San Francisco Pro-Lifers Start a Film Festival

Deal W. Hudson
March 5, 2008

A new and unusual film festival focused on pro-life issues will be held in San Francisco this coming Friday, March 7. The Cinema Vita Film Festival is “dedicated to encouraging emerging filmmakers, showcasing movies about contemporary issues concerning life, and exploring life’s deep significance.”

Sponsored by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the Diocese of Oakland, and St. Ignatius Press, Cinema Vita was conceived by four pro-life laywomen. With the help of San Francisco’s pro-life community, the festival became a reality.

Submissions of these short films – most in the five-minute range – were made in three categories: high school, college, and open, the highest number of entries being in the high school category. Festival judges are actress Jennifer O’Neill; Rev. Michael Morris, O.P., film and art historian at Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology; Doug Sherman, founder and chairman of Immaculate Heart Radio; Vicki Evans, Respect Life Program Coordinator at the Archdiocese of San Francisco; and me.

Bill and Marjorie Campbell are one of the two couples helping to underwrite the fledgling festival. “We see this as an ongoing project that will grow like the San Francisco Walk for Life,” Marjorie told me. “We were inspired to support it because of the success of films like Bella and Juno. The arts, especially film, are much more effective at conveying a pro-life message than strident political debates.”

One of the biggest stories concerning religion in the past several years is the explosion of Christian interest in producing films, ignited by the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The grassroots marketing campaign for The Passion left in its wake a spate of companies and ad hoc networks attempting to tap into the same audience.

This interest in film as a medium of evangelization clearly appeals to Catholic investors like the Campbells. “You have a much better chance to change people’s minds when they go to movies, because the movies are not an attack on you. Films invite people to reflect; political debate often creates division and separate camps.”

Connie D’Aura was among the group of pro-lifers who first discussed having a pro-life film festival. “I was in a meeting talking about how we could bring Bella to San Francisco when somebody said we should have our own film festival.” No one said anything at the time, but Connie brought it up at another meeting several months later, and a decision was made on the spot to launch Cinema Vita.

Using networks in San Francisco and Oakland, especially through the Walk for Life West Coast, Connie and her friends got the word out. Films were to be approximately five minutes in length and address the “significance of life.” Wording the criterion this way ensured that not all the films would be about abortion. “We think this will be a big success – the word got out, especially on the Internet, and we got submissions from Texas, Arizona, and North Carolina. But we expect it to be even bigger and better next year.”

The festival itself, in addition to the awards, will feature a showing of After the Truth, a fictional recreation of a trial in contemporary Germany of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, the “angel of death” who performed human experiments on the prisoners at Auschwitz. In the movie, Mengele kidnaps an attorney in order to return to Germany to tell his story, without remorse. In reality, Mengele escaped to South America, living first in Argentina, then Brazil, eluding capture before dying of a stroke in 1979. (In 1978, the film The Boys from Brazil was released, based upon the novel by Ira Levin, starring Gregory Peck as Mengele.)

The film about Mengele was suggested by festival organizer and judge Vicki Evans, who considers the Mengele story especially relevant for current arguments over bioethics, such as experimentation on embryonic stem cells. She thinks having a film festival is a no-brainer:

Everyone loves to go to the movies and lose themselves in the silver screen. Why not present films that will give an audience positive themes to reflect upon? And why not encourage emerging filmmakers to use their art in support of an ethical society?

The winners of the Cinema Vita contest were contacted today, and several of them are making the journey to San Francisco to receive their awards in person. Marjorie Campbell hopes that some of these participants will be encouraged to learn the trade of making films. “We need to encourage Catholic artists; they are under-represented in the film industry, and much of what is being made for a Catholic audience suffers from a lack of quality.”

Having seen the films myself, I can report that several of them were well-made and incredibly powerful. We will be showing some of these films on InsideCatholic.com over the next few weeks, in the hope of stimulating interest for next year’s festival. (I was surprised that there weren’t more students from Catholic colleges represented, given the time that many of them spend on YouTube!)

One film in particular, whose title I cannot mention, packed a particular punch, and I will be interested to see the reaction when it is posted. It’s an impressive example of how Catholic artists can express their faith through their art.

The films submitted to Cinema Vita are only the first wave from a generation of young Catholic filmmakers who may well surpass the past generation of polemicists in combating the culture of death.

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