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“He Preaches Humanity. I Think That’s His Religion”: ‘Francesco’ Director Evgeny Afineevsky On Healing Message Of Pope Francis

·6 min read

As a documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky has spent years immersed in turbulent conflict zones, in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. His 2015 Oscar-nominated film Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, put him in the middle of the Ukrainian Revolution.

“I witnessed positive things [in Ukraine]–unity in Maidan Square in Kyiv, interfaith dialogue, which happened in front of my eyes,” he notes. “But at the same time, in the 21st century, in the middle of European Union, people being killed by snipers on the streets, a horrifying moment in history.”

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From there he turned his attention to the hideous civil war in Syria, making his 2017 film Cries From Syria.

“I experienced what it is to be in the frontline of war,” he tells Deadline, “what it is to be exposed to the darkness of today’s world.”

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

After those two films Afineevsky says he felt compelled to find the light, “to seek something positive, something that can bring hope, someone that can be a common thread through many issues that we created, but also to show us opportunity, that we still can change the bad into the good.”

He found that inspirational figure in Pope Francis, the subject of his Oscar-contending documentary Francesco. The Vatican bureaucracy did not welcome his attempts to gain access to the pontiff, but the director overcame many obstacles to develop a personal relationship with the Bishop of Rome.

“I was just last Saturday with him,” Afineevsky noted during a discussion of Francesco in Los Angeles last week. “If I go back three years [to when he first met Francis] to be in his presence, your heart is beating like 200 beats per minute and you’re sometimes speechless. But you realize that he’s humble, he’s down to earth… He comforts you, he gives you opportunities to talk and he listens to you.”

The documentary explores the pope’s engagement with the most urgent issues of today, including climate change, poverty, the Middle East peace process, the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, and the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

Pope Francis meets migrants and refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, December 5, 2021. - Credit: Vatican Media/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)
Pope Francis meets migrants and refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, December 5, 2021. - Credit: Vatican Media/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Vatican Media/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

The pope has traveled to Myanmar to urge an end to bloodshed there, to the Central African Republic to seek an end to conflict pitting Muslims against Christians, and to the Italian island of Lampedusa and the Greek island of Lesbos—collection points for refugees from North Africa and the Middle East trying to reach Europe. He made his second trip to Lesbos over the weekend, meeting with more refugees mired in a camp.

“Please let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!” the pope implored on Sunday, criticizing countries that refuse refugees. “Let us stop ignoring reality, stop constantly shifting responsibility, stop passing off the issue of migration to others.”

With nationalism and populism on the rise in many parts of the globe, Afineevsky sees the pope’s message as vital.

“He’s showing me that there is still good in this world and still great leadership that we have been missing,” Afineevsky says. “I guess after four years of seeing what happened in a divided United States [under President Trump], seeing this good is really important, and that’s what I try to bring through in the movie.”

Pope Francis and director Evgeny Afineevsky (in gray suit) at the Vatican, September 6, 2021 - Credit: Courtesy Francesco Docet Production
Pope Francis and director Evgeny Afineevsky (in gray suit) at the Vatican, September 6, 2021 - Credit: Courtesy Francesco Docet Production

Courtesy Francesco Docet Production

The film made worldwide headlines when it premiered at the Rome Film Festival, because of comments it included from the pope endorsing civil unions for gay couples. Afineevsky feels that wasn’t necessarily a news flash—that, in fact, it was consistent with the pope’s overall emphasis on embracing human beings regardless of their background, and not rejecting them for narrow doctrinal reasons.

“He preaches humanity,” Afineevsky says. “I think that’s his religion. From day one when I met him, I realized he hates when people are putting frames or labels on other people. For him, each and every person—religious or not religious, or which religion a person practices, no matter the color of the skin or sexuality, each person is the child of God.”

The director says nothing was off limits in his discussions with the pope.

Director Evgeny Afineevsky shows scenes from Francesco to Pope Francis at the Vatican, September 2020 - Credit: Courtesy Francesco Docet Production
Director Evgeny Afineevsky shows scenes from Francesco to Pope Francis at the Vatican, September 2020 - Credit: Courtesy Francesco Docet Production

Courtesy Francesco Docet Production

“He allowed me to tackle any issues,” Afineevsky says. “I was showing to him different parts of the movie… and I never had any restrictions or any [objections]. He gave me my full respect as an artist.”

Afineevsky devotes a significant portion of Francesco to the sexual abuse scandal that has gravely damaged the moral authority of the Catholic Church. Juan Carlos Cruz, who was sexually abused as a boy in Chile by Father Fernando Karadima, speaks poignantly in the film of feeling wounded when Pope Francis in 2018 defended Karadima’s reputation. But, later, the pontiff sent two church officials to investigate the situation in Chile and the emissaries found evidence to support the allegations of abuse. The pope ended up apologizing to Cruz and to other Chilean victims of church sexual abuse. In March, Pope Francis appointed Cruz to the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors.

Speaking at the discovery+ TCA panel on Francesco last February, Cruz commented on the Vatican’s response to the sexual abuse scandal.

“By no means is it solved,” Cruz stated. But he praised the pope: “What I see in him is the resolve to fight… To me, Pope Francis has a heart of gold, a soul that is completely given to humanity and its issues.”

Juan Carlos Cruz outside St. Peter’s Square, in Rome, Tuesday, April 24, 2018 - Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
Juan Carlos Cruz outside St. Peter’s Square, in Rome, Tuesday, April 24, 2018 - Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

Cruz added, “Another thing that I love about him is that he is by no means afraid to stand up to the powerful and when something is not going well, he speaks– the equitable distribution of the Covid vaccine, immigrants, you name it, he is not afraid to speak up… He’s not afraid of upsetting anybody and that’s what makes him the great man he is.”

Afineevksy recently welcomed his first child, a boy he named Francesco after the pope.

“I think the entire journey alongside Francis helped me to heal myself,” he observes. “Because after Syria, where I didn’t see hope at all, where I didn’t see love, humanity, I think this journey basically on the side of Pope Francis really gave me hope in the future.”

Francesco is streaming on the discovery+ platform, and is available to Oscar voters through the Academy’s Best Picture and documentary screening portals.

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