Director Wim Wenders on his 'Pope Francis' documentary, the pontiff's critics and "Trumpian politics infest[ing] the political climate"
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is now streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
German director Wim Wenders has earned three Oscar nominations for his documentaries, most recently in 2015 for The Salt of the Earth. He's in contention again this year for his latest film, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, a project that stemmed from a Vatican offer of unusual access to the spiritual leader.
Wenders, who was born Catholic but later converted to Protestantism, makes no secret of his respect for the Pope and the significance of his decision to take the name of Francis when he was elected pontiff by the College of Cardinals, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. By choosing the humble St. Francis as his model, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio sent a strong message to the church hierarchy--rejecting the luxurious majesty of the Holy See in favor of a more simple lifestyle and message of solidarity with the poor.
Pope Francis is now available on streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime, iTunes and Vudu. Nonfictionfilm.com interviewed the filmmaker via email, an exchange that ranged from the film to critics of the Pope, including one Vatican official who has demanded Francis resign.
What impressed you most about Pope Francis in the time you spent with him?
Wim Wenders: I was very impressed by the sheer power of Pope Francis' presence, by his genuine kindness and tenderness, the emotional impact of his simple, yet deep language, by his humility and his love for people, but maybe most of all by his courage, or better: his fearlessness. I spent three years watching and listening to the man, not necessarily in person, but on a daily basis in the editing room, and that did have a great impact on me. It does rub off. Actually think I am a more courageous person now, I am trying my best to get by with less, and I try my best to treat everybody else as equals.
Why do you think the Vatican made Pope Francis available for the purposes of a documentary? What was their objective in supporting a documentary project?
It wasn’t really “The Vatican”, the institution as such, that initiated this documentary, but rather the Secretariat of Communication. Monsignore Dario Viganò, at the time prefect of this Secretariat and a close collaborator of Pope Francis. He wrote that initial letter to me, asking me if I could imagine making a film about Pope Francis, and if I could possibly come by and talk about it. It turned out that Dario Viganò, was a real cinephile—he had been teaching cinema, had even written books about it. He knew what he was doing, and he knew that cinema was a means of communication that no Pope had ever ventured into. He figured that a documentary film could do justice to the radical approach of Pope Francis' papacy, at least that’s how I understood it. He left me with nothing less, or more, than, “If you want to do this, we will enable you to do this, but you're going to have to write and conceive it yourself, and it’s going to have to be financed and produced independently. We're going to keep out of it. I just want to plant a seed, and if you like the idea, we'll help you. You will have a privileged access to the Pope, you will have access to the archives, but other than that, it's your movie." That seemed a good approach. I certainly would not have been available for a commissioned film. I remember, I also asked him, why he had picked me, and not somebody else. He just smiled and said, rather cryptically, that this had to do with Wings of Desire. I left it at that and didn’t inquire more.
In the film you allow the pontiff to articulate the essence of his ministry, which can be seen as a radical departure from previous papacies. How closely does Pope Francis' mission align with his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi?
Saint Francis had been the most radical reformer of the Church. That might be the reason why no pope before had ever dared to take on the challenge and the legacy of the name! Francis of Assisi is a great figure, not only in the history of the church. To me, he’s a hero of humanity. He stands for so much that is relevant in our present times, more than ever. First of all, he stands for a radical solidarity with the underprivileged, the down and outs, the poor, the sick. This, for me, is the greatest challenge of our times: to narrow down the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, the north and the south. And secondly, Saint Francis stands for a whole new relationship of man to nature. That was almost the most visionary aspect of his revolution. He realized that something was getting out of whack between “us” and mother nature, or with “Sister Earth”, as he called our planet so tenderly. He truly was the first ecologist, 800 years ago. And what would be more relevant today?!
Pope Francis did justice to that legacy by publishing his amazing encyclical “Laudato Sí” that really redefined the Church’s position to our present climate catastrophe. And then, thirdly, the name Francis also comes with an obligation to instigate peace between the world religions. The saint, 800 years ago, risked his life and went to the highest authority of the Muslim world at his time to instigate peace between Islam and Christianity. That was during the crusades, which really was a bloody war. So: Pope Francis really had his work cut out for him. And from the beginning of his papacy he made it clear that he intended to live what he was preaching. If he says that we should all try to get by with a little less, well, he certainly shows that this can be done. He lives in a simple boarding house, not in a palace, and he drives a simple car, not a limousine. When we shot outside in a little park in the Vatican, Pope Francis arrived in a Fiat Panda, not in a Mercedes.
Some critics have questioned the Pope's prioritizing of care for the environment as an urgent moral challenge facing humanity. Is it correct to interpret your film as saying the Pontiff's message is entirely consistent with St. Francis of Assisi, who cared for nature and all of God's creation?
Absolutely! That’s what the film says, or rather: that’s what Pope Francis says. What he did was to link environmental issues, the suffering of Planet Earth and its exploitation, to poverty. Who’s suffering the most from the environmental disasters? The poorest of the poor. You understand: Pope Francis took on an incredibly charged name that came with an immense legacy. And he translated that into our present tense.
The film deals with all these issues, the social issues, too, the inequality especially, and the fact that so many people from all over the planet have become human waste. When Pope Francis talks about “the culture of waste”, he makes it clear that he's not just speaking about oceans full of plastic and mountains of junk, but also that we're turning people into junk and waste, by discarding them. He's speaking of our social responsibilities, appealing to all of us to fight for Mother Earth and to reunite behind all these efforts to protect the climate, both individually and as societies. “Equality,” which seems such a simple common denominator, such a basic human right, is not respected anymore by our present politics, in the East just as well as in the West.
Recently, after your film's release, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò called for the Pope to resign for allegedly covering up a cardinal's sexual misconduct. What do you make of the attacks on the pope from within the Vatican--is it a case of conservative factions rebelling against his focus on the poor?
That’s what it looks like to me. Pope Francis’ demands for “transparency” and for “zero tolerance!” do not fly well with a lot of the conservative parts of the church. He is facing enormous resistance there, and they fight him with every gun they have. The above cited example is one of them.
Donald Trump makes a brief appearance in the film. And much of what the Pope has to say in the documentary represents an implicit rebuke of him--for instance, the Pontiff's plea to open arms to the refugee, to reject building walls and to protect the Earth. To what degree do you see your film as political?
The film is even getting more and more political, the more those Trumpian politics infest the political climate and bring down morality and decency. Pope Francis made it clear from the beginning that his word and his message weren't only spiritual. When he is speaking to us as a man of God, he’s also concerned about our interactions between each other as human beings. He made it clear that he has something to say on social issues, on justice, on refugees, and most of all, on our environment. That was the “package”, so to speak, he assumed when he took on the name of Francis.
A lot of his call to action today is indeed “political”. I realized from the beginning—and throughout our talks—that he was taking on that responsibility, and that he knew that his voice in many ways contradicts the voices of other leaders. As I had been working on this movie for four years altogether, it became more and more obvious that Pope Francis had a moral authority to speak up in a world where our world leaders, in America, in Russia, in China, in Europe and now also in the Philippines and Brazil as well, have no more moral weight to talk to us, actually they have become the enemies of morality, of equality, of justice. We face the fact that many of our so-called “world leaders” have lost their moral compass. We witness a decline in common decency and a general disregard for the notion of truth. Truth has rather become an endangered species.
I think Pope Francis knows that, and he is fully conscious about the fact that he is trying to call people, not just Christians and believers, but all people of good will, to nothing less than a moral revolution. And these days, that is, in effect, necessary. We do need a new kind of responsibility towards each other, towards the community of men, towards the promises of equality, fraternity and freedom that are in all our constitutions and in the declaration on the human rights. Pope Francis represents a church that realizes those needs and tries to represent an image of God that people of the 21st century can relate to.
Going into the film's release, what was your hope for the impact it might have on audiences? Has its reception met your expectations?
Pope Francis has an enormous capacity to communicate. His words are simple, but clear, and from the heart. He communicates really well. Once you watch him and listen to him, you can’t help being pulled in. When you see him talk in front of the American Congress, you can clearly see how impressed, even moved to tears a lot of these representatives are.
The film’s overall reception has been great. It’s just that many people rather resist from the get-go to the idea of seeing “a film with the pope”, for reasons of religious or political convictions or positions. Once they see the film, they forget those, then they are face to face, each and everybody on his or her own, with a man who transcends those religious or political borders. Pope Francis has an enormous emotional power of conviction and of reaching people deeply. With his contagious optimism and positive outlook on life, on spirituality, on our ability to change the world for the better, I haven’t seen anybody who could resist to his appeal. I’ve seen non-believers, even hardcore atheists, deeply moved by his words and his sincerity.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.