “will have a positive impact on many” and that, “despite being a story of martyrdom, [it will] highlight humanity in all its goodness at a time when the world more than ever needs to be reminded of that.”
The movie, she tells the Register, portrays “love of one’s neighbor; willingness to die for the faith; Catholics and Muslims caring for each other in a country torn by war and famine; and the love and respect shown [by the ordinary populace there] to the nuns.”
Given the cost and complexities involved in realizing such a project, producer Liam Driver says the death of these nuns demands a dramatic retelling rather than a documentary.
“Documentaries are [already] being made about Yemen,” says Driver. “For many, it is too depressing to watch footage of war and famine, but [the story of Yemen] cannot be restricted to this genre. We are telling a story of different races and creeds working in unity and respect for one another. It touches people of all walks of life, allowing the audience to escape for a moment into the culture that still exists in the suffering Yemen.”
The third member of the production team is the British-Yemeni Bader Ben Hirsi, who is also the scriptwriter and director on the proposed film. He is also a Muslim. So what drew him to this story of martyred Christian nuns?
“There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of heartbreaking stories resulting from this futile and unnecessary war in Yemen,” explains Hirsi. “As a storyteller and director, I have to think of stories that need to be told, especially those that can translate or travel well to international audiences and help raise awareness of the atrocities going on.”
What drew him specifically to this story was “the amount of different people that were directly involved: the elderly and disabled Yemeni residents, the Yemeni and African volunteers, the priest who previously escaped the burning of his church, the incredibly selfless Indian and African nuns, and, of course, the legacy of Mother Teresa.”
He points out that “the incident involved people of all ages and abilities, religions and backgrounds who were living together in harmony; a kind of paradise they created within four walls — with interfaith respect and understanding. They thought they were safe.”
On March 4, 2016, Islamic militants attacked a care home in Aden, Yemen. They killed 16 people, four of whom were Missionaries of Charity sisters. When the killing spree ended, the attackers proceeded to destroy every image, statute or crucifix they could find. On hearing of the murders, Pope Francis described the carnage as “diabolic.”
“The entire incident took place in about an hour and 40 minutes, real time,” says Hersi. “Imagine what that hour and 40 minutes must have felt like for the residents and workers of the care home: Suddenly, you have armed intruders with death and destruction on their minds. The residents and care workers were defenseless.”
“The one thing they all shared was their strong belief in God (albeit as understood by different religions). The challenge for me as writer-director is to try to portray this in a movie so that people the world over can relate to the real people involved and what they went through.” Then he added, “16 people died, and they deserve to be remembered.”
Bhadresa believes there’s an audience for a story that is as shocking as it is sad.
“At a time when the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, Yemen, is only getting worse, and the world is looking on in silence, people want to shout about this. A movie that does not shy away from the atrocities in Yemen, whilst also depicting the brutal yet beautiful story of the Yemenis and nuns who died looking out for each other, [should appeal] to a worldwide audience.”
Funding for The Garden of Aden is still being raised from around the globe, with about 50% to 60% of funding in place. One of the current financial backers for the project is the India-based Bhavini Panisha. She explained to the Register her motivation for helping fund this film.
“The movie tells the truth about what's happening in Yemen at the moment — which not many people know,” says Panisha. “I’m inspired by the filmmakers and what they’re doing to get this message known. The film needs to be supported and made.”
Both Driver and Bhadresa are Catholics. The story therefore holds a deeper significance for them, beyond compelling subject matter.
“As a child, Mother Teresa played a strong role in my upbringing, as she used to write to my mum and grandmother,” Driver recounts. “We still have the letter where she said she was praying for me and my brothers when we were children. So it moves me to think that, decades later, I am making a film about her sisters who were martyred during the year of her canonization.”
But, for Driver, it is not simply the retelling of a historical event.
“The Missionaries of Charity take us deeper to see what this true story is really about, that is, their deep love and concern for Yemen and how Mother Teresa had that long before this [current] crisis,” he says. “To really know the sisters is to know they have no focus on themselves, but on God and their concern for the suffering of others. That is why the witness of the Missionaries of Charity in Yemen, and the people of Yemen themselves, bring us right to the heart of where this film needs to take us: that is, what is happening in Yemen today.”
Starting in 2014, Yemen’s ongoing civil war is being conducted between factions both claiming to be the legitimate government in this Muslim country. According to the United Nations, an estimated 233,000 people have died on account of the conflict. It is further estimated that more than 3 million people have been displaced as a result of the ongoing fighting. Currently, there appears no end in sight to the misery and death war has brought to the people of Yemen.
Bhadresa hopes that the film will bring an awareness of what’s happening in Yemen and that this, in turn, will lead to more international aid being given to the Yemeni people as well as public pressure being brought to bear to stop the flow of arms into that country. But the story the filmmakers want to tell is about more than just another humanitarian crisis and the response of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
“For me, it has a lot to do with interfaith,” says Hersi. “Muslims and Catholics lived together in this care home in perfect harmony. They created a paradise together and coexisted with mutual respect and understanding. They became one family, an example to us all in this day and age. … The story is very powerful with some beautiful, caring people. Despite the horrors of that fateful morning, there’s something very beautiful about people’s ability to love one another regardless of color, creed or religion. This is so important today.”
Driver feels that the power of Hersi’s script is in the way it shows the witness of the sisters and Yemeni volunteers who died in 2016.
“I remember when I first met Badri [Ben Hersi]. I thought there’s no way a Muslim will be able to write about the Mother Teresa sisters and do them justice. … So when I read the screenplay, I was stunned and deeply humbled at how he did, in fact, remarkably capture so well the charism of the sisters.”
The team behind The Garden of Aden may be divided on faith grounds, but they are united in the common goal that this film should highlight something much more than the base sectarianism of the men who came to murder indiscriminately on March 4, 2016.
“The message of the film is of solidarity, love and peace between the Catholics and Muslims,” says Bhadresa, before going on to add that the filmmakers do not wish to make a film “about historic events; we are talking about something that happened in our own generation and what’s happening right now!”
These sentiments are shared by Driver, who through this film hopes “to share the witness of the Yemeni volunteers and the missionaries of Charity in Aden and raise global awareness about the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”
The Catholic/Muslim team of producers say they wish “to honor and continue what the Muslim Yemenis and Catholic sisters lived and died for: that is, helping the people of Yemen.”
This story was updated after posting to correct name spellings. The Register regrets the errors.