It’s the rare documentary film premiere that triggers worldwide headlines, but that’s what has happened with Evgeny Afineevsky’s Francesco. The film about Pope Francis debuted at the Rome Film Festival today and first the Catholic press and then secular media picked up on something the pope told Afineevsky in the film: Gay people should be allowed to form civil unions.
The Catholic Church traditionally has been hostile to homosexual activity, calling it “deviant behavior.” It has preached acceptance of gay people but called the idea of conferring legal status on same sex unions an attack on the family. What Pope Francis told Afineevsky contradicted that orthodoxy.
“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it,” the pope says in Francesco. “What we have to create is a civil union law.”
Afineevsky, who earned an Oscar nomination for his 2015 film Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom and was Oscar-shortlisted for 2017’s Cries From Syria, began working on Francesco almost three years ago. He told Deadline the film emerged from his growing alarm over the human condition and the environment.
“I realized that there are so many disasters in the world, that we as humans created,” he noted, citing climate change, the war in Syria, the resulting refugee crisis, the separation of immigrant families attempting to enter the U.S. from Latin America, the Rohingya genocide and even the COVID-19 pandemic. He saw in Pope Francis one of the few global leaders addressing those issues from a humane perspective.
“His humbleness, his simplicity, his direct approach, allowed me to learn a lot. And to share it with the audience,” Afineevsky said. “That’s why I did the movie, not as Pope Francis the leader of the [Catholic] church, or head of the state, but as the human being, who can be also a role model of leadership, which we need in this world.”
For Winter on Fire, the director added, “We had a poster. It was a big drop of water. And under this drop was said, ‘Each of us is a drop of water. But together we are an ocean.’ Together we are the ocean, so we have the power… [Pope] Francis is trying to unite us. Francis is trying to show us a task that each and every person can do, and then we can change the world.”
Francesco holds its North American premiere at the Savannah Film Festival this Sunday and from there heads to DOC NYC. Afineevsky wants his documentary to be seen as widely as possible in the U.S. before the presidential election on November 3.
“I am not trying to do propaganda,” he insisted. “What I’m trying to do, I’m trying to show to the people what they’re missing” in terms of real leadership. “I do want to show this to the United States, and to American people, because I feel that they need to be united,” he added. “And not divided, like we’ve been from day one of the winning of Donald Trump.”
Francesco arrives two years after the release of another film about the pontiff, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders. The Wenders film earned more than $8 million worldwide, taking a theological approach to examining the pope’s teachings. The Vatican approached Wenders, a former Catholic who now attends a Protestant church, to make Pope Francis. By contrast, Afineevsky, a practicing Jew, pressed the Vatican diligently to gain extraordinary access to the pope.
“Slowly, slowly I opened a lot of doors. It not was easy,” Afineevsky admitted. “It’s never happened before, that a not Catholic guy, outsider, came and did something [with the pope].”
Part of what convinced the pope to agree to the film was the director’s preparation, Afineevsky says.
“He saw that I went through the entire world, to follow his steps. I’ve been also in Rohingya [refugee] camps, also in Armenia, also in the prison in Buenos Aires [that the pope has visited]. Also in Chile,” Afineevsky commented. “So he saw that it’s not like I’m trying to make [the documentary] out of a room. I am doing hard work, to follow his steps, to bring these elements to the screen.”
There are biographical elements in the film, but Afineevsky doesn’t see Francesco as a bio-doc. Rather, it’s an exploration of Francis’ teachings and message. It also doesn’t pull punches on the sexual abuse scandal that has sullied the reputation of the church and damaged its claims to moral leadership. A prominent figure in the documentary is Juan Carlos Cruz, an activist on behalf of victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy who himself was abused as a child by a priest in Chile.
Early in his papacy Francis defended some prelates accused of sexual misconduct. But what impresses Afineevsky is the pope’s capacity to evolve. Last year, the pope convened a gathering of church leaders, a meeting that resulted in a call “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors.” He has sacked some high ranking church officials, including cardinals, accused of sexual abuse and last December changed Vatican policy to permit investigation of sexual abuse cases by secular authorities, including police and prosecutors.
“I wanted to give a voice to the victims of sexual abuse,” Afineevsky told Deadline. “And I wanted to show how the [pope] can do mistakes. How [he] can investigate them, admit the mistakes, and take not only responsibility, but immediately take actions.”
Afineevsky celebrated his 48th birthday today, meeting privately with the pope before the premiere of Francesco. On Thursday he will receive the Kineo Movie for Humanity Award, presented by the Italian Ministry of Culture, at a ceremony inside the Vatican Gardens.
Distribution plans for Francesco are pending. The pontiff is known to not watch TV or see films, but Afineevsky showed Pope Francis scenes from the documentary and apparently he was pleased. The director showed Deadline a handwritten note from the pope that read, “I congratulate you for the high artistic quality.”