"Why did they ask you?" That was the question I heard whenever I told colleagues and friends that I would be away from the office for 12 days in order to serve on the Ecumenical Jury at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.
Nobody has questioned my place on the selection committee of the Grawemeyer Religion Award, which has a whopping $100,000 prize. Nor has anyone asked me why I was approached to judge doctoral dissertations in journalism history or television news broadcasts for high school students across the state.
Heck, for the 13 years that I helped judge the state spelling bee, nobody ever asked me to spell c-r-e-d-e-n-t-i-a-l. But judging film — that’s a different matter altogether.
I think I understand where my colleagues and friends are coming from. In most people's minds, film judging means choosing the best director, the best actor, or the best screenplay, judgments best left to accomplished directors, actors and screenwriters. Serving on an ecumenical jury is simply not on their landscape.
So when I explained that I was asked to serve on a jury of Protestants and Catholics charged with choosing a film of artistic merit that explores "ethical, social, and spiritual values that make life human," they seemed satisfied, at least for the moment.
"What? No Muslims or Jews?" My colleagues and friends are nothing if not tough. Ecumenical juries — with Protestants appointed by the World Council of Churches affiliate INTERFILM and Roman Catholics appointed by SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication — have judged for decades in film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin.
More recent interfaith juries — which have put Muslims and Jews together with Christians — have judged at film festivals in such places as Brisbane and Tehran.
Whatever my qualifications, I figured that the best way to prepare for Montreal would be to watch as many movies that have won the Ecumenical Prize there as I could rent through Netflix. I had seen The Syrian Bride (2004), the Israeli film about a Druze bride about to be separated from her family forever because of Middle Eastern politics and bureaucracy; Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000), the Moroccan film about friendship and hope among homeless children in Casablanca; and Children of Heaven (1997), the Iranian film about a poor but resourceful child who loses his sister’s sneakers and is determined to replace them.
That left just seven films for me to watch. Ecumenical juries in Montreal have awarded prizes since 1979, two years after the world film festival started there, but only 11 — about a third — have made their way to Netflix. The odds get worse for films that receive only a special mention by the Ecumenical Jury. Only six of those — about a fifth — have gone on to Netflix distribution. Many tremendous movies find no distribution beyond film festivals, and many of those that do simply disappear after their limited art-house runs.
I flew to Montreal thinking about Once Were Warriors, the 1994 New Zealand film about poverty, alcoholism, and violence, and Ben X, the 2007 Belgian film about a young man’s struggle with bullies. But I quickly learned that my home viewing was nothing like watching movies at the film festival.
At home I wondered how award winners fit the criteria for the Ecumenical Prize. In Montreal I watched films in competition to see whether they fit the criteria for the Ecumenical Prize at all.
At home I watched a few movies per week. In Montreal I watched three or four movies every day for 10 straight days. At home I watched movies on a 42-inch television. In Montreal I watched movies on panoramic theater screens. And at home I watched most of the movies alone, but in Montreal I watched the movies in full theaters, knowing that I would discuss each movie with the other jurors.
If I had any reason to be intimidated, it wasn't figuring out which films best probed ethical, social and spiritual dimensions of humanity. It was keeping company with my highly accomplished fellow jurors.
One was a high-flying communications consultant. Another was a documentary film maker. Two were professional film critics, one of whom wrote the book Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith. The jury president was a tri-lingual facilitator of international programs in communication and social change.
Fortunately, my fellow jurors didn’t mind having a media professor along for the ride. Our meetings were simultaneously serious and friendly, and our decisions for both the prize and the special mention were unanimous.
Sometimes jurors come in with their own agendas, making deliberations interesting. I heard of one such juror at another festival who complicated deliberations by opposing every movie that depicted violence or sex or that used foul language. Those three criteria would have ruled out most of the films that we judged, so I’m thankful that my colleagues kept their focus on global themes and not on particular episodes and depictions.
The movie that excited the jury most was Oxygen, the debut feature film by 29-year-old Belgian director Hans Van Nuffel. It tells the story of two young men with cystic fibrosis whose health deteriorates until they are hospitalized hoping for a lung transplant. Xavier, the older of the two, has lived the life of an athlete, scuba diving, racing cars, and running. His next-door neighbor in the Belgian hospital is Tom, who finds his excitement outside the law, first stealing drugs, then manufacturing methamphetamine.
As their hospital stays become longer, Xavier and Tom become friends, each challenging the other’s life choices. The film ends powerfully, but unsentimentally, asking viewers by implication how they would choose to live their lives if they had a terminal condition — which, of course, is what all of us must do.
The Ecumenical Jury gave a Special Mention to another debut director, Florian Cossen of Germany, for The Day I was not Born, a film about memory and identity told as a tale of deception and truth as well as injustice and forgiveness. It focuses on a 31-year-old German woman who hears a mother sing an Argentinean lullaby to her daughter during a layover in the Buenos Aires airport.
Maria Falkenmayer doesn't understand Spanish herself, but she finds herself singing along under her breath. Ultimately she learns that her father had used forged documents to kidnap her from Argentina after her parents had disappeared under President Jorge Rafael Videla’s savage rule. Reunited with surviving relatives in Argentina, Maria has to decide whether to allow her father to be brought to justice in a court of law.
It turns out that Oxygen also won the festival's grand prize and The Day I was not Born also won the international film critics prize.
Bar none, the worst movie I saw was The Sentiment of the Flesh, a French film about a radiologist who gets to know his lover outside and inside, literally. Their lovemaking goes from the bed to the bathtub to the MRI machine. By the end of the movie, when their lovemaking uses a scalpel, the audience in the showing I attended poured out of the theater, despite the director’s promise to answer questions after the show.
I figured that, like the doctor in the movie, the director ended up licking his wounds.
But I was wrong. The Sentiment of the Flesh took bronze in the category of First Fiction Feature Film.
But, hey, I’m just a communication professor making his debut as an ecumenical juror. Who am I to judge?
John P. Ferré is Professor of Communication and Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Louisville. He is a member of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville.
The Montreal World Film Festival was held Aug. 26-Sept. 6.