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Robert Duncan, a Rome-based filmmaker and Catholic News Service videographer, shot a scene for his documentary "Faces Among Icons" in a field outside Optina Monastery in the Kaluga Oblast, Russia, May 27, 2017. The documentary, which made it's theatrical premiere at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., April 29, studies Christianity in today's Russia.
Robert Duncan, a Rome-based filmmaker and Catholic News Service videographer, shot a scene for his documentary "Faces Among Icons" in a field outside Optina Monastery in the Kaluga Oblast, Russia, May 27, 2017. The documentary, which made it's theatrical premiere at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., April 29, studies Christianity in today's Russia.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Daniil Tygulev

Documentary exploring Russian Christianity makes its theatrical debut

Christianity in today's Russia was on full display on the big screen April 29, as the documentary, "Faces Among Icons," made its theatrical debut in New York

NEW YORK – Christianity in today's Russia was on full display on the big screen April 29, as the documentary, "Faces Among Icons," made its theatrical debut at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

"Faces Among Icons" chronicles the devastation of the Russian Orthodox Church following the 1917 Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution and its rebirth following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

The Rome-based filmmaker of the documentary, Robert Duncan of Catholic News Service, was on hand to participate in a panel discussion of the movie and its topic. He was joined by the seminary's president and president of the student council.

"I set out to make a film that was representative of Russian Orthodox life today," Duncan said.

"Superficially, a film about the Russian church and its relationships to geopolitics was a way I could tap into the extraordinary interest of the secular media in Russia following the 2016 presidential election," he said. "Since the Danilov Monastery, at least in popular imagination, looms in the background of Kremlin politics, there was an obvious 'church angle' to the Russia story post 2016."

"Faces Among Icons" was released by Catholic News Service in 2017, timed to coincide with the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

It also marked the 100-year anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, at which time the Virgin Mary was said to have predicted the conversion of Russia to Christ.

"Faces Among Icons" showcases a range of Russian citizens who offer firsthand accounts of the changes in religious life inside their country since the fall of communism.

Following the documentary's screening, Russian Orthodox Archpriest Chad Hatfield, president of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, noted the individuals speaking in the film provide widely diverse personal perspectives to which church-state cooperation is deemed beneficial.

Father Hatfield also noted that some of those Russian citizens were wary about how much influence the state should yield over the Russian Orthodox Church, which currently enjoys favored status by government leaders.

There is a need for a "new ecumenism" in Russia, Father Hatfield said during the question-and-answer session after the screening.

State-sponsored atheism wiped religion out in Russian for seven decades or made it go underground, he said.

So, while the Orthodox church may enjoy favored status, some other religions are met with suspicion or referred to as cults by the government, Father Hatfield said.

Duncan told audience members it was his observation that the Orthodox Church was still trying to figure out its place in Russian society and how to deal with its favored status.

The filmmaker said he was thrilled when representatives of St. Vladimir's notified they were giving the film its first public screening in a theater and asked him to be a part of the panel discussion.

"St. Vladimir's is one of the premier Orthodox theological schools in the world," he said. "It even owes its existence, in part, to the very story this documentary recounts -- the Russian Revolution and consequent diaspora."

So far the film has been seen online, in various iterations and postings, about 25,000 times. It has been broadcast in Canada on Salt and Light Media, and has been reviewed privately by several leading academics who specialize in Eastern Christianity.

"The New York screening at a Russian Orthodox seminary is important for two reasons. One, it calls attention to the film and its message," said Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, who gave Duncan the green light to produce the documentary.

"Two, it also shows that Catholic News Service is interested in the Eastern Church," Erlandson said. "As Pope John Paul II famously described, the Eastern and Western churches are the two lungs of Christianity. As a news organization we are interested in both the East and the West, and this is a way to demonstrate our commitment."

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The making of a documentary examining Russian Christianity

NEW YORK (CNS) -- As the house lights came down and the auditorium screen lit up, a young Rome-based filmmaker and religion journalist sat with a fixated audience for the April 29 theatrical premiere of his documentary, "Faces Among Icons," a study of Christianity in today's Russia.

Robert Duncan, the 29-year-old video journalist in Catholic News Service's Rom e bureau, was able to see his ambitious project on the big screen at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York, and then participated in a panel discussion about the film following the screening.

Though CNS released the documentary last fall, along with a five-part series of articles on the topic, watching the film in the darkened theater with his wife and two young children in attendance offered Duncan the opportunity to reflect on the fruits of his labor, a prodigious undertaking.

The first thing he had t o do was convince his news service chiefs that this was a project worth the time and expense from an organization that doesn't specialize ind ocumentary filmmaking.

Admittedly,Duncan said it wasn't as hard of a sell as he thought it was going to be.

He was met with intrigue from Cindy Wooden, CNS's Rome bureau chief, and Greg Erlandson, CNS director and editor-in-chief.

"I was attracted to the proposal because it sought to mark two centenaries: t he apparitions at Fatima and the start of the Russian Revolution," Erlandson said. "Both were tremendous influences on the Catholic Church in the 20th century. I also liked that it was a multimedia project, so that the story would be told through print, video and photos."

The1917 apparitions of Mary to shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, really tied the anniversaries together, because one of the children said Mary asked for a special consecration of Russia to prevent the country from disseminating its "errors throughout the world," a phrase now-retired Pope Benedict XVI interpreted as referring to communism.

"We believed the multimedia package would appeal to and inform the Catholic News Service audience, especially because of the audience's interest in U.S.-Russian relations, Vatican-Russian relations and Catholic-Orthodox relations," Wooden said.

Duncan then set out to research the project, which involved a week of filming and interviews in Russia during the summer of 2017 and assembling a Russian team that could help him navigate the language and cultural terrain.

"In all, it was a crew of six," he said. "I was the director, there was a production manager who made everything happen, two cameramen, a producer who helped organize some of the shoots at different churches, and a

translator/interpreter. You could actually say there were seven of us, a good friend of mine who is a priest in Rome came along to act informally as chaplain."

The Russian production manager, in particular, ended up being a key player to ensure the project got done at all.

"Without my production manager, we would have been turned away at many security checkpoints throughout the shoot," Duncan said. "Even though we had our papers in advance, it took a local -- and a very determined

one at that -- to talk us into the privileged access points we had at all the major events we covered."

While Duncan shot and conducted all of the interviews, he had another cameraman with him who filmed footage at those locations.

"Then,I had a B-team that consisted of a producer who knew a lot about religious sites in Moscow and another cameraman," he said. "They were able to film at many liturgies and churches that I, being tied to an intense interview schedule, couldn't have done. It's because of that second camera team that I was able to illustrate the documentary at all."

Wooden said she was enchanted by the beauty of the Russian Orthodox Church illustrated in the completed film and said you could almost "smell the incense."

Given Pope Francis' concern for Christian unity, evident in his historic meeting in 2014 with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, and, to be sure, the papacy's rapprochement with the Christian East since the Second Vatican Council, it was easy to make the case that CNS should do a serious profile of the world's largest Orthodox communion, Duncan said.

"But,of course, Robert could not ignore the presence of the Catholic Church in Russia today," Wooden said. "In addition, especially in the print articles which accompanied the original release of the film, the discussion of the

history of communism in Russia and its impact on religion could not ignore the harsh persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and how its lingering effects still weigh on Catholic-Orthodox relations."

While Erlandson conceded that CNS does not plan to embark on long-form documentary ventures regularly, he said he is pleased with the film and believes it's been an important project for the news service.

"Most importantly, it let us hear from a variety of Russian Orthodox voices, young and not-so young," he said. "It suggested reasons to hope that Christianity is experiencing a renewal among Russian young people, and that even seven decades of state-mandated atheism were not enough to erase God from the Russian soul."

The project was a personal and professional triumph for Duncan, who said it was inevitable that his Eastern church interests would lead him to visit Russia one day.

"Many of the young people who helped me on this project were raised to be atheists in the former Soviet Union," he said.

"Toward the end of the production week, I heard something like this from my collaborators more than once: 'I was raised atheist. I never paid attention to the church. Thank you for including me on this project. I've learned a lot and it has given me a lot to think about.' To me, that's the greatest success the

project could have had."

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Follow Chaz Muth

on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

Documentary exploring Russian Christianity makes its theatrical debut

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