Independent Lens sat down with director Danny Alpert to talk about the intense and long process of creating The Calling, and what made him tackle such a nuanced and sometimes touchy subject. The Calling is a two-part film airing December 20 and 21 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope that this film will compel viewers to take a fresh look at the relationship between modernity and faith. I hope that the film will break stereotypes — for both secular and religious viewers — about the reality of what it means to be a religious leader and who is filling these roles today. It also makes more “common” the language of faith. By doing both of these things I hope that the series will build bridges between secular and religious viewers.
What led you to make this film?
I was brought up in a nurturing and positive community of faith and, as a teenager, I went through a period when I considered becoming a rabbi. Obviously I didn’t, but I was always left with that “what if?” question. As I continued to grow, I became a student of all faiths and began to question the balance between modernity and faith. When I produced a film called A History of God (based on the best seller by Karen Armstrong) I had the opportunity to meet some amazing religious leaders and their assistants — who were really interesting and mostly clergy-in-training. Their stories led me to discover The Calling as a way of exploring faith and modernity through personal, verité stories.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making The Calling?
One big challenge was the politics around the choices we made about who to include in the series. There are many denominations and schools in the faiths we profiled and, no matter what we did, there were going to be those who felt excluded. Another challenge was that a film that explores faith, which really is an internal process, is forced to test the definition of cinematic language around conflict and change. The nature of film also challenged us to balance our need for “story” with respect for the faiths and their communities. Another big challenge was in interweaving the stories of so many characters into a cohesive narrative, within the allotted PBS run time, while making sure that we gave each story its due — particularly when we were working with more than 1,400 hours of footage.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I had the privilege to work with a team of directors — Alicia Dwyer, Yoni Brook, Maggie Bowman, and Musa Syeed– who are all great at this. Overall, I do not think that trust with subjects is any different than trust with anyone in your life. It’s about honesty, transparency, and a willingness to trust them and be vulnerable to them.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
The editing process led to us cutting a story from the series, which was one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make as a filmmaker. I would have given a LOT to be able to have more time and include this story.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I think that the scene where Yerachmiel prepares for and hosts his first Shabbat dinner for his congregation speaks to me personally, as I can see myself and the rabbi I might have been, in this scene.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The response thus far has been very positive. The subjects have all seen the film and are, by and large, enthusiastic.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I love to collaborate.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
PBS is the only place for this film — in terms of its style, length, and subject matter. And it is the only place that really gives the filmmaker creative control over the vision of the film.
What are your three favorite films?
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown , Sink the Bismarck. and The Godfather
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Woody Allen says 99 percent of success is showing up. In documentary filmmaking, 99 percent of success is showing up and then bugging “them” until they give you what you need. Perseverance!
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
Hummus is the most inspirational food for anything.