Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: True-Life Heroes for True-Life Families

What kinds of movies do nuns like? The response I most often get when I ask my sisters in religious life is: “True life stories.” It seems to me that films based on real-life stories have developed into a genre that is increasingly well-crafted. One of the latest in this genre, Netflix film The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is no exception.

 

 

The directorial debut of Chiwetel Ejiofor (perhaps best known for his award-winning role as the lead actor in 12 Years a Slave) is a moving tribute to true-life hero William Kamkwamba, as well as an uplifting portrayal of family and the power of human hope and determination to unite and save a village. Powerful acting, a traditional, well-crafted rising storyline with life-and-death stakes, all rooted in the very real famine in Malawi in 2002, make The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind a no-brainer for family movie night.

Listen to Deacon Pedro and I talk about our favorite parts of the film together at this week’s Salt + Light Radio Hour!

Strengths

Bright young teen William Kamkwamba has just been enrolled in a new school due to the great sacrifice of his family. But William is soon expelled when his family is unable to pay school tuition due to a severe flood followed by drought which destroys his family’s (and the region’s) crops. Desperate for an education, William sneaks into the library and discovers a book about wind turbines that gives him an idea for how to help his family.

As the threat of famine spreads throughout the region, William becomes more and more determined to build a wind turbine that can power the well-pump, thus making it possible to irrigate crops during the dry season and save not only his family but the village.

William’s success is never in question if you know the film’s title or have seen the movie trailers. What carries the film is the well-written script (adapted by director Eijofor from the book co-authored by William himself), the rising tension, and the creative persistence of young William through obstacles that start small—with the school principal’s not allowing William into the library—but that rapidly grow into seeming insurmountable. As survival becomes more and more precarious, it is impossible not to root for young William and his family, who so bravely face every challenge despite incredibly limited resources. Director Eijofor pulls strong performances from the entire cast, notably from young Maxwell Simba, whose portrayal of William feels absolutely authentic. (Eijofor’s own performance as William’s father Tyrell, and Aïssa Maïga’s amazing performance as William’s mother Agnes are both superb.)

 

Limitations

Despite heartwarming characters and story, I found this straightforward film a bit too predictable, perhaps with an overly-simplistic portrayal of obstacles overcome. Taken together, these can make the film feel a bit contrived and even somewhat sentimental. One of the strengths of the film’s simplicity is how comfortably easy it feels to quickly identify with the Kamkwamba family; yet this raises a question of the authenticity of the film’s portrayal of Malawian culture. Should it have taken a bit more effort for a viewer like me to enter into Malawian culture? Nevertheless, from my limited research of Malawi, the film’s depiction seems authentic. (I have been learning about Malawi situation since 2017, when my congregation, the Daughters of Saint Paul, founded our first community there.)

 

Window to the Soul?

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a refreshing choice amid the majority of Netflix’s dark and violence-driven programming. Sympathetic characters and a compelling storyline portray important human values such as community, familial love, forgiveness, humility, respect for elders, the value of education, and the power of hope. Religion receives a welcome portrayal as simply a part of life. Perhaps the strongest parts of the story were the explorations of tension between family members, as each member struggles to protect one another and then survive in increasingly desperate circumstances. Without downplaying anyone, every member of the family is portrayed as having an important role to play in the crisis.

With its somewhat simplified storyline, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is especially suitable for family viewing (with TV-PG rating). An inspiring story that enables us to enter into the very different culture of an African country on the brink of devastation, William’s example encourages us to appreciate family, to value education, and to persevere in doing the most we can with what we have, not giving up no matter how many seemingly impossible obstacles we face.

 

Meeting Jesus at the Movies Guide will be available shortly for those who wish to enhance family and classroom viewing.

Radical Prayer: Offering Reparation for the Misuse of the Media

 

Some years it takes me longer to reflect on the Pope’s annual World Communications Day Message. Sometimes it is because I want to deepen it, sometimes it is because it contains a theme or idea that I haven’t thought about before and want to explore, and sometimes because it is extra challenging.

This year, I have to confess that it has taken me longer, in part because the Message itself is challenging, but also because I have been personally wrestling in my prayer with the evils that the misuse of the media can cause. It’s not that I’ve been naive about the harm that the media can cause—it’s something I have been aware of and prayed about for most of my life. But for some reason, a number of recent instances of the misuse of social media—some participated in by people of good will—touched me more personally.

To overcome the temptation to discouragement I’ve felt, I have been digging deep into both the Message and our Pauline spirituality, bringing the misuse of the media repeatedly to prayer over the past several weeks. My prayer has brought me face to face with one of the most beautiful and demanding aspects of our spirituality as today’s media apostles.

One of the reasons that Blessed James Alberione founded the Daughters of Saint Paul was because of the great harm that the misuse of the media was causing in his time—and he foresaw how much this harm would multiply. The mission that he gave the Daughters of Saint Paul was really twofold:

1) To evangelize with the media, and

2) To offer our prayers, actions, consecration, our very lives in reparation for the evil caused by the misuse of the media. (He invited us to do this with a daily prayer, originally entitled: For Those Who Thirst for Souls as Jesus Does, which you can find here. I’ll post more about this beautiful, powerful prayer laterBut I invite you to bring your use of social media to your daily prayer, if you don’t already.)

So in these weeks, I’ve prayed specifically for the people using social media who, lacking in goodwill, have deceived and misled others, even those with the best of intentions, to the point that the truth has seemed lost. I’ve also been praying for those who, despite their goodwill, have been swept up on social media by the trends, sensationalism, or “causes” that really don’t reflect the Gospel. A focus of both my prayers and sacrifices has been reparation for the lies, division, and hatred fostered by this misuse of media.

This year’s Message for World Communications Day directly addresses this challenge of people who misuse social media by stating outright, “The [inter]net works because all its elements share responsibility.” This is where we can find the hope of using social media for good, for building up human solidarity: to increase the number of people who want to use social media for good. But it’s not enough just to have good will. We also need to be wise and discerning in how we use social media. In that spirit, I’d like to share this insightful article written by social media Catholic hipster Tommy Tighe, who invites each of us to reflect on our personal use of social media, in the spirit of Blessed James Alberione.

Next week, I will post some of my reflections on this year’s World Communications Day Message, which is so timely and relevant to what is happening in and through social media today. In the meantime, if you are looking for a patron for your social media, I cannot recommend Blessed James Alberione enough. Even though he died in 1971, his use of the media and his influence in changing and developing the Church’s approach to media is amazing. You can read more about him here. He is the saint to pray to about the media, because he promised to watch over and care for those who seek to use the media for good:

“This is how I intend to belong to this marvelous Pauline Family: as a servant both now and in heaven. There, I will care for those who use the most effective modern means to do good: in holiness, in Christ, and in the Church.” – Blessed James Alberione

 

 

Here is the prayer that I pray daily for his intercession:

Most Holy Trinity,
who has willed to revive in the Church
the apostolic charism of Saint Paul,
revealing yourself in the light of the Eucharist
to Blessed James Alberione, Founder of the Pauline Family,
grant that the presence of Christ the Master, Way, Truth, and Life,
may shine in the world through Mary, Mother and Queen of the Apostles.
Glorify in your Church this apostle of the new evangelization
and raise up men and women open to the “signs of the times,”
who, following his example,
will use the modern means of communication
to lead all of humanity to you.
Through the intercession of Blessed James,
grant me the grace that I ask for at this time…
Amen.

What’s Most Important in Our Communication? 2019 Theme for World Communication Day

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

The theme for the 2019 World Communications Day chosen by Pope Francis is: We are members one of another” (Eph 4:25). From network community to human communities. Here is the full text of the brief statement from the Vatican:

 

Theme of World Communications Day 2019, 29.09.2018

 

This is the theme chosen by the Holy Father Francis for the 53rd World Communications Day, to be held in 2019:

«We are members one of another» (Eph 4,25). From network community to human communities.

The theme underlines the importance of giving back to communication a broad perspective, based on the person, and emphasizes the value of interaction always understood as dialogue and as an opportunity to meet with others.

This calls for a reflection on the current state and nature of relationships on the Internet, starting from the idea of community as a network between people in their wholeness. Some of the prevailing trends of the so-called social networks ask us a fundamental question: to what extent can we speak of a real community in the face of the logic that characterizes some communities on social media? The metaphor of the web as a community of solidarity implies the construction of an “us”, based on listening to the other, on dialogue and consequently on the responsible use of language.

In his first Message for World Communications Day in 2014, the Holy Father called for the Internet to be “an environment rich in humanity, a network not of wires but of people”.

The choice of the theme for the 2019 Message confirms Pope Francis’ attention to the new communications environment and for social networks, especially, where he is present in the first person with his @Pontifex account on Twitter and @Franciscus on Instagram.

Paolo Ruffini, Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, commented on the theme in a brief interview with Vatican News. World Communications Day is usually celebrated the Sunday before Pentecost (which will be June 2, 2019), and the actual Message for the day will be released on January 24, the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron of writers.

 

I particularly like the emphasis that the message (along with Ruffini’s comments) gives to the essential elements of a genuine human encounter, whether in person or online: dialogue and openness. In his comments, Ruffini pointed out that “the risk that comes with the times in which we live is that of building tribes rather than communities.” This risk has been mentioned before in other communications documents from the Church. In these times of growing polarization, to use media as a way to deepen our understanding rather than as a way to reinforce our own views is vitally important, and something that everyone can do to build up a culture of true dialogue and community.

 

In this 2016 message to the Pontifical Academies, the Pope talks about how artists, in their quest for beauty, can help to transform every day life: “To create works of art that bring us, in the language of beauty, a sign, a spark of hope and trust where people seem to give in to indifference and ugliness.” To speak the truth in love is the first priority of the communicator, but to speak the truth in a way that offers “a spark of hope” seems critical in our roles as communicators. We live in a time of fake journalism, of sensationalist reporting, of the pain and truth of victims of devastating crimes being manipulated for others’ agendas, of a lack of transparency on the part of institutions and persons in positions of great responsibility, of shattering accusations brought before the worldstage (not to the involved parties/communities) without a helpful process beforehand or afterward to resolve them. Any thoughtful person knows how much their words can affect another. Media and social networks multiply the power of just one word in ways unimaginable in the past. Trying to “keep up” technologically doesn’t meant that we have “kept up” ethically. How do we balance the news we publish/share/promote? How can we form ourselves–first of all–and our children–to carry this responsibility in a way that truly builds up the human family?

The Church offers us the principles in an easy-to-understand way in its World Communications Day Messages, but it is up to each of us as communicators to forge our communication in both content and style so that we always hold high the Truth–that Light of Truth that doesn’t just illuminate the darkness of evil, but offers the human family a way forward: a way of hope, respect, and justice.

How To Become a Pop Culture Mystic: Interview with Author Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP

Yesterday I had the privilege of having a conversation with Sister Nancy Usselmann, FSP, Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, about her new book, A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics. I hope you enjoy it!

A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics is available at our online Pauline store, from the Pauline Book & Media Center nearest you, or on amazon.com.

Be a Pop Culture Mystic!

This week, I have the opportunity to interview Daughter of Saint Paul Sister Nancy Usselmann, author of the new book, A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural MysticsSister Nancy is director for the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, but she is here in Boston for a few weeks to prepare for our annual Christmas concerts, so I am taking advantage of her presence!

In her book, Sr. Nancy encourages us to engage with pop culture by becoming mystics: that is, to use our media experiences to recognize the beauty of God and the needs of humanity expressed by the artists of today’s culture. Much of A Sacred Look offers us a theological foundation for doing just that, and the rest of the book is a wonderful, insightful analysis of some of the most prevalent trends and popular phenomena in pop culture, ranging from TV shows such as Netflix’s controversial 13 Reasons Why, to rap music, sci-fi films, and Oscar-winning films such as The Revenant. You can read her initial interview about becoming cultural mystics here.

My plan is to post the interview up here next week. If you would like us to discuss a particular aspect of pop culture (perhaps a favorite or controversial film, song, or TV show), please feel free to send me a message here, on Facebook or Twitter, or in the  comments below, before Thursday noon (August 22nd), and I’ll see if we can get to it.

If you are in the Boston area, you may want to join Sister Nancy for her author talk/book signing on this Saturday, August 25:

 

Forever My Girl – More Than a Romantic Comedy

Forever My Girl, released this week on DVD, is a film adaptation of the best-selling novel. Forever My Girl is a sweet, second-chance romance that, despite some genre-typical set-ups and pay-offs, and a too-neat ending, has an endearing warmth and depth.

For my commentary on the Salt + Light Radio Hour (and to find out if Deacon Pedro watches romantic comedies-starting April 28), listen in here.

The storyline starts with an all-too-obvious heartbreak that totally fits the genre: on the day of their wedding, up-and-coming local Southern singer Liam Page abandons his bride Josie to pursue a career in country music. Eight years later, Liam is a famous country music star who, when he hears about the death of his friend, returns to his long-neglected past in his hometown in Louisiana for the funeral. Although he hovers around the edges of the service and burial, not really reconnecting, he ends up extending his visit, perhaps seeking to recover what he lost.

The story continues with obvious ploys which, while predictable for the genre, seem to work for this film:

  • On Liam’s return, Josie knocks him over with a punch
  • Josie is a single mom with a daughter, Billy
  • At first, Billy is a very cute, lovable brat, who keeps Liam at a distance, but she gradually lets down her walls 
  • Josie’s brother Jake taunts Liam with his abandonment and accuses him of being unfit for Josie and Billy
  • Liam’s father provides an explanation of why Liam ran away

Anyone who has watched a few rom-coms has seen all of these before—many of them together in similar films. But a couple earnest, understated choices of the filmmakers make all the difference:

  • When Liam decides to stay in his hometown, he doesn’t try to explain or defend himself to Josie, to Josie’s brother Jake, or to his father (who is also a pastor and is realistically struggling to deal with his disappointment in his son).
  • The film uses one telling detail to show not only that Liam has been unable to forget Josie, but that he is desperate for a connection with her
  • Despite Liam’s inner anguish, he has enough self-respect, courage, and respect for the people he left behind to seek reconciliation by simply being present, with no expectations.
  • Josie’s feisty response to Liam’s reappearance—he never contacted her after abandoning her at the church—rings true and reveals a maturity in her character. It takes time before she decides to see him or spend time with him.
  • While Liam’s father initially struggles with Liam’s return, he both encourages Liam and lets Liam find his own way.
  • Another nice touch in the film is how Liam’s isolation and brokenness is portrayed visually: he is constantly on the outside of the community/family, looking in.
  • Alex Roe’s understated performance as Liam really gives depth to this film. Rather than coming back with a “Here I am!” attitude, he simply accepts the criticism, blame, and doubts he receives. He doesn’t expect anything from the people he hurt and left behind. But he constantly tries to show—with his actions—what his intentions and desires are. His admirable quiet restraint, even humility, in several situations that are emotionally difficult for everyone is quite striking.

 

A Window to the Soul: into the Virtues of Humility, Reconciliation, Forgiveness, Starting Over, Christian Community, Family

Forever My Girl is not an overtly Christian movie (and there are definitely non-Christian ideas and behavior in the film about living together, language, modesty, etc.). Rather, it is a mainstream genre film that contrasts a fame-driven, self-centered lifestyle with an other-centered, Christian lifestyle. Forever My Girl offers a refreshing view of a Christian community that is neither perfect nor hypocritical: real disciples of Christ who struggle to live the healing love of forgiveness Jesus calls us to. In today’s revenge-hungry, self-entitled culture, forgiveness can be unimaginable. But this film—without preaching—shows the power and beauty of these most important Christian virtues: forgiveness and true reconciliation.

For those who love romantic comedies, Forever My Girl is not to be missed. Forever My Girl is also a good choice for a teen or YA “Meeting Jesus at the Movies Night.” The film is rated PG, appropriate for families with older tweens and up (depending on the maturity of the child).

In-Depth Look at Fake News and Journalism for Peace-Pope Francis’ World Communications Day Message

This year’s Message for World Communications Day is so timely that I wanted to highlight/summarize a couple important points from the Message—especially for people who haven’t read it. Three paragraphs impressed me so much that I made a line-by-line meditation on it—and I will share my notes from that with you below.

The theme for 2018 is “The truth will set you free”: Fake news and journalism for peace. In this powerful meditation for all of us living in the digital age (especially for all Christian communicators–which is all of us), Pope Francis highlights the importance of truth: in our lives, in our relationships, in our communication, in our service. The Message first gives a description of fake news, what makes fake news thrive, and how fake news exploits the human person, leading to:

  • the spread of disinformation
  • the spread of hate and arrogance,
  • demonizing others
  • fomenting conflict.

In describing how we can respond to fake news, Pope Francis approaches it from what we Pauline Sisters call a “Media Mindful” perspective:

“Preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment. We need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake-tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place.”

Pope Francis goes on to recount how the “Father of Lies” perpetrated humanity’s first instance of fake news in Genesis 3:

  • pretense of friendship
  • speaking partial truths that distorts the truth and falsifies reality (incomplete, out of context)
  • speaking with the appearance of truth only

Pope Francis concludes, “Trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.”

How fake news so easily goes viral brings to my mind a story about St. Philip Neri, who is popularly remembered for his humor and humility, but who was renowned during his lifetime as a wise confessor. The story goes that to a woman who confessed the sin of gossip, St. Philip gave her the penance of walking through the town plucking the feathers of a chicken, and then to return to him. When she returned, the saint told her to now go back and gather up all the feathers. Dismayed, she protested that it was impossible. St. Philip pointed out that it is impossible to take back the harm that our gossip does.

Fake news can take lying and gossiping to a global level. Fake news may be driven by greed and a thirst for power, simple negligence, but it ultimately victimizes individuals by robbing us of our interior freedom. One solution is for everyone to practice a deeper awareness when it comes to our communication and especially our media usage. This is what we try to encourage in schools, parishes, and families, by sharing the practice of Media Mindfulness, which Pope Francis refers to (without using the label):

“Education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.”

My favorite two paragraphs of the message I will quote in full, with a few of my personal reflections.

(You can download the four-page line by line reflection here.) 

Pope Francis wraps up with an invitation:

– to all people to listen and engage in sincere dialogue

– to journalists to take up the weighty responsibility of a commitment to truth: to be protectors of the news.

“Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.”

Pope Francis concludes with a powerful prayer to Christ, our Truth, that I will be praying daily through this year dedicated to Truth:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practise listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.
Amen.