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Local film festival raises respect-life issues

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (Catholic San Francisco) - The Cinema Vita Film Festival, held at San Francisco’s Delancey Street Theatre March 7, showcased films that celebrated both the mystery and sanctity of life.

Drawing independent films from as far away as North Dakota, Texas and Illinois, the festival featured both budding talent and a provocative feature film.

“Every single report I have gotten back — from e-mails, written responses and our evaluation forms — has been positive. Every single one,” said Vicki Evans, coordinator of the Respect Life Ministry for the Archdiocese.

“One thing people did suggest,” she said, “is that we expand the categories and invite films longer than three to five minutes, perhaps 10 to 20 minutes.” She said organizers agree they want to repeat the festival in 2009, tentatively targeting a May date.

Evans said they have also received an inquiry from persons in Florida who are interested in producing a “Cinema Vita East,” to echo the local festival.

Nazi survivor fantasy

Sponsored jointly by the San Francisco Archdiocese’s and Oakland Diocese’s Respect Life Ministry offices, Marriage for Life and Ignatius press, the festival kicked off with a thought-provoking and award-winning film, “After the Truth.”

The German-made film, written by American screenwriters Christopher and Kathleen Riley, explores a fascinating hypothetical: What if the infamous Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele were found alive and brought to trial in modern-day Germany?

The film’s central plot revolves around lawyer Peter Rohm, a defense attorney from Ganzburg, Bavaria, the city where Mengele was born. At turns both fascinated and repulsed by sharing a hometown with the Nazi doctor, Rohm is on the verge of writing a definitive biography of the man after years of painstaking research conducted in partnership with his wife.

Rohm remains conflicted, however, and has yet to write a word. He still cannot answer the most important questions about Mengele: why would any human being take part in tortuous and ultimately fruitless medical experimentation on helpless victims? What possible justification could a doctor have for participating in the attempted extermination of an entire race?

Rohm, portrayed by Kai Wiesinger of Germany, finds answers to those questions. Whether he accepts them or not becomes the focus of the film. Kidnapped by surviving Nazis and taken to South America against his will, he finds Josef Mengele alive. Mengele returns with Rohm to Germany to stand trial, and the young lawyer soon finds himself roped into defending the man he has come to know so well.

The outcome of the trial raises issues of when, if ever, euthanasia is justified, whether potentially lethal medical experimentation on human beings should be done if those same patients are doomed anyway, and how a slippery slope of ethically dubious choices can lead down the path to depravity.

The most chilling aspect of the Mengele character as portrayed by German actor Gatz George is how sympathetic he becomes. After all, the audience is reminded, those men whom civilized society would proclaim as monsters are still men, and there is no depth to which man can sink that he cannot find an excuse for digging further still.

George, so moved by the script that he helped finance the film to the tune of one million marks when other sources of funding dried up, portrays Mengele as cold-hearted and unrepentant for sure. Still, it is the humanity he brings to the role that leaves the viewer wondering if he or she could make the moral choice given the circumstances. Balancing Mengele’s calculated self-defense are both Rohm’s tortured realization of the doctor’s sociopathic motives and prosecutor Heribert Vogt, played by Peter Roggisch. Vogt channels all the righteous rage of Mengele’s victims into an impassioned plea for justice in the face of his horrific crimes.

Nazis, too, played 'compassion' card

German-born Dominican Father Anselm Ramelow, who took part in a panel discussion following the festival, examined the moral issues raised by “After the Truth.”

“Euthanasia is a taboo in Germany precisely because of the history [of Nazism],” the priest said, adding that the topic is nevertheless one of vital importance. “It starts with small things where we cross certain boundaries and can lead to scenarios like concentration camps.”

Father Ramelow pointed to modern parallels in Central Europe, like the Swiss group Dignitas, an organization that helps patients with incurable diseases commit suicide. The priest explained that the earliest Nazi propaganda films on the subject had nothing to do with race or eugenics, but rather with “compassionate mercy killings” of suffering patients. Father Ramelow said these films were the subtle first step that laid the groundwork for later Nazi atrocities.

The festival’s other films highlighted similar issues regarding the importance of human life, even in the midst of suffering. In the high school category, winner Nathaniel Sharpe used a documentary technique in his film, “Wrinkles in Time,” to delve into the life of his ailing grandmother, Louise Carlson.

Carlson suffers from both macular degeneration and Parkinson’s Disease. In spite of these setbacks, she remains as active. She paints, she goes to church and she interacts with family as much as possible.

“I don’t have a lot of control over my body in certain things,” Carlson said in the film. “I’ve had to deal with that, and cope with it, and thank the Lord for it.”

Throughout the film, Sharpe juxtaposes his grandmother’s uncontrolled movement with the seemingly uncontrollable movement of her great grandson, baby Louis Carlson. Sharpe traveled from Bathgate, N.D. to be a part of the festival’s panel discussion. He said he has been making films for several years, but has never shown one in public before. Even this film, he said, was experimental.

Art imitating life

The final two films of the night, “The Poet,” and “Mad World,” shared similar themes but had radically different outcomes. In the first, a young American soldier dies in Iraq and leaves his baby boy in the care of his sisters. At first, they seem reluctant to take on such a difficult task, but later come to realize they are honoring their brother’s sacrifice by raising his son.

The filmmaker, who won in the college category, was Eric Hinojosa of Universal City, Texas. The film was semi-autobiographical; Hinojosa’s brother died in Iraq.

“Mad World” stood in sharp contrast, and showed the consequences of treating life like a throwaway commodity. The film features two young people dealing with the aftermath of premarital sex. The young girl is pregnant and the young man wants nothing to do with the child.

What the young man does next makes this story different than millions of similar stories. Instead of simply leaving his girlfriend to fend for herself, he slips crushed the abortifacient RU-486 into her coffee. She loses the baby and her boyfriend loses his freedom.

The film is based on the story of Daniel Riase, who just a year ago was charged with planting a crushed pill in his girlfriend Shari Best’s drink, causing her to miscarry. Riase is in a Virginia jail awaiting trial on felony charges.

The winning films, along with those that received an honorable mention, can be viewed on the Cinema Vita website: http://www.ignatius.com/cinemavita/. At the festival, Ignatius Press announced it had acquired the rights to film “After the Truth,” which will be released this year on DVD for the first time in North America.

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of Catholic San Francisco (www.catholic-sf.org),official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Calif.

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