Mother Teresa Vs. Terrorism: The Letters Reveals The Opposite of ISIS
The new Mother Teresa biopic, The Letters, was conceived on 9/11/2001. The writer, director and producer of the film, William Riead, says that it was in the contemplation of complete evil that he began to search for the opposite, complete good. A clergyman told Riead that there is a duality to life, and that if there is an evil, there must always be a countervailing good. If bloodthirsty men could send the world a message of terror and hatred, Riead wondered, could filmmakers send the world a message of selflessness and love? That idea gestated for fourteen years and was born into the theaters last Friday, Dec. 4th.
Riead, raised Roman Catholic and now a self-described “pragmatic guy,” believes that there is a reason that this film came out shortly after the ISIS attacks in Paris and closely on the heels of the ISIS-inspired massacre in San Bernardino. On Friday, as the world’s news was opening the doors to the interior world of the San Bernardino shooters and their treasure trove of deadly weapons and deadlier propaganda, another door was simultaneously opened to the life of Mother Teresa. Her battle plan, prayer; her weapon, bread; her army, young women who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
It’s easy to forget that Teresa was not just a religious and humanitarian figure, but in many ways a political, even a geopolitical, figure. Having lived many of her formative years behind the Iron Curtain, she launched her ministry in India coincidentally with Indian secession from the British Empire. Her early years of growth occurred amidst the religious/political/military tension of the partition of Pakistan as a separate Muslim state. We know that Teresa began her work amongst the poorest of the poor, among economic desolation, but we tend to forget that it was economic desolation surrounded by a military tinderbox. It was the kind of environment in which even Gandhi would be assassinated. I suppose that in the search for the requisite number of miracles required for canonization, the Vatican could reasonably have begun with this unlikely event: she lived those early years as a foreign, Christian, female public leader in an environment of Hindu-Muslim nationalistic tension without herself being assassinated.
Though assassins were never able to touch her, character assassins took their shots. The late Christopher Hitchens produced a vicious documentary about her life, adolescently titled The Missionary Position. One of his many trumped up charges was her alleged political associations. Hitchens was wrong to falsely accuse her, but he was right to see that she was a major figure, that her actions helped steer the course of nations. It was a Nobel Peace Prize that she won.
The film clearly references that political environment, though it does not major in poli-sci: it’s first and foremost a biography. Riead set out to tell the story as it happened, faithfully to describe one human life.
The film has a minimalist quality to it, which is appropriate — she lived a minimalist life. We don’t see Teresa through the eyes of the media. Quite to the contrary, we see the media through the eyes of Teresa. And through those eyes, she was not impressed. The woman was devoid of interest in fame. It’s hard for us to imagine an attitude like that now. It comes off as quaint, even aloof. We have reality TV stars as presidential candidates. We have political primaries which for most of the contestants are reality shows by other means. Pundits appear on news shows with their twitter ID showing on the chyron beneath them. And there we see a woman who doesn’t have time to answer questions from the global media because she’s got toilets to clean, and wounds to bandage. And when she did finally engage that global media, she did so in ways that showed that she did not fear it at all. Toward the end of the film, we’re shown her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. She doesn’t talk about ‘faith’, but about God, and not just about God, but about Christ, and not just about Christ, but she then prays to Him in front of the group. She prays not just in front of them, but leading them in prayer. Fearless — not afraid of Muslim secessionists, nor Hindu nationalists in India; not afraid of her own Church’s bureaucracy in Rome, nor of what Kierkegaard called Christianity’s ‘cultured despisers’ in Stockholm.
I sat down with William Riead across a Skype line recently to talk about The Letters. You can listen to the complete interview here. A partial transcript, edited for clarity, follows below:
JERRY: The film, by the way, I thought was wonderful; I watched it last night. Very powerful, very moving. I found myself wondering, when I looked at your filmography, there’s not much in that filmography that would have told me eventually this guy’s going to do a movie about Mother Teresa. So this is — you don’t have a career arc of say biopics or something like that. So what got you interested in this woman and telling her story?
MR. RIEAD: Well, if you go back to 9/11/01, and that was a real shocker to all of us in the nation. And it told me that there’s true evil out there in the world. And a clergyman friend of mine had once brought up the word to me, “duality”. And I remember asking him what that word meant. And he said for everything in life and the universe, there’s an opposite. For left, there’s right; for right, there’s wrong; for up, there’s down; for night, there’s day; and good, evil. And the opposite of evil is good. And I thought what can I do to make some contribution to the world to make some opposite contribution to the evil I just saw at 9/11.
And I thought about when I met Richard Attenborough years ago right after he had finished “Gandhi”. And I didn’t – I hadn’t seen the film at that point. When I went to see the movie, I realized that he had made a tremendous contribution. He had brought to the screen an exceptional human being who effected change. And I thought, my God; we can use the camera to possibly effect change.
So then when 9/11 occurred, I thought maybe I should do a “Gandhi” who would be a person who would be the quintessential definition of good. And that was Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu who would later become Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
So I just sort of became committed to making some contribution artistically through cinema. I wanted to bring Mother Teresa back to life. And so I cast Juliet Stevenson, who’s just a brilliant actress, and gave her that assignment. I said look, your job here is to bring Mother Teresa back to life. And when I finished the film, I realized that she had accomplished that. I think that she did just a stellar job.
JERRY: From the time that you decided that you wanted to do a great figure, a kind of a compensating for the evil, like, a good to counterbalance the evil, to the time that you arrived at Mother Teresa as that exemplar, was how long? Was it instant: who’s good? Mother Teresa comes to mind right away, or was there a process of searching for your paragon of virtue?
MR. RIEAD: The discussion with my wife over lunch a few days later, and I was talking to her about my meeting with Attenborough and Gandhi. And either I brought it up or she did, I can’t remember. But I think she said why don’t you make a film about Mother Teresa, because she epitomizes good, the polar opposite of what we witnessed 9/11. And look what happened in Paris a couple weeks ago, and look what happened in San Bernardino here, east of us here, and just an hour east of us here in L.A.
MR. RIEAD: It’s all around us now, and so this is a good time for the film to come out.
JERRY: I agree. We’re not running out of — we are not running at all short of evil to be counterbalanced with good, are we?
MR. RIEAD: No. It’s amazing that I came up with that idea fourteen years ago, and now it’s all around us. And my film is coming out right on the eve of Paris and San Bernardino.
JERRY: By the way, are you Catholic, or is your wife Catholic? Is Mother Teresa just a universal figure, or is this something that comes out of religious experience for you two?
MR. RIEAD: I was raised Catholic, but the fact that Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun had nothing to do with it. She’s — I think of her more as a humanitarian. I think of the Pope automatically as Catholic. I think of Mother Teresa automatically as a humanitarian who was a gift to the world, a gift to humanity. She crossed all limits and barriers. And when she died in 1997, she was the only civilian to be given a state funeral, and representatives of every faith showed up for her funeral to pay respects to this exceptional human being. The fact that she was a Catholic and a Catholic nun didn’t affect me as much as she was just exceptional in every way. And when I made — when I started the research to write the script, I became more and more fascinated with, wow, this is someone very special. So by the end of the film there’ll be no doubt in anybody’s minds that she’s a saint.
JERRY: I noticed — I read a review of the film recently, I think it was “The Hollywood Reporter”, that was, I thought, unfairly negative. And the idea was here that it was, I don’t know, maybe wooden or not passionate. But I don’t know what you can do. I mean, if you capture the woman, then you’ve captured the woman. And if she’s not a charmer, and if she’s not a publicity hound, then what are you going to capture except her deeds, which speaks to who she truly is. If she’s quiet, if she’s withdrawn, if she’s without ego, if she’s not a superhero in the traditional sense, or a charmer, I don’t know what else could be done. I mean, the idea is to capture the essence of this person.
So I haven’t read any other reviews, but in general, how are you responding to reviews of the film so far?
MR. RIEAD: Well, there’s two types of reviews: those that are incredibly positive, and then there are those who shocked me as being negative. And I do not understand why anybody would write a negative review about my film, because my film is not a work of fiction, it’s a work of fact. I made a film that is factually accurate. I’ve spent twelve years in television news; I was a journalist before I became a film director and I’m used to getting it right. I’m used to being accurate. So anyone who would criticize my film is criticizing the true story of Mother Teresa.
MR. RIEAD: Also, keep in mind, Jerry, that critics — there are critics out there who are just mean-spirited people, and there are critics who are terrific people.
MR. RIEAD: It never dawned on me that I would get some bad reviews. I was warned by the studio that there would be Mother Teresa haters out there. One person wrote something along the lines of the film director, Riead, didn’t capture all aspects of Mother Teresa and her misappropriation of funds.
And you know, the one thing that makes blood shoot out of my eyeballs, makes the blood — my blood boil, makes my veins stick out in my neck, is if someone says anything negative about Mother Teresa. It just pisses me off. And the reason is because they are mean-spirited people who, in this day and age of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, you have the unmitigated gall to find fault with Mother Teresa? What’s wrong with you? This woman is a saint, and you are so mean-spirited, you’re looking to find fault with her.
So it came as a surprise that I got some negative reviews. You know, these people spend their lives criticizing others.
MR. RIEAD: Critics, in my view, are people who probably went to Hollywood to become a director or went to New York –
JERRY: And it didn’t work out, right.
MR. RIEAD: – and it didn’t work out. So now they’re pissed off at the world. And those of us who made it and actually are making films, they want to just put us down because they didn’t make it. That’s the only thing I can think of, Jerry. I don’t know any other reason because there’s nothing about my film that is not accurate, and there’s nothing about Mother Teresa that’s not wonderful.
JERRY: Well, Bill, let me suggest that the accuracy of your film is, in fact, the problem, that these aren’t really negative reviews of your film; they’re negative reviews of her life. She had critics –
MR. RIEAD: I know.
JERRY: — when she was alive, she has critics now. Christopher Hitchens did a documentary –
MR. RIEAD: And he’s just a — an –
JERRY: — just relentlessly attacking this woman.
MR. RIEAD: – an evil — evil, evil atheist. Evil. Christopher Hitchens was a Mother Teresa hater. And Jerry, I mean, I don’t understand it, because if people would take the time to do what I did — I spent months and months researching her life, and I did it objectively. I did it with the idea of let the chips fall where they may. If this woman is a saint, then let’s reveal her as a saint. If she wasn’t what we thought she was, then let’s reveal that. I’m going to tell the true story of Mother Teresa. And when I was through with my research, I realized that this woman was even more than we thought she was.
JERRY: She’s better, right, yes.
MR. RIEAD: She was so unbelievable that I was humbled by the responsibility of making this film, and trying to get it right.
Look, Jerry, I don’t take it personally when somebody takes a shot at me. I do take it — I do get upset when somebody takes a shot at Mother Teresa. If somebody wants to take a shot at me, come ahead, I’m a big boy. But don’t pick on somebody who would get up really early in the morning, get down on her knees on cement — if there was carpeting in the room, she would remove it, so that she would not have any kind of comfort — and she would pray. And then she would go out into Motijheel, which was the poorest of the poor slum of Calcutta. And believe me, I filmed for two months in the slum, and it’s an open sewer. And Mother Teresa spent her life helping people. Who in the hell could possibly find fault with this woman? I mean, it angers me that they would find fault with her.
If you don’t like my movie, fine. If you don’t like my writing, fine. If you don’t like me, fine. I don’t care. But leave Mother Teresa alone. I’m very, very protective of her.
Originally posted on Forbes.