Rebecca Parrish is director, cinematographer and an editor on “Radical Grace.” She has run her Chicago-based film company, Interchange Productions, since 2007. She has worked as an editor and cinematographer with Judith Helfand, Kindling Group and Kartemquin Films. In 2012 Parrish produced and directed the interactive web documentary and engagement campaign, Protect Our Defenders, telling the stories of military sexual-assault survivors as part of an advocacy campaign to reform the military justice system. The Protect Our Defenders project won the YouTube DoGooder nonprofit video award and the Salsa Labs 2012 Hot Tamale Award for outstanding campaign organizing. (Press materials)
“Radical Grace” will premiere at the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto on April 28.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
RP: “Radical Grace” follows three fearless nuns who risk their place in the Catholic Church to follow another higher calling: social justice. When the Vatican investigates and reprimands the sisters — citing their “radical feminism” — they become the spiritual and symbolic center of a struggle for the future of the Catholic Church. The women refuse to back down. They challenge the patriarchal system and ultimately win the hearts of the new Pope and Catholics worldwide. From their cross-country Nuns on the Bus tour, to serving those on the margins, to a continued struggle for Catholic women’s religious equality, these sisters are transforming American politics — and the Church itself.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
RP: I’m one of the “nones,” part of a growing demographic of religiously unaffiliated millennials, so I could never have predicted that I’d be making a film about nuns! Back in 2011, I didn’t set out to make a film about religion. What became “Radical Grace” started out as a project documenting unique acts of social justice. That’s how I stumbled into the amazing life and work of Sister Jean Hughes, who was working with formerly incarcerated felons on the West Side of Chicago. Before that, my image of Catholic nuns was drawn entirely by Hollywood. I thought they all wore habits, lived a cloistered life of prayer and ritual and were very conservative. Sister Jean exploded my stereotypes. Her passion for justice, and deep, irreverent spirituality had me hooked.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
RP: One of our biggest challenges was finding our subjects. We conducted hundreds of research interviews, spending years searching for subjects who were willing to say in public what so many Sisters would only share in private. Thankfully, we found Sisters Simone, Chris and Jean, who were eager to speak truth to power.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?
RP: I’ve realized that regardless of whether you’re a Catholic, a Muslim, a Jew, or a “none,” the stories of Jean, Chris, and Simone show that you can approach service from a spiritual place in a way that is uniquely nourishing and sustaining. My hope is that audience members will leave the theater with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. I’ve learned so much from the Sisters, and now our goal is for “Radical Grace” to help pass their energy and their passion on to more activists, helping them find that feeling of communion in their own work.
Because we’ve been so inspired by the Sisters’ story, we are launching a social-impact campaign that will help reframe faith and morality as a force for the progressive movement. For too long, the dominant narrative has been that faith belongs to conservatives. In some ways, faith has been wielded as a weapon in political discourse — to separate people with different ideas and different needs. This film shows a different side of religion — one that is inclusive. Collaborating with feminist and faith-based social-justice organizations, we will leverage the film to support reform within religious institutions and bridge divides to build a stronger progressive and feminist movement.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
RP: Directing an indie documentary is all about persistence. Whether it’s securing buy-in from subjects or raising money, we may be told “no” more often than “yes.” In crafting the story, we go through a long phase where it doesn’t work [until] it does. So in every respect, it’s all about holding onto our vision. We have to keep working, keep asking and keep tweaking until that vision is realized. As women, we’re often socialized to be acquiescent. Personally, sometimes I feel like I’m being rude or annoying when I’m pushing to make something happen. And maybe some people will see it that way, but I work hard to resist that feeling and push forward with what I need to get done.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
RP: Throughout this project, many people have assumed that I must be Catholic in order to have dedicated five years of my life to telling this story. I’m not religious, but the most spiritual I have ever felt is when I’ve participated in social-justice work. And that is why I dedicated myself to telling this story. I’ve learned so much from the Sisters’ spiritual approach to social-justice work, and I’m so excited that “Radical Grace” will help share it with the world.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
RP: “Radical Grace” is funded through a combination of foundation grants and individual donors. We ran several crowdfunding campaigns, through Kickstarter and our website, which turned out to be great community-building for the project in addition to fundraising. Through the campaigns, we connected with a huge community of progressive Catholics eager to see reform in their church.
Crowdfunding is really hard work — it was a full-time job to produce and execute — but one thing I really like about it is that it’s not zero-sum. Foundation grant applications are really labor-intensive and in the end, you either get the grant or you get nothing. Foundation support is important, but crowdfunding is a really valuable way to build an ecosystem of support around a project.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
RP: “Trouble the Water” by Tia Lessin and Carl Dean is one of my favorite films. I love how the filmmakers use their storytelling craft in a way that empowers subjects to also tell their own story. The combination of professional camera work, subject “home video” and archival footage are edited in a way that both grounds the viewer in place and time and plunges you into the deeply personal experience of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.