The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Rebel Hearts.
How did the project begin and how did you two come together?
Shawnee Isaac Smith: I’ll start since it was twenty-one years ago when I met one of the Immaculate Heart sisters and was so inspired by their story that it stuck in my head like “someone has to do a movie about this, it’s amazing.” Having been brought up Catholic, I was inspired by women in the church and how they stood in their own power. That stuck with me when I met somebody who was a former IHM (Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) and I said would you mind introducing me to these women, and asking if you can stand in for me as a reference to do this doc. So I started filming them and they welcomed me into their community and shared their stories and their vulnerabilities and their pain and suffering. I got to know some courageous women that continue to inspire me to this day. I carried the footage and the stories and maintained those relationships for years but couldn’t find funding to direct it myself. Later on, one of our producers, Kira Carstensen, said I can put together a team for you to make this happen. She introduced me to Pedro and it’s funny because I always assumed if I didn’t direct, it would be a woman. But Pedro had such an amazing background in Catholicism and the understanding of this order, and as he’s said, it went into his heart as well as mine. It felt like a great symbiotic relationship.
Pedro Kos: When Kira and Shawnee approached me with the story, it was like an arrow through my heart. Having had my own issues with the institution of the church as well, this story was a breath of fresh air and really captured my imagination while speaking to the moment we were living in. With each day and month and year after I came on board, it felt even more current as a story about this awakening of these oppressive structures that govern our lives. It was really a meditation on how change happens. I dove in and began spending time with some of these incredible women and filming a bit as well. Shawnee was extraordinary in capturing the firsthand accounts that she had mentioned and the materials she had collected. And then we continued to dig and unearthed some hidden gems and that’s how it came together.
It was really a meditation on how change happens.
It’s amazing to hear this was a twenty-one-year timeline with all the older interviews. Was there a sense of urgency because of how long this project has been in motion?
SIS: When I initially made the agreement with the community, I promised them that I’d interview all the elders for their archives, even if it was a story I didn’t want to use in the film. It was heartbreaking for me—and still is—whenever one of them passed away because I had always envisioned them getting a standing ovation in front of an audience for who they were. We lost Patrice Underwood, the one at Selma, right before we launched at Sundance.
PK: Because it’s taken so long, many of the greats are no longer with us.
SIS: Each year I’d say, this is the year the documentary has to come out, we need this! In retrospect now, I can’t think of a better time for it to come out. So many of the issues have come full circle and there’s a whole generation that can be inspired by these women now. Pedro and I saw that in the editing room where we saw young editors that wanted to meet these amazing women. It was so heartening to see that they were touching the younger generation as well as the generation that lived that time and that experience.
There’s an extraordinary amount of archival footage in the film. What was the process like unearthing it all?
SIS: I had some of it, but then Pedro brought in a great archival partner, Gabriella Ricketts, who was an amazing spelunker of the archival world and able to find all sorts of amazing treasures.
PK: It’s like a treasure hunt. We kept digging and Gabriella was our lead Sherlock Holmes. Because a lot of this material is from decades ago, sometimes you have to follow clues to unearth things. Usually, you start with your main suspects—the networks and newspapers—but also follow the trail of personal photographs and connections. So you might have a photograph of this person or that person, or guess who was filming here or there. Shawnee was also able to contact filmmakers. The Immaculate Heart community was very much a cultural hub in the 1960s. Their students were vibrant and they also had a very vibrant adult education section, so plenty of people were coming and taking courses. Filmmakers and lots of artists too. There were filmmakers like Baylis Glascock, Thomas Conrad, Haskell Wexler, and they were filming what was going on and the different happenings at the college. They were very generous with their works and we were able to tap into that as well. It’s really a combination of so many different elements. And we discovered within the Immaculate Heart archives audio recordings of their meetings, correspondence, notes… we tried to make this as an immersive experience as possible. I kept using the word tactile, like put me there from the sounds that you’re hearing to the visuals. We tried to bring all these disparate elements together with the animation and the graphics as cohesively as possible.
SIS: One of the interesting little archival finds we had found was that Cardinal McIntyre had a bit of a speech impediment. So he never wanted to be on camera and we couldn’t find any archival footage. Finally we found that one little bit that was a goldmine for us, since we had never heard what he sounded like.
That’s so interesting; I was wondering why he wasn’t covered more heavily in the film that way.
SIS: He also didn’t have the theology that the Immaculate Heart women did. He was not that well educated theologically so he was a little insecure in that area as well. He came from a stockbroker background.
Pedro, what it was it like coming into and editing a project that had been in the works for so many years already?
PK: It was both thrilling and daunting to do justice to this incredible story and this wonderful material and I’m eternally grateful to Shawnee for welcoming me into the family. We really bonded with this common vision of how to tell this immersive story. We were both really inspired by these women and by Corita’s art bringing this major cohesive element in how we told the story and how to create this roller coast ride. In a way, they were part of their time, they wanted to be a part of the world and their work, what they were doing especially with creative art was a character. And in a way, it communicates with our time too, with our current moments. Usually before a project like this I put together a sizzle reel and we went out and tried to bring on new resources and partners and geared up for the full edit a few years ago. I just kept digging, and there was a wealth of riches. Shawnee did, I think, fifty interviews. There are some extraordinary women that didn’t make into the film. We joke that we could have made a ten-part miniseries and still would’ve had footage on the cutting room floor.