AFI Docs 2021 Interview: Pedro Kos on a Revolution Inside the Catholic Church in “Rebel Hearts”

“Clearly, we were on a boat that desperately needed to be rocked,” Helen Kelley can be heard saying in “Rebel Hearts,” one of the many who had come to Los Angeles to serve a higher calling at the Immaculate Heart College in the heart of Hollywood during the 1950s. While you could say that all of the Sisters there had come to save themselves, some were more concerned with their life on earth than what the afterlife might bring, uninterested in marriage either because it wasn’t appealing or in the cards because of their sexuality and finding that they could take cover from the societal pressure of finding a husband under a nun’s habit. When generally thought of in flocks, it is remarkable to learn in Pedro Kos’ passionate documentary about the school for nuns that it was made up of such independently-minded women, yet when it counted, they embraced a religion of their own making, collectively protesting the inherent misogyny in Church dictates and an expectation to serve as essentially unpaid labor and fighting to reform the institution from within.

Despite the college’s closure in 1981, “Rebel Hearts” traces the cultivation of generations of activists radicalized by a school where they could learn plenty, but not necessarily from the curriculum that was set out for them. With a world renowned art department led by Sister Corita Kent and visitors ranging from Buckminster Fuller and Ray and Charles Eames to Jane Fonda, it was a place where personal expression was nurtured and horizons broadened, yet when opportunities for women were few and far between, leaving little to do with the skills they accrued outside the Church, a fact that its leaders knew all too well, the potential for exploitation was considerable as Sisters were trained to be sent off to teach at the thousands of Catholic schools that the Church was building across the country for whatever they wanted to pay them. Although their own battle for better wages were front of mind, the Sisters were emboldened to take on any number of social injustices they saw both in and outside the Church and in Kos’ film where leaders in the movement such as Anita Caspary and Pat Reif recount their electrifying history in their own words, the film turns the surprise of rebellious nuns into a galvanizing call to action when anyone can take their power into their own hands.

Brought to vivid life with Una Lorentzen’s gorgeous animation and a stirring score from Ariel Marx in addition to its first-hand testimony, the film reflects on a cultural moment that has much to inform the present one we’re in and as the film plays AFI Fest this week before debuting on Discovery+, Kos spoke about how he was able to bring out the present tense for a story largely comprised of materials from the past and honoring his subjects with the ingenuity in which it is told.

How did this come about?

I’m going to start with the inception of the film, which started with our wonderful producer and writer Shawnee Isaac Smith, who actually began documenting these extraordinary women over 20 years ago. Via a friend, she met these Immaculate Heart community women and was just blown away by their story and began conducting these interviews with the women who lived through this like Anita Caspary, Pat Reif and Helen Kelley, many of whom unfortunately are no longer with us [now]. She amassed this massive treasure trove of first-hand accounts and a number of years later, Shawnee told the story to Kira Carstensen, a mutual friends of ours and a wonderful producer who was blown away by it and thought, “Hey, let me talk to Pedro over here,” because she thought I’d respond to this, and yep, she was very right. [laughs]

I’ve lived in L.A. for 20 years now, and I had no idea. I didn’t know who Corita Kent was even though I was familiar with her work and I didn’t know about the Immaculate Heart sisters, even though I live five minutes away from the AFI Campus, so I was like, “Oh my God, why did I not know about this hidden gem of history?” And having grown up with a Catholic background and experiencing that push and pull of the conservative and progressive sides of the faith, I was really inspired by their imagination, their creativity and their thinking outside the box. They were extraordinary critical thinkers and it sparked my imagination in a way that very few stories had, so I knew I had to try to get this story out into the world.

Did this feel a bit like reverse-engineering when you had all this archival at your fingertips?

Yeah, it’s such a vast story and when I came onboard, I continued to film. I went to their retirement home where some of the older ladies are living and filmed with some of their newer members of the community like Rosa, who we get to meet in the film. We could’ve made a miniseries out of this, there’s so much gold, but unfortunately, it’s on the cutting room floor. It was not possible to include everyone, but one of the things that was very important is that the main character is the community. It’s not just Corita, it’s not just Helen Kelley, it’s not just Pat Reif — Anita Caspary became the leader she became and Corita became the icon she became because of this community.

They were sending out their sisters to the best educational institutions in the country to become the best teachers and Anita, for example, was sent to USC to get her masters in literature and then to Stanford to get her PhD in literature. Then when Corita was getting her masters at USC, she started studying printmaking — serigraphs — [because she thought it would be] great to teach in her art class, so by learning it, she also became an artist herself. Sister Corita was really encouraged by the sisters and Sister Magdalene Mary, the head of the department, who went out and really began to take her works to different galleries around the country. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to tell the story, but it just goes to show that they became these leaders and [were] empowered by this community to really lean into their gifts and to live up to their fullest potential, and I don’t think any of them would’ve achieved all that they achieved if not for being part of this community.

I’m really drawn to extraordinary characters, so it was a fine line to make something as personal as possible, really getting a taste of each individual one because they each bring so much and such a unique gift and such a wonderful, different way of seeing things, but also capturing that as a whole because that’s who they are. Out of many one, that really speaks to this. They all brought very different gifts, but they all banded together and that’s the reason I think really they were able to stand up to such an indomitable institution like the Catholic Church.

Was there something that cracks this open for you?

I wouldn’t say there was one, but we had everything from the letters and the correspondence to these extraordinary audio recordings that they had of their meetings. That was earth-shattering to hear the audio that’s now in the film, [which we] animated and we [initially] discovered in the archives of the Immaculate Heart Community. I was just like, “Oh my God, that’s them wrestling with it,” and it really puts you there in the moment. I’m such a nerd of history, so I was just so excited to find those gems and also the work of other really amazing filmmakers like Baylis Glascock, who filmed the Sisters in the 1960s, Thomas Conrad, Haskell Wexler, an extraordinary director of photography for many, many years in the film industry, so there were other extraordinary artists that were filming and documenting them over the years and we’re so grateful to be able to incorporate their work and help to tell the story. The challenge was how to bring those all together and make one cohesive film that’s telling the story.

I’ve heard the Irregular Bulletin, the Immaculate Heart Community’s periodical, was a stylistic influence for you. How did it inspire you?

Yeah, the Irregular Bulletin was part of that whole spirit of how we were trying to tell this story, this beautiful publication that the college put out. We very much wanted to embrace that style and aesthetic in our graphics and how we brought some of the different letters and correspondence to life and how the animation was done. Also Corita’s [art] was a huge influence. We always asked in the edit room, what would Corita do? That for us was code for thinking outside the box and keep asking questions and keep trying to see things in a new way.

Did the current conversation around the Catholic Church influence the story you ultimately wanted to tell about this period?

Yes, but not just the Church. It really speaks to these institutions that govern our lives and that become entrenched in outdated ways of thinking. One of the things we tend to see in these institutions is this reticence to change, and it becomes more about preserving a certain status quo and power in the hands of an institution or a certain people, rather than living out its original purpose or what it’s supposed to do. One of the great questions that Anita asks in the film is “Why is dressing like a medieval woman dresses supposed to make one more holy?” That is a great question. Why does using a form of clothing from centuries earlier supposed to make you a better religious [person]? It was not making sense and the Church and the Vatican were realizing they needed to change, hence the Second Vatican Council, so things were already progressing, but it took a group like this to awaken [the masses] to the oppression and ask, “Why is that? Why do all these rules pertain to us? They make no sense. They’re actually impeding us ministering to our communities and living out what we’re supposed to do to be the best teachers we can be.”

The conditions of the schools in which they were teaching in were really terrible and extremely overcrowded and [the Sisters] felt like they were being not good educators, so [their movement] was always motivated by “Well, we’re not being the best teachers we could be” and they were critical thinkers and they taught their students to be critical thinkers, so I think that’s what really speaks to the moment we’re in now. We need to look at these institutions and these structures that really govern our lives and we need to continuously work to change for a better world and I think we can look at the story of the Immaculate Heart sisters to really speak to where we are as a society.

“Rebel Hearts” will be available to screen virtually through AFI Docs through June 25th. It opens in select theaters on June 25th, including the Laemmle Glendale in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York, and will premiere on Discovery+ on June 27th.