Filmmakers Ann and Jeanette Petrie, a pair of sisters, won critical acclaim for their 1986 work, Mother Teresa. Now, as part of worldwide celebrations surrounding the famous nun's Oct. 19 beatification, they will premiere a new film, Mother Teresa: The Legacy, in Rome. Register correspondent Carlos Briceno spoke to the Petrie sisters as they were putting the final touches on the new film.
Growing up in Windsor, Canada, what influence did your family have on your faith?
Ann: We came from a very Catholic family. Prayer was a part of our daily life. They sent us to Catholic schools. They were very watchful over our practices, nightly prayers, daily rosaries. We were deeply rooted in a Catholic tradition.
Jeanette: My brother [Father William Petrie, who now lives at the provincial house of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Fairhaven, Mass.] got his vocation very young. He went into the seminary very young. His vocation was very specific. He read a book on Father Damien [of Molokai]. His vocation was very clear at an early age. I think we've all benefited and shared the fruits of his vocation, individually and as a family, without question. Had it not been for his vocation, I don't think we would have personally met Mother Teresa and begun this particular path.
When did you meet Mother Teresa and how did your first film evolve from meeting her?
Jeanette: My brother was based in India for 25 years. He did leprosy work and he worked with Mother Teresa. We met Mother in 1976, and we had a very moving experience. We were struck by her. At the time, I was more interested in going to India to see my brother.
She was very real, very wonderful, very warm, very loving, very human. I never had an occasion to think there was going to be anything beyond that. When we first met her, she hadn't won the Nobel Prize. We met her because we were the sisters of Father Petrie. And after Mother won the Nobel Prize, I know my sister had it in her mind that she would be a good person for a documentary piece.
We formed a company in 1982 to produce a film on Mother. We thought it would take one year. It took five years. We shot that film on the run in 24 locations in 10 countries. At the time, what was driving us was that Mother was one of the most internationally recognized persons in the world. She was one of the most awarded individuals in the world. And nobody knew anything about her. They just knew she was a sister in Calcutta. We set out to tell the story and how and why this Catholic Albanian nun was able to transcend every social, political and economic boundary, enabling her to open homes throughout the world in non-Christian countries under every circumstance. The result of that was our first film.
Tell me about your new film.
Jeanette: When Mother died, we were given the privilege of filming behind the scenes of her private burial. It was one of the most difficult things we ever had to do. It was such an intimate thing. We didn't have crews. Ordinarily, we have crews who shoot. My sister and I actually shot the burial ourselves because it was such a private and intimate setting that it was not appropriate to have large film crews there. There was a public state funeral that was very moving. But it was so much about Mother, and we thought that this is not the sort of thing that Mother would like to see. There was something missing about the essence of Mother. It was the world's adulation about Mother and the sorrow and regret.
Over the years, we had done a series of interviews with Mother, and we thought now is the time to let Mother lead us on her own spirituality. In Mother's lifetime it was very hard to focus strictly on Mother because her mission was on the work and on the poor. We thought this was a wonderful time to let Mother have her last say, so to speak. Interwoven into the film is Mother talking about her own spirituality on several topics. Sort of her top-10 list, we call them. We have Mother talking about joy, we have her talking about the beginning of love, we have her talking about love in action, we have her talking about loss of the presence of God.
How did Mother impact your filmmaking?
Ann: Both of these projects took years — cumulatively, seven years in the 1980s and another six years now. Many other films could have been made in that time. However, once you enter this world of Mother Teresa everything else sort of fades in importance. These projects were extraordinarily difficult to do in every way: from financing the effort, to traveling all over the world in countries.
What we work so hard to do is let the viewer have an experience of Mother and if anybody does any explaining, it's Mother. And that's very difficult to do. It's very easy to make a documentary where you have an analyst and you have experts or scholars, and they're explaining. Or doing pros and cons. It's an art to let the material reveal itself. It takes hours and hours and hours of work to let the material reveal itself in a way that is evergreen. It should be timeless. It's not topical, it's timeless. That's what's different from making other films. When you devote yourself in this way, you don't get to do very much else.
What is your favorite memory of Mother Teresa?
Ann: In [watching] the interviews we did in the 1980s, I was astonished to find that I could hear things that I couldn't hear before, which is an indication of how very profound Mother's words are. They appear to be very simple. And yet when you listen to them over and over again and as you mature spiritually as a person what she says becomes deeper and more revelatory. A very important part of the new film has to do with Mother's use of the word presence: the presence of God. Even though I have listened to her interviews dozens of times — we have hours of interviews — I never really realized how very important that was to her, not only to bring the presence of God to all people and to see the presence of God in everyone but to also bring the presence of God to oneself, which she did through her spiritual practices. And I never really heard that before.
How did Mother Teresa being present to God help you get closer to God?
Jeanette: I think I became more personally aware that when you have faith that there are responsibilities. You have to take action. It's not something that you are; it's an ongoing something that you do, that you practice. Whatever faith you have, faith requires that you put that into practice. Mother said it more simply: “Less talking and more doing.” And she put everything into action. Mother used to say, “Love needs to be put into action.” And of course we fail. We're human, and we fail. I think Mother failed less than anyone I've ever witnessed, but you have to keep trying. I don't think Mother actually did anything extraordinarily new. I think she really lived the Gospels. They were like a manual to her, a sort of how-to life-manual for her. She literally took everything at face value and put that into action. I think that when you see that and you're in that presence, that possibility becomes real for you also. I think we've been touched in similar ways and have a much deeper appreciation and love of my own faith and my own spirituality.
How have you applied her lessons about having faith to your life?
Ann: Mother gave us permission to film her and her work for the honor and glory of God. That was a big contract, so if we hit an obstacle you have to work very hard to overcome that or do what you can to avoid those obstacles. But they inevitably happen. But if you're doing it for the honor and glory of God, you just have to have faith that God is going to take care of it. I constantly am on my knees, saying (to God), “I can't do this; the ball's in your court.” I really say that. “God, the ball's in your court.”
Carlos Briceno is based in Seminole, Florida