SISTERS: Portrait of a Benedictine Community

Benedictine Life

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Filmmaker Q&A

Producer/Director John Hanson, Producer Tom Livingston and Producer/Camerman/Editor Jack Lind talk about the woman who inspired SISTERS, reckless scooter driving and breaking stereotypes associated with monastic life.

What led you to make this film?

Tom: I mentioned my desire to do a program on Sister Noemi, my mentor, to John Hanson. He thought she was an intriguing subject. Sister Noemi was a person of deep faith, whose photographic work was nationally recognized. A Kodak Woman of the Year, she was one of the pioneers of close-up nature photography in the early 1970s. She started an artist’s commune on a farm outside Duluth and I became a member. Always a free spirited maverick sister, her adventures and legacy of touching lives through her work are legendary in this region. Unfortunately, she passed on before we could begin this endeavor.

John felt that her passing was symbolic of the dramatic changes taking place in monasteries worldwide. His friend and author, Patricia Hampl, had written about life in monasteries in her book Virgin Time. This and Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk became part of our background reading. We all agreed that there was a story to be discovered in the St. Scholastica Monastery.


Producer/Director John Hanson shares a funny— and harrowing—moment during filming.

We asked one of the disabled sisters to drive her battery-powered, three-wheeled scooter through the cemetery and toward the camera. On “action,” she sped down the hill past a row of gravestones, rounded a corner practically on two wheels and roared past the camera—her dog racing alongside. A stunt driver couldn’t have done it better. We all laughed in amazement until we realized how close we came to disaster—if she had missed that turn and rolled over. As for the sister, she just waved and continued on back to the monastery.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

John: Getting full access to the monastery took a long time. For major decisions like this, the community has an extended process of prayer, discussion, more prayer, discussion, etc. But once the decision was made and mutual trust established, we had great cooperation. Another challenge was shooting sacred rituals without interfering, and yet being able to capture the details and key moments with our primary cast of SISTERS.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

John: I hope the film will help break down the stereotypes about people in this kind of religious community, and give viewers a better understanding of the role contemporary sisters play in a changing world.

Tom/Jack: We also hope people are touched by the simplicity and profound commitment characterizing these individual’s lives. In our fast-paced world, such lives can be an inspiration and challenge to those who take time to ponder life’s meaning.

What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude?

John/Tom/Jack: The film was shot over two years, ending in 1999. While the film was initially completed in 2000, a new version was edited in 2005 for Independent Lens.

Has life changed at the monastery since you finished filming?

Tom: There have been some physical changes to the monastery buildings and grounds. The community continues to decrease in active numbers through aging, illness and death, and is expanding its involvement with lay ministers and community outreach.

Is there anything you would like to add about your experience making this film?

John, Jack and Tom: We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the gift of trust and access the sisters of St. Scholastica bestowed on us throughout filming. Not only were we welcomed, but we were treated with honor, respect, hospitality, grace and cooperation.

The independent film business is difficult. What keeps you motivated?

John: There are many more stories to tell.

Tom/Jack: A primary motivation is pursuing meaningful work that will only be done through vision, initiative and patience.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

John: While there are a growing number of venues for documentaries—thankfully—public television, and especially Independent Lens, remains a prime showcase for unique, in-depth stories not to be seen elsewhere in the media.

What are your three favorite films?

John: Raging Bull, Tender Mercies, Unforgiven
Tom: Stand By Me, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, The Natural
Jack: The Red Violin, The Passion of the Christ, The Godfather

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

Tom: Probably working for a nonprofit organization in some capacity. (Of course my colleagues would say I’m already working for a nonprofit.)

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

John: Make sure you have the passion and patience to withstand challenges and setbacks you will inevitably face as an independent filmmaker.

What sparks your creativity?

John: Curiosity and amazement about my fellow travelers on planet Earth.

Tom: Faith, and the wonderment of creation.

Read the filmmakers’ bios >>

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