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Documentary Explores What It Means To Be 'Called'

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By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

"The Calling," a four-hour documentary that airs Dec. 20-21 on PBS stations, looks at seven young Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish seminarians as they train for the ministry, grapple with their sense of calling and their new responsibilities.

Director Danny Alpert talked about the $1.8 million project that followed some of its subjects for two years. Some comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you decide to make training for ministry the subject of a documentary?

A: There was a combination of two factors, one very personal and the other more cultural or societal. On a personal level, as a young man, I considered becoming a rabbi. On a more societal level, living abroad in Israel for several years, in a culture where faith and the day-to-day life are so intertwined, when I moved back to the States I was struck by the tension between modernity and faith.

Q: Is this relatively uncharted territory for documentarians or filmmakers?

A: There have been films made about nuns, about missionaries and priests before. I don't believe that there has ever been a film that covers a number of faiths. And certainly I don't think there's been one that really goes into the personal lives as well as the spiritual lives of these individuals.

Q: Have the subjects met each other?

A: Last week, we had an event at the Art Institute of Chicago where, for the first time, the subjects all came together. It was lightning in a bottle. The sense of spirituality, commonality in that pursuit was really palpable in the room all day long.

Q: In the series, you deal with people from very different faiths, but were you hoping to show commonalities among them?

A: I don't think we set out to show commonalities in faith. This was not meant to be "look how similar we are." I think we wanted to humanize religious leaders and to show that they struggle with a lot of the same things that we do.

Q: What were the similarities that struck you?

A: This seems to be a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too generation. While they are all devoted to their faith and live their faith, they are also not willing to compromise on their modern American identities. I've also found in terms of the commonalities between them, the basic struggles of balancing religious/public life, self-care and care of others.

Q: Most of the candidates seemed to grapple with their sense of calling.

A: It's a huge leap of faith, literally and figuratively, to do this. There aren't many more demanding jobs. You're on 24/7, you're a public figure, you're being judged, people are looking at you. There are pressures on all levels -- personal, spiritual, practical. I think that the calling is not a static event for any of these people. How that plays out in the world is an evolution.

Q: These candidates all had their sermons critiqued and went through the job interview process, and had to move from a 9-5 mindset to a 24/7 one. Were you also trying to show how unusual this preparation can be?

A: Seminaries are kind of unknown, cloistered -- to use the old-fashioned word. People don't know how their religious leaders are trained, and that is part of what makes a good documentary: taking people to a place they can't or haven't or could never go.

Q: What was most difficult to leave on the cutting room floor?

A: A whole additional Catholic story. There were originally going to be eight stories -- two from each faith group. It became a question of more stories or more depth to each story. We had a limited amount of time, and it became clear that more depth was the way to go.

Q: What message do you hope people will walk away with after viewing the series?

A: I hope that they will be thinking about something that the characters did to make the world a better place, and that they will look at these people's callings and think about what their own calling may be, what it is that they feel passionate about.

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