As part of the Oral History Association conference, we asked Abbie Reese to write about her film-in-progress, which evolved in parallel to her book, Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. This summer, Abbie was awarded a grant by Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library to conduct follow-up interviews with a half dozen women she began interviewing more than five years ago — women contemplating religious life. Abbie is preparing for post-production of a collaborative film made with and focused on a young woman in the process of becoming a cloistered contemplative nun.
Recently, a journalist asked me how I convinced the Poor Clare Colettine nuns, back in 2005, to let me write a book about their lives, and how I convinced them to help me in that endeavor. I explained that was not my approach. I asked the Mother Abbess if I could undertake a long-term project about their lives; I said that although I did not know the outcome, I would keep the community apprised.
At that time, I wanted to understand: What compels a young woman to make this radical departure to a cloistered monastery? I believed that there was value in the stories, perspectives, and memories of women who remove themselves from the world to pray for humanity — to become mothers of souls and saints on earth.
About the same time that I began to engage with the Poor Clare Colettine nuns in oral history interviews, I began interviewing young women around the States in the process of “discernment.” Each was contemplating if she had been called to a religious vocation.
I arranged to meet “Heather” in 2005. We met at her dorm at Elmhurst College in the suburbs of Chicago, and then we met up again a few hours later at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford where she would stay overnight for the first time. (She stayed in an area outside the enclosure and visited with the Mother Abbess and the Novice Mistress, separated by the metal grille.)
Heather and I met over the years; I interviewed her as she maintained hope that she would join a cloistered order. Her parents required her to finish college first, and then she dealt with school debt as she struggled to find a job.
In 2011, I met Heather and her family at the monastery when she was delivered there. I continued to conduct oral history interviews and I was allowed to enter the enclosure to record video footage. At that time, I was enrolled in an MFA in visual arts program at the University of Chicago. I had sensed even before she joined the Poor Clares that Heather was hesitant in our interviews. I wasn’t sure the reason: her uncertainty, not knowing if she truly has been called to cloistered contemplative life; the familial opposition that led her to talk less about the prospect of a religious vocation; or the possibility that she was not as articulate verbally as she is sophisticated visually. (She was a painter and studied graphic design.) From her blogs, I read her open tone.
An expatriate, Heather has made the exodus from mainstream society. A year after entering the monastery, Heather became “Sister Amata” in the Clothing Ceremony. (She chose both aliases to reflect and preserve the Poor Clare value of anonymity.) As she slowly integrates, Sister Amata is governed by a schedule that determines when she prays, sleeps, eats, and works, while she learns the expectations and the culture. Sister Amata continues the six-year formation process as she transitions into a new social role and new identity as a member of a community following an 800-year-old rule.
The enclosure is an intermediary space. The Poor Clare Colettine nuns intercede between humanity and an unseen realm; they believe their prayers and penances can change the course of history. Like the Poor Clares, Sister Amata inhabits a threshold — a space between worlds.
A contemporary practice that depends upon social contracts and long-term relationships is a complicated endeavor; representing others and representing otherness are problematic territories, following an imperialistic tradition of exploiting native resources. As in Bronislaw Malinowski’s model, boundaries between insider and outsider collapse, and the notion of “the outsider” slips. This hybrid of genres has probably sustained my focus and dedication because I find it challenging and nuanced.
To enact co-authorship and shared authority, to remove myself as the mediator holding the camera and the microphone, I obtained permission to lend Sister Amata a video camera. In essence, I chose Sister Amata as the cinematographer. I asked her to use the camera as if it were eyes encountering her world. I made three requests: document the daily rhythms of prayer, meals, and manual labor within the monastery’s rich material culture; record impressionistic moving images that place primacy on the visual over the discursive; and turn the camera upon herself to make video diaries of her impressions and motivations and experiences as she assimilates into the community.
Even though I was not physically present, my relationship with Sister Amata is embedded in the visual dialogue that transpired; the history of our engagement since 2005 fed the new film endeavor. Sister Amata’s video diaries are raw, sincere, and vulnerable. The nature of this as an exchange is evident when she addresses me directly.
The nuns gave me all of their documentation and I agreed to give them copies of it, as well. I met with Sister Amata and her novice mistress, “Sister Nicolette,” to download the digital files, to look at footage and to discuss it with them. I made additional requests.
Because of other nuns’ interest in contributing documentation, I lent a second camera. (The older nun constructed enactments of monastic life, instructing fellow nuns what to do, when.) I also recorded video footage inside the enclosure and my interviews with the nuns.
I am now working on post-production of a feature-length film that will be released theatrically. This project in-progress embeds the negotiations of a para-ethnographic, collaborative documentary:
How do we pursue our inquiry when our subjects are themselves engaged in intellectual labors that resemble approximately or are entirely indistinguishable from our own methodological practices?
Para-ethnography answers this question by proposing an analytical relationship in which we and our subjects — keenly reflexive subjects — can experiment collaboratively with the conventions of ethnographic enquiry. This methodological stance demands that we treat our subjects as epistemic partners who are not merely informing our research but who participate in shaping its theoretical agendas and its methodological exigencies. (Holmes, Douglas R. and George E. Marcus. “Para-Ethnography.” Ed. Lisa M. Given. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2008. Page 595.)
Film-making addresses some of the questions and interests that drive my practice. In giving Sister Amata and the other nuns the video cameras, they selected and composed what was recorded, essentially the same dynamic in my other interactions with them. Enunciating our “visual dialogue,” video cameras are seen crossing the threshold into the “Jesus cage,” passing between slats in the metal grille separating the monastery from our world. Through this exchange, the viewer will be granted Sister Amata’s vantage point — her painterly eye and the risks she has taken.
Once, a documentary film professor at the University of Chicago described her own work with a tribe in Alaska; she said that just as she chose to work with the tribe, they chose her. This professor said the same was true of my work — just as I chose to work with the nuns, they chose me. The title, Chosen, also reflects the nuns’ belief that God has chosen them for this ancient rule and demanding life.
Featured image: Poor Clare Colettine nuns return to the monastery after a funeral service on the premises, in 2010, for a cloistered nun who served in WWII. Courtesy of Abbie Reese.