Weaving a Rich Tapestry for The Calling

Posted on December 8, 2010

Filmmaker Danny Alpert sheds light on the team responsible for the upcoming PBS miniseries The Calling, which airs December 20 and 21 on Independent Lens (check local listings). On Thursday, December 9, from 5:30pm PT / 8:30pm ET join Independent Lens, WTTW, and the Art Institute of Chicago for an exclusive social media screening of The Calling on the Independent Lens Facebook fan page or on our Livestream channel before it airs on PBS. I’ve been working on The Calling for so long that last week I went back to investigate when it was actually started.  What I found made me laugh — the first concept development draft was dated December 20, 2002 — exactly eight years to the day before the broadcast date.




This has been a huge undertaking. 

The scope was large, the budget significant, and the logistics complex.  Moreover, we wanted to follow our subjects over time, to give their stories time to develop. It was clear from day one that the team for this project would be key to its success. What I love most about filmmaking is collaborative creation, and The Calling is a testament to this process. But the point was not only to find a crew of outstanding professional quality (which I fortunately did), but also to find the right people for this project. Religion is not easy — people have strong feelings and come with their own baggage.  I wanted to find people who I know would look critically and ask the hard questions, but who also had respect and understanding of faith and the faithful. Moreover, I’m not Catholic, Evangelical, or Muslim, and would need these perspectives. 

It was not an easy search, but I was blessed to find a talented and dedicated team. For the directors, who would create relationships and trust with those subjects we chose to follow and produce the raw stories, I also decided that, in order to avoid learning curves and the “clubbiness” of most religions, they would be of the same faiths as the subjects they followed. Musa Syeed (director of the Muslim stories) grew in a big South Asian family in Plainfield, Indiana, often the only Muslim in his class.  He is the only member of our team who prays every day. On this project his storytelling was challenged from both sides — on one side a responsibility to the post-9/11 Muslim community and, on the other, a large group of fellow citizens who are hostile and ignorant of Islam.  

He and Yoni Brook (director of the Jewish stories) have together produced two previous ITVS films; Bronx Princess and A Son’s Sacrifice.  Yoni’s passport reads Jonathan. He grew up in a Jewish Conservative day school in Silver Spring, Maryland. His time with Orthodox rabbis made him to feel that the denominational divisions within Judaism are artificial. Yoni and Musa just returned from Kashmir, where they were shooting the narrative film Valley of Saints. Alicia Dwyer (director of the Evangelical stories) sometimes goes to an Episcopal church, but her parents were unaffiliated hippies for years.  She has intense stories about her bible-thumping grandma, a family past that added depth and challenge as she entered the world of Evangelical seminaries. She is now working on a new documentary, Christmas Without China.  Maggie Bowman (director of the Catholic stories), was the producer of P.O.V.’s Election Day. Her father was a Jesuit for 18 years, so no surprise that she grew up in a strong Catholic home. This fueled her interest in this project, but was balanced with and attitude summed up in her Facebook bio: “I alternate between this end and that end of many things.” 

Herding these four, the rest of the crew, the budget and me (a full-time gig in its own right) was Beth Sternheimer (co-producer), whose patience and tenacity were key.  Beth is an award-winning researcher and Associate Producer for P.O.V.’s Traces of the Trade.  She is Jewish but grew up riding horses at an Episcopal girls school in Maryland.  Beth’s religious profile is “my matzoh ball soup is fantastic.” My closest collaborator in this all-star team is Susanne Suffredin (co-producer/editor), who worked her way through almost 1,400 hours of footage to shape The Calling. Susanne was brought up by an old-school Irish mother in Catholic schools, experiences that led her to rebel against the Church. 

I was fortunate to have the most skeptical of the crew in the edit room with me, ensuring that The Calling would speak to religious and secular alike. Though still very doubtful about organized religion, her immersion in this project has led her to reexamine the role of her faith history in who she is and her own spirituality today. And there were countless others: Josh Cass (assistant editor), Tim Rutili and Jim Becker of Califone (music), Gail Evenari (project development) Adam Shamoon (associate producer), and on and on. (See full credits here.) This process has not been easy. There have been many misunderstandings, conflicts and disappointments. But The Calling is a tapestry. It weaves together stories, faiths, geography, roots, music, and traditions into a narrative about how faith is lived in this country and age. But it is also a culmination of these relationships and a merging of the diverse creative forces that emerged from this process. 

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