Phil on Film Index

Monday, October 22, 2012

"It's hard to be objective, but you want to be fair." - An Interview With Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney's Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God begins with the story of Father Lawrence Murphy, a well-liked and respected priest at St John's School for the Deaf in Wisconsin who committed sexual abuse against 200 deaf children in his care. This in itself would be explosive material for a documentary, but Gibney takes it further, methodically drawing links that show how the Vatican was complicit in these crimes, as it protected Murphy and other priests who were guilty of abuse around the world. Mea Maxima Culpa is a perceptive, well-researched and enraging film film that acts as a powerful companion piece to Gibney's Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, and confirms his status as the foremost documentary filmmaker working in cinema today. I met the director when he presented Mea Maxima Culpa at the London Film Festival.

As I watched Mea Maxima Culpa I was filled with rage, and I wanted to ask you how you cope with the emotional impact of things you see and hear while making a film like this. Can you detach yourself emotionally and be objective in your approach?

It's hard to be objective, but you want to be fair. My favourite line about this issue is from a physicist named Richard Feynman who said, "It's important to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out." In that regard, why shouldn't there be a sense of righteous anger about these crimes, particularly the crime of the cover-up? At the same time, that can't lead you to falsely create monsters when there are human beings there. So it was very important for me to explore the shades of grey in this story, whether it be through Archbishop Weakland, a flawed man who tried to do the right thing, or even Cardinal Ratzinger, a weak man and ultimately unwilling to challenge the bureaucracy of the Church, but who nevertheless was angry enough to try and do something. He failed, ultimately, he had a failure of nerve and courage, but it's interesting to me that he sent his prosecutor out. So by understanding that human dimension, that was my way of trying to reckon with the idea that these are human beings trying to protect the power of an institution – wrongly and immorally, but they're human beings.

There are obvious parallels to be made with Taxi to the Dark Side, and one of the most shocking aspects of both films is that there is no sense of empathy or compassion for the victim as these people try to protect themselves.

It is the most shocking thing. There was actually a scene from the film that we had to remove, it's one of those horrible things when you're trying to get a film down to time. We talked to a Franciscan monk, and there was a lovely scene of an Italian woman talking to him as they were walking through the streets of Assisi, and she was saying to him, "Aren't you concerned? Doesn't your heart go out to the victims?" He said, "Oh yes, my heart goes out to the victims, but it's the lawyers. They're just trying to get money from the Church." He moved past the victims so quickly to "it's just the lawyers trying to get money from the Church," and then that letter from Father Murphy to Ratzinger saying "I'm an old man, let me died in peace" and they're like, "Yeah, that's right." The concern is not for the victims, the concern is for the priests. It's appalling.

I grew up in Ireland as a Catholic so I'm well aware of the hold the Church has over that country, and the sight of people turning against it in Ireland is an extraordinary thing to see. It feels like a huge turning point.

Oh, it's huge. Honestly, it has been a sea change. I visited Ireland on and off, and in the last few years in the wake of these reports, that I think the government has done a great job with, the rage of these people has been so extreme. I was interested as I going through Ireland and talking to people, it came up over and over again, where they're talking with great affection for the local parish priest who they knew, but they always spoke with great derision and contempt for "Them." That was the phrase they always used, "Them," meaning the hierarchy, these people, these motherfuckers who ruthlessly protected the reputation of the Church by burying these crimes and allowing more children to be hurt. It's the most appalling crime and I think that moral indignation is so intense, and Kenny's speech, in which he talks about the rape and murder of children, is such a powerful moment. You can't imagine that happening ten years ago.

There is an interesting line in the film where one of the interviewees says, "Heaven knows what they would have done if this had been a spate of murders," and it's an interesting question because they are already covering up one of the most grievous crimes imaginable. How far would they go to protect themselves?

One of the reasons we included those notes of the therapist for Father Murphy, where he comes up with a rationalisation for his crimes, is as a way of saying that when they believe they are good, there is no end to the rationalisation people will come up with about why their crimes are acceptable. It would be interesting to see what kind of rationalisation they would come up with for murder. But as it's pointed out in the film, many people believe that abusing the sacred vows of confession is akin to a "soul murder." That is a kind of a murder, which the Church does in theory reserve its greatest punishment for, and there is no statute of limitations for the crime, but of course, all investigations into that crime have to be held in absolute secrecy. Even the victims are sworn to secrecy, which tells you something very gruesome.

There is this idea throughout the film that the Church is above the law of man, essentially.

Yes, and somehow superior to other human beings. Holy Orders is a sacrament that puts you on another spiritual plane to other human beings.

When you look at people protesting and displaying such unprecedented anger against the Church, do you think the cracks that have appeared in its reputation can be healed, or will they only grow from here?

Well, I think they can be healed...I guess it depends. People like Diarmuid Martin have impressed by their willingness to do the right thing, and many people still cling on to their parish priest. The question is, what of the larger institution that they represent? You're seeing some priests now breaking away, and without the permission of Rome they are just setting up a church someplace and inviting people to pray. They're doing everything but not sending the money back to Rome. Unless the Church reforms in Rome, why should people continue to pray at the local Catholic church? Unless they say, "We're seceding now, we're the Catholic Church of Ireland and we have nothing to do with Rome." It seems to me that's the only way forward unless Rome reforms, and Rome shows no sign of reforming.

Essentially, the Roman Catholic Church's biggest flaw is that it presents itself as flawless. You feel they could help themselves by simply presenting a more human and honest face.

That's what Weakland says in the film, a moment I so very much admire. He says, "Take the pedestal away from the Pope," and he says, "We're human beings. Christ wasn't afraid of humanity, and we shouldn't be either." The Church represents itself as a perfect society, which is just a horrible idea and as I think someone says in the film it's kind of a heresy.

It's inhuman.

It is inhuman. It's saying "We are God." They're not, they're men. They're celibate men with venal ideas about how things work.

We spoke about the thematic links to Taxi to the Dark Side and there is also a structural parallel, as you begin with a single case before slowly expanding to investigate the larger scandal.

That was very much our intent. Taxi to the Dark Side was a murder mystery, and I suppose this is a sex mystery. You're following the crime up through the ranks, and it's a little bit like Chinatown, you know, you start with a photographer shooting infidelity and the next thing you know you're dealing with water in the Owens Valley. It's actually the same editor as Taxi to the Dark Side and we thought a lot about those parallels. It was very hard in this one and in Taxi to get the balance right with the intimate story. In our first pass I think we had an 80-minute story about Milwaukee and a 10-minute story about the rest of the world, and we had to make a shift there, but structurally they are very similar.

Finally, I know you have a number of projects in the works and two of those are films about Wikileaks and Lance Armstrong, stories that are still developing. How has it affected your process to be working on subjects that are in a state of flux?

It's hard. I think we're pretty close to being done with the Wikileaks story. For the Lance Armstrong film we need to do more interviews and we have to restructure. But neither of them are that far away, and I would look for both of them next year.