Arts and Culture

A Film Apostolate

by Father Robert Lauder

At this time of year various parish programs are being evaluated and decisions are being made to improve them.

I am also in the process of trying to evaluate and improve an apostolate with which I have been involved since 1968. That was the year that I first started conducting film festivals in the diocese. About 800 people attended the first film festival I presented.

Serious Interest in Film

Now held at The Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, the festivals, which feature six films in the spring and six in the fall, draw between 50 and 70 people. Though I am delighted that the attendees are seriously interested in film, I have been trying to figure out why the attendance rates are not higher.

Held on Friday evenings, the structure of the evening is the same each week. We start promptly at 8 p.m. After the film, I speak for five or 10 minutes and then invite questions and discussion. The discussion period lasts about 15 minutes.

Friends have given me various reasons why more people do not attend the festivals. One reason is that many of my contemporaries no longer leave their homes to view a film. They watch movies on DVDs.

Another reason offered is that the films that I show, at least some of them, occasionally appear on television. However, I have discovered that very few people take film seriously enough to make a point of watching a film classic or near classic from beginning to end on television.

In my course at St. John’s University, the students and I watch 10 film classics in class, and the students watch 10 other films at home and write reports on them. On the first day of class when I announce the classics that we are going to watch in class, films such as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” or Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” no student has seen any of the films.

I have the same attitude about watching films as I have about reading novels. When I ask friends what they are reading, some will respond, “Just junk.”

If you are going to read a novel, why not read a good novel? That doesn’t always mean working through something like Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” but why waste time reading junk when terrific Catholic novels are available? Likewise, why watch junk when great films are available?

Quality Films

One advantage of attending the festivals at the Immaculate Conception Center is that a person can be sure that the films shown are high quality. In recent years, I have been trying to choose films that members of the audience may not have had the opportunity to see previously. Last March, I was surprised that almost no one in the audience had seen – much less heard of – the first film in the spring series. It was “The Mortal Storm” (1940) starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young and Frank Morgan. Audience members responded enthusiastically to the film that showed the rise of Naziism in Germany before our country was involved in World War II.

Discussion Groups

Besides festivals, another way of learning more about films would be to start a film discussion group. Members of the group might watch a classic film together and then discuss it or each member might watch the film alone and then gather to discuss what they saw.

An excellent resource that could help groups is “Image and Likeness: Religious Visions in American Film Classics,” edited by John R. May (Paulist Press, 1992, pp. 200).

All the films scheduled for this fall are good. The first one is “The Green Years,” a deeply Catholic film that I have wanted to show for 20 years. It just became available on DVD.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

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