Vol 6, Num 20 :: 2007.11.02 — 2007.11.16
For those who aren't familiar with Conviction, what is the film about?
Conviction tells the story of three Dominican nuns and their 2002 Plowshares action at a Minuteman III missile site in rural Colorado. The Plowshares movement is inspired by the Isaiah text: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against another nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Srs. Carol Gilbert (53), Jackie Hudson (68) and Ardeth Platte (67) took it upon themselves to confront the U.S. rush to war in Iraq and the President’s refusal to rule out the use of nuclear weapons. They went to one of the 49 missile sites in Colorado to symbolically disarm this modern day “sword” and “beat it” with their household hammers. The documentary Conviction weaves the elements of what the Sisters named the Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares action with the harsh reactions they received from the prosecutors as well as the President of the National Association of Evangelicals. These reactions interspersed in Conviction expose the polarities at play in the United States of America that would convict nuns committed to non-violence and International Law and threaten them with a 30-year sentence. The story also juxtaposes the Sisters’ theology and politics with the religious right represented by Ted Haggard. We interviewed Ted Haggard in June 2003 when he was still Pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In short I would say this is a piece with humor and heart that tackles some of the most pressing issues of our day: nuclear proliferation, international law and religion and politics.
Where did the idea for the film Conviction begin?
Conviction was conceived at the Trident coffee shop in Boulder: ironically the same name as this country’s 2,000 sea-to-land based nuclear warheads. On a stormy Tuesday morning in this busy local hotspot I met with two other women to discuss the idea of making a documentary film. One of the stories we considered was that of the three nuns facing a 30-year maximum sentence for their protest action at a nuclear missile site. At the time of our meeting, the nuns had served nearly seven months in a small mountain town jail. I had been following the story in the news, primarily on Democracy Now, and knew that Srs. Carol, Ardith and Jackie were convicted in a Denver Federal Court for their protest action which took place in October 2002, before the war in Iraq started. From the beginning, I found this story compelling. As a graduate from Chicago Theological Seminary, an active member of Boulder Mennonite Church, and a citizen in the world’s only superpower with its unrivaled nuclear arsenal on hair trigger alert poised for war, I wondered if these vowed religious women were contemporary prophets bearing witness to a truth that not many wanted to hear.
The Saturday after our coffee conversation, we drove to Georgetown where we met Sr. Jackie in her prison orange at the Clear Creek County Jail. We asked her about their action, their conviction, and their willingness to let us tell their story in a documentary film. She told us about their intention to “inspect, expose and symbolically disarm” our own weapons of mass destruction; she told us they were strengthened by the thousands of people praying for them around the world; she spoke about their daily prayers with the other women inmates.
When the Sisters were released on Bond the following week, our production began. Zero to Sixty in less than a week. Three women who had never made a film before hit the ground running in an effort to document three women who made their life’s work acting on behalf of peace and in resistance to the violence inherent in all weapons of mass destruction.
I could not have foreseen the ironies and struggles that would be woven in the story and our effort to complete this documentary. This work led me as I hope it leads its audience to grapple with the nuclear peril in which our small planet hangs.
You wouldn't describe yourself as a film director, and yet you felt a need to direct this particular film. What was the process of learning to direct like? What other kinds of work do you do and how was directing the film related to that work?
This question touches a deep sense of gratitude and humility. It is not an exaggeration to claim that Spirit has been and continues to be the true director of this project. The work has had its share of miracles as well as madness. The miracles appeared in the form of many talented and generous folks willing to share their time and expertise. We started this production on an impulse and a dime (actually a credit card) and made cold calls and runs to the library looking for the “Dummies” guide to documentary filmmaking. Our first day of shooting was as the Sisters, just released from jail, returned to the missile silo to recount their action. Sam Allen is one of many examples: a topnotch NFL videographer, who offered his full services to film the Sisters and arrange for studio interviews without a fee. The support for this project is a testimony to the generosity and goodwill of others: videographers, foundations, friends, family, other filmmakers, attorneys, editors, and many, many others have been involved and willing to share ideas, skills and resources. Without a doubt the Sisters and their story have had an impact on the wide variety of people connected to this project.
I’ll describe a little about the madness during the creation of this documentary because I believe it is more common than we’d like to believe; sometimes people with good intentions and a great idea can’t get past personal agendas, judgments and suspicions. Months into the project our small, inexperienced team turned the creative and stressful process into a ridiculous insiders’ war. The fighting and mistrust among the small group of us was excruciating. It took enormous amounts of personal time, energy and discipline to weather that storm and press on to completion.
I would say that I really learned to trust myself more than I learned to direct. I had to overcome so many obstacles to make this 45-minute video. It is humbling to admit how long and hard this project has been in the making. I learned to produce. I learned about the importance of good music, sound, and writing. I witnessed the power of a talented composer and editor. I discovered that the part I love most is the creative, soulful and almost magical life of story.
Eventually a different team came together to finish this story. Conviction, as it is, truly reflects the dynamic working relationship between Denise Gentilini, who created the award-winning original score and Robin Truesdale, who did a brilliant job editing the piece.
Over the years this project has created me as much as I have created it. My work raising children, practicing spiritual direction and working with survivors of torture has developed patience, a sense of wonder, an ability to listen deeply and not be afraid to claim life in its fullness. I am certain that my work with Conviction utilized these strengths among others. Through the unfolding story of the Sisters, I have had to wrestle with despair about the immanent nuclear threats both within our country and internationally. I am aware of a growing urgency around the issues of survival on the planet. I pray for those in prison. I am concerned about the political powers in our constitutional republic eclipsing the mandate of the judicial system to act impartially and in accordance to a universally applied rule of law. I wonder if there will be a push to eliminate Article 6 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution that states that the treaties we sign are the ‘supreme law of the land.’ And wow, do I have a profound appreciation for cinema after discovering the layers and layers of technical skill required to create a film that is also art.
What kinds of responses has the film received? Have these been the types of responses you expected?
Every screening has been satisfying in its own way. Conviction has been seen by a wide variety of audiences. I love the lively and challenging conversations that are often evoked by this video. One of the first screenings of a shorter version was at Ted Haggard’s New Life Church in Colorado Springs. I wanted to be sure that we were representing him fairly and get feedback from the evangelical Christian perspective. In a very lively discussion, he made the comment jokingly that I had been “too easy on him and made his position look soft.” Overall he was impressed with the way we addressed the issues. Students in film class at Boulder High School commented that the Sisters reminded them of their grandmothers. One high school senior told the instructor before graduating that watching Conviction “changed her life.” A seven-year-old boy in Vail asked, “What are the people doing letting these weapons be here?” Mike Rosen, a conservative Denver radio talk show host and column writer, called the film a “propaganda puff piece” Jeff Gibbs, composer/producer for Fahrenheit 911, drove out from New York to attend the first public screening with the Sisters after their release from prison. Robert Brown, the prosecuting attorney, attended a screening and participated in the question and answer session afterwards. His endorsement was, “I wouldn’t call it ‘fair and balanced’ but it was moving and very well done.” Doris Walker, a rancher around the missile base featured in the film, attended a screening in Greeley and commented that the film doesn’t address the danger from other nations who have nukes pointed at us or want to have nukes to point at us. At the Telluride Mountain Film Festival a scientist from the National Energy Lab asked if the Sisters had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
I am thrilled when the film provokes the imagination of those gathered about how each one of us might be called to create the world we want to live in and leave for those who’ll follow. As Sister Jackie said in her allocution statement before sentencing, “We’re doing our part, what about you?”
How have the stories of the film played out since the documentary was completed?
Oh, the movie that the answers to this question could create! In a way, what has happened since the Sisters’ action, reveals the tragic realities that they put their lives on the line to prevent. The irony and absurdities continue.
Since the Sisters acted in October 2002…
What gives you hope as you navigate the despair that this process and this particular issue have generated?
I have found over the course of this project that despair creates a personal paralysis that is not useful. It allows me to wallow or escape the responsibility to be awake and engaged. The widespread popular denial is a painful mystery. I know many people who prefer to disengage from the very real horrors of war and the perilous threat of a nuclear disaster. On some level, my faith allows me to look into the struggles of our planet and those whose lives are being torn apart by bombs made in the U.S., and still choose life. Just as it shocks me that 53% of people polled recently in the U.S. support dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran, I take heart when I remember February 15, 2003 and the unprecedented global demonstrations to stop the war in Iraq before it started. As I have come to know the Sisters over the years, I am most inspired by the radical integrity with which they live. It is inspiring to experience people who live as if their true personal interests are only honored if they are acting in the interests of the earth and all of its inhabitants. To me this is not naïve and utopian, it is supremely practical and embodied wisdom.
Sister Carol sums it up very well. She says that they did not do this action in order to be “successful or effective,” they did it to be faithful. For me, this means not being afraid to seek the truth and listen carefully for the complexities. “Living the questions” gives me more hope than clamoring for answers that feel good in the short run. I experience a belonging in the human race as I hold the tension of between terror and beauty. Hope comes alive for me when I see others living and acting in that same tension holding fast to the abundance of this life as they work to address the most painful realities.