The Holy Archipelago, a Russian documentary about the famous Solovki Monastery, was recently named Best Film and won several other prizes at the Great Lakes Christian Film Festival. Why did the organizers decide to include the Russian film despite geopolitical tensions between the two countries? What did the American audience understand from it? I posed these and other questions to the festival’s Executive Director, Shawn Patrick Greene.
—Mr. Greene, why did you decide to choose this Russian documentary as the winner of your festival?
—All the technical aspects of the film were superior. Of course, we gave an award for best cinematography, best sound design, and music composition. For the subject matter. It was the story of the monastery. And I understand that worldwide, some countries with many churches, monasteries, and other religious facilities might get a bad reputation based on which countries are for or against them. So, I did not consider what has been going on with Ukraine and Russia, because politics does not determine church culture.
So, anyway, the film itself was just superior, and all of its production value, presentation, and subject matter are well put together. You know, it has what I consider the “wow factor”. You have a lot of nice stories; there are narratives and even other documentaries. But in this one there is such incredible quality, putting it together atop the subject matter. It just surpassed all expectations in just about every category.
—What did everyday Americans, your audience, learn about Russia and spiritual life in Russia from this documentary? What was their reaction?
—Those people who are from the Orthodox community already have an understanding of certain struggles that certain churches and fellowships have worldwide. So, their perspective is pretty much wide-open, and they do have good communication within their community as to what is going on worldwide.
As to Christians as a whole, especially in the US, there is not much information given. The mainstream media in the US do not cover stories that put things into light during moments of darkness, if you will.
So, I would say that many people who have seen this documentary understand there is a different perspective. I would say that intelligent people are more in tune with what is going on and are not swallowing or allowing the mainstream media to spoon-feed them information about some countries. And I would say Russia is no different.
—Given the current geopolitical circumstances, was it difficult to invite the Russian documentary and the Russian delegation to the festival? If yes, what barriers did you have to overcome?
—The Holy Archipelago’s team was not present at the festival. But we do not have barriers against allowing films to come in. There are some countries like, for instance, Iran, where we may have Christian contacts and they want to come to our festival, but they cannot pay for their submission fees. Then there are sanctions that do not allow them to come. But as for Russia, there were no sanctions that prevented them from submitting their film to us.
But with this one, there was not any major issue. If anything, it would be more communications from our social media, especially when you have, I would say, something like a hard key; for example, the Russian online presence has been banned or blocked from US social media platforms, so we did not get any information from Russian media.
So, that is one barrier.
—Did anyone say to you, “Are you crazy, inviting a Russian film in the midst of the current situation?”
—I did not hear that, no. But in fact, if anything, it was an opportunity to open people’s eyes to something in Russia that is not talked about in mainstream media, because that media only covers things that are happening in the Kremlin or the office of Vladimir Putin, in the politics and the military. But nobody wants to talk about everyday life situations in the country.
—What did you personally learn about Russia and Orthodox Christianity from this film?
—I have been a Christian for most of my life. One of my cousins is married to an Orthodox priest in Niagara Falls, NY. I have seen him develop and have talked with him one-on-one about his embrace of Eastern Orthodoxy. I have insight from him and my own research as well. But the film just reaffirmed to me the importance of Orthodoxy in Russia, and the people that adhere to it.
—Russia is an Orthodox Christian country. How important was it for you to understand the Russian faith, and why?
—I think that if we focus on a country’s identity based only on politics, we are going to miss out on other aspects of a country. And I think religion is often overlooked when it comes to politics. But world religions are also valid in different countries. And it is good to let people know that Jesus Christ is well-represented in Russia. To me, this was very important.
—Do you have plans to invite Russian movies for future festivals?
—We have actually had some films from Russia submitted to our festival before. Not all of them are Orthodox, but there were different stories. This was our ninth festival, and we had many different types of Russian films. So, yes, we plan to invite them in the future.