If there was any doubt as to Alex Gibney’s status as one of the most important documentary filmmakers working today then Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God should firmly cement that position. From financial meltdown, the Merry Pranksters and atrocities in Afghanistan, Gibney has proved that he can take complicated stories and tell them in a revealing and entertaining way. Ben Unwin meets the filmmaker at the LFF to talk about his films and how they come together.
For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, Gibney’s latest documentary Mea Maxima Culpa is another master piece with Oscar-potential. The film addresses the issues of the Vatican’s central role in the child abuse scandals and its silence when confronted with overwhelming evidence that it was widespread. Centring around the abuse of deaf children at a Catholic boarding school in the U.S, the film rightly portrays the abused as heroes who have been strong, stood up and fought for justice – even when what and who they believed in forsook them.
DG: You must have many ideas about films that you want to make so what brought you to Mea Maxima Culpa?
AG: It is not always “Oh this is the film I‘m dying to make and now I am going to make it”. Sometimes an opportunity just comes your way. Some friends of mine were interested in doing something on this topic so I decided to explore it and see if it was something that I wanted to do. Frankly I had been thinking about it for a long time as I was raised Catholic and it was a subject of tremendous importance. The question for me was if there was something new I could contribute to the topic, as there have already been a lot of films on the subject. Once I had reckoned that the story warranted doing then I dug in.
DG: The structure of the film seems to very much take the form of a crime thriller.
AG: That was very much my intent. I knew that I wanted to juxtapose the intimate story of the school with the panoramic story of the cover up and that we had a connection between the two with these documents. But in thinking it through and while we were in the cutting room it started to feel more and more like a crime film and that’s when we realised we should treated as such. In this instance we didn’t follow the money, we followed the sequence. That’s why we start with the guy typing the letter that exposed Father Murphy, because the documents are very important to the story. Bits of pieces of evidence are being gathered to tell a story and we too started with small bits of information here and there, in the same way that crime films often start. They start with a murder or a crime and you go “Wait a minute, who committed the crime, who was responsible and who covered it up?”
DG: Did the film change in any way as you were structuring the edit?
AG: It did. I work with a genius editor called Sloane Klevin who is hugely responsible for the final film. The hardest part was finding the right balance between the big story and the small story and for a long time when we showed it to people, as we often do while we a working, they would say “well we love both stories but they are not working together,” so we had to reckon very hard to make that work.
DG: Were there sequences that you had to throw out?
AG: Oh yeah there were many lovely sequences including two in Ireland that we had to throw. It’s inevitable but very hard to lose them.
DG: Time to plug the DVD extras…?
AG: Yes (laughs) definitely DVD extras!
DG: When you are dealing with material that is potentially this upsetting is there any point at which it has a psychological effect on you personally?
AG: Yes it certainly does and I am not even the one that is sitting there with the footage every day. That’s not the way I work with an editor. We talk about a sequence, the editor will put it together, then I watch it and we discuss it together. For the editor, in this case Sloane, it can be a brutal process.
DG: How did you approach the reconstructions?
AG: They are always different, you always need to think about what the best way to tell a story is.
In the case of Mea Maxima Culpa there were certain vivid memories that were almost like collective memories among the boys. I felt that they needed to be viscerally experienced otherwise the audience couldn’t experience their power. Also there is the element of how the communication within the confessional is shown, particularly for non-Catholics. It needed to be concrete it rather than just talked about. Lets face it, there is something very powerful about a deaf conversation within the confessional. Picking the style of how to do them was based around the fact that their experiences were something akin to a horror film so that’s how I shot them.
DG: Looking through the eyes of the victims in the film and their strength I ultimately, and surprisingly, found this an uplifting film.
AG: I’m glad. These guys are heroes. One could have ended up with a bleaker view but there was something about these men that is so important and we really wanted to celebrate their movement and their fight. It was a difficult thing to get that balance right in the edit. I wanted this film to leave you with the feeling that yes, there is something that you can do and that these guys really made a difference.
DG: People often talk about you as a political filmmaker but when you look at the body of your work you have covered a very varied range of topics including sports and the 1960’s counter culture. Is it important to you to work on a range of subject matters?
AG: Absolutely, otherwise you become stale and then you are in danger of becoming a kind of political lecturer.I resist the idea that I am political filmmaker although I am interested in power, but more in a moral sense, more in corruption and the abuses of power. I also find it important to do films about sports or music and oddly enough those lighter subjects end up having a valuable influence on the heavier political films and vice versa.
DG: Essentially you need to find the human story?
AG: Correct, otherwise it becomes preachy. With Taxi to the Dark Side the taxi driver is not really in the film that much as unfortunately he is dead, but it is a murder mystery and you keep coming back to what happened to him as the focus of the story. You hear statistics about casualties all the time but it is far more poignant to talk about the death of one human being that you know more intimately. It helps to focus you and find a framework for the story. In Mea Maxima Culpa without the deaf men in the centre the story is a lecture about the Catholic church, which is not that interesting from the standpoint of a film. Films are about stories.
DG. One last question, there has been a lot of talk about another of your projects, an upcoming documentary about the cyclist Lance Armstrong. Have the recent developments affected the film that you are making about him?
AG: Hell yeah, (laughs) I mean, hello?! I followed him during his comeback year but once the federal investigation started we had to put it aside. Now, however, we are coming back to it. We’re going to go out and shoot some new interviews and I personally think it is going to be a pretty powerful film…
Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God will be released in the UK on 15 February.