Interview: Evgeny Afineevsky on Chronicling a Progressive Papacy in “Francesco”

A year ago, Evgeny Afineevsky was at the Vatican nearing the end of the shoot for his latest film “Francesco” when he couldn’t help but be struck by what was unfolding in front of him. Ordinarily, a papal address would bring hundreds into Saint Peter’s Square, but this “Urbi et Orbi” was intended to have the opposite affect as Pope Francis urged calm in the face of the ever-growing threat of the coronavirus. The director had seen some dire days in recent years, making the Oscar-nominated “Winter on Fire” about the student activists calling for the removal of Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych following a contested election, and “Cries from Syria,” charting the five-year destruction of the country through the war waged by President Bashar Al-Assad and his own citizens, but this was perhaps the most devastating in scale.

“I think this shot of the Pope in his white dress as an angel walking through the St. Peters Square, which should never be empty like this, is capturing the ability of the human race to disappear if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing right now,” recalls Afineevsky. “These haunting shots when the Pope is walking alone under this darkest sky in the rain, it is symbolizing to me a doomsday.”

Still, Afineevsky was brought to the Vatican by the light and it only became brighter that day when the contrast was so stark, not only between the storm clouds and the glistening white robe of Pope Francis, but of a man who was ready to take on the world. Since elected to serve as the leader of the Catholic Church in 2013, Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has looked more like a voice for the people than one of God, using his position to bring attention to issues such as climate change, mass migration and cultural genocide and for Afineevsky, who has thrown himself into one conflict area of the world after another to try and make sense of their root issues, the opportunity to follow the Pope allows one to see how they’re interconnected and can be addressed collectively.

Following his travels pre-pandemic which take him to such places as Lampedusa, the island in the Mediterranean that’s become a holding area for refugees fleeing inhospitable conditions either from war or extreme weather, and the Philippines, still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, “Francesco” chronicles a much longer journey for Pope Francis from his upbringing in Argentina where he found his calling to be a priest to the personal experiences that shaped his progressive worldview. The film already made headlines last year upon its premiere virtually at DOC NYC when revealing the Pope had broken from tradition in advocating for same-sex civil unions, and while he expresses admiration for “Jesus’ use of silence,” he is shown employing his platform time and again to speak up for those in poverty and threatened to be left behind in a changing world, recognizing that his own church could be as well if it doesn’t adapt to the times. With the film making its way onto discovery+ as well as a few select theaters, Afineevsky spoke about having an audience with the pope, seeing the opportunity to tell a story larger than any one person and filming in the midst of a pandemic.

How did this come about?

“Winter on Fire” and then “Cries from Syria” showed me as a storyteller and a filmmaker the ability to bring attention to different issues and [how people can] unite and achieve victory together, [whether in] the Ukrainian revolution or to learn of an interfaith dialogue and the coexistence of all different religious groups together — these people who are not believers all together can all coexist in order to achieve peace. It was fascinating to me to see that my movies can be a call for action, or like I call this A-A-A – activism, advocacy, action. What I realized is there’s so many disasters, so I was looking for something that can connect it all together and allow me to spread kindness and hope because we’re living in these crazy roller coaster times. I think we need to find unity in society and that’s what allowed me to connect them through the fascinating role model and inspirational character like Pope Francis.

Did you actually start this knowing you’d have the participation of the Pope?

It actually started with the big idea of his participation. The Vatican people with whom I spoke were very familiar with my work and gave me the greenlight, but nobody was promising me the interview with him. It was my journey as a filmmaker and as a journalist to establish the relationship step-by-step the relationship and capture the essence of his image, learn about him and what motivates him. I had shorter meetings with him, I had longer meetings with him, and technically, it was still meetings, and as a documentary filmmaker, you need to be able to capture things on the spot, sometimes [as fleeting as] on a flight, and that’s the beauty — it’s the the reality, the life that as filmmakers we are capturing.

The sheer scope of it was impressive – what was it like having to create a production across so many different countries?

I love traveling by myself or just with a limited amount of crew and I filmed a lot of things by myself. I have a backpack with cameras and I’ve been by myself in Bangladesh and Myanmar, and it allows me to follow the journey, meet people, and not have a huge crew around, which allows me and for my characters to open hearts and minds and share with the entire world with the lens of my camera what they’re feeling.

It really moves well back and forth in time to see how his personal upbringing informed his current philosophy as Pope. Was it difficult to structure?

I tried to show that the actions that are taken these days are not because he became this leader, but I tried to take a few steps back into his childhood and being a young priest, into his [time as] a Jesuit provincial to show that he learned from the situations that happened in his life, but he always has been Jorge Bergoglio, the same human being close to the people, trying to help, spread peace, interface and worship people exactly like Jesus was worshipping people and washing people’s feet. Nothing has changed the ordinary human being he had been before and who he is now. He’s still the same human being who’s been on the streets of Buenos Aires. He’s still Father Jorge.

What was it like filming during the pandemic?

The pandemic changed my perspective on this movie and allowed me to reshape the direction that it is right now. It allowed me to stop everything, and through the lens of my movie to see disasters that we as humans created not just in this city or the different parts of the earth, but [look] beyond the country that we live in. After watching this movie, the audience [can] stop for a moment and rethink on every disaster that we as humans created and the need to change our thinking towards the planet and towards ourselves. This was a red line that makes us to rethink do we want to be the victims of our past with all these disasters, and victimize ourselves, or do we want to rethink every action that we did up until today? The inspiration of Pope Francis, with his kindness and interfaith dialogue, we have an ability to learn from him and be inspired by his actions, not just as a leader of the Catholic Church, but just as a humble human being.

It’s not a movie about a church. I’m not seeing that at all. I’m seeing him as the human being from the really big expression of humanity in his heart and in his actions. I think that’s the only way we can sustain as humanity and go into the future. He’s allowing us to think and build this past into the future, becoming the heroes of our future.

The timing couldn’t be better for the film to come out, but it must’ve made it more difficult to finish. What’s it been like to complete?

I have been traveling through the pandemic and I’ve been twice sick with COVID, I can tell you that, so it brings a lot of challenges and like with every filmmaker, I wanted to see this movie on the big screen. But I am so grateful to Discovery for allowing me to bring every audience across the globe so I can allow them to see beyond the windows of what’s happening on their street. With the modern technology, during this pandemic when the message really needs to be heard as quick as possible and people really need to reevaluate every step they’re doing in order to go into the new future, that’s the beauty of today’s world, even with its challenges. I believe in a good future for the human mankind and with all the lessons that are in the movie, it allows us step-by-step to build a new future.

“Francesco” will open in select cinemas on March 26 and begins streaming on Discovery+ on March 28th.