“The Calling,” a four-hour documentary that airs Dec. 20-21
on PBS stations, looks at seven young Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish
seminarians as they train for the ministry, grapple with their sense of calling
and their new responsibilities.
Director Danny Alpert talked about the $1.8 million project
that followed some of its subjects for two years. Some comments have been edited
for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you decide to make training for ministry the
subject of a documentary?
A: There was a combination of two factors, one very personal
and the other more cultural or societal. On a personal level, as a young man, I
considered becoming a rabbi. On a more societal level, living abroad in Israel
for several years, in a culture where faith and the day-to-day life are so
intertwined, when I moved back to the States I was struck by the tension
between modernity and faith.
Q: Is this relatively uncharted territory for documentarians
A: There have been films made about nuns, about missionaries
and priests before. I don’t believe that there has ever been a film that covers
a number of faiths. And certainly I don’t think there’s been one that really
goes into the personal lives as well as the spiritual lives of these
Q: Have the subjects met each other?
A: Last week, we had an event at the Art Institute of
Chicago where, for the first time, the subjects all came together. It was
lightning in a bottle. The sense of spirituality, commonality in that pursuit
was really palpable in the room all day long.
Q: In the series, you deal with people from very different
faiths, but were you hoping to show commonalities among them?
A: I don’t think we set out to show commonalities in faith.
This was not meant to be “look how similar we are.” I think we wanted to
humanize religious leaders and to show that they struggle with a lot of the
same things that we do.
Q: What were the similarities that struck you?
A: This seems to be a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too
generation. While they are all devoted to their faith and live their faith,
they are also not willing to compromise on their modern American identities. I’ve
also found in terms of the commonalities between them, the basic struggles of
balancing religious/public life, self-care and care of others.
Q: Most of the candidates seemed to grapple with their sense
A: It’s a huge leap of faith, literally and figuratively, to
do this. There aren’t many more demanding jobs. You’re on 24/7, you’re a public
figure, you’re being judged, people are looking at you. There are pressures on
all levels — personal, spiritual, practical. I think that the calling is not a
static event for any of these people. How that plays out in the world is an
Q: These candidates all had their sermons critiqued and went
through the job interview process, and had to move from a 9-5 mindset to a 24/7
one. Were you also trying to show how unusual this preparation can be?
A: Seminaries are kind of unknown, cloistered — to use the old-fashioned
word. People don’t know how their religious leaders are trained, and that is
part of what makes a good documentary: taking people to a place they can’t or
haven’t or could never go.
Q: What was most difficult to leave on the cutting room
A: A whole additional Catholic story. There were originally
going to be eight stories — two from each faith group. It became a question of more
stories or more depth to each story. We had a limited amount of time, and it
became clear that more depth was the way to go.
Q: What message do you hope people will walk away with after
viewing the series?
A: I hope that they will be thinking about something that
the characters did to make the world a better place, and that they will look at
these people’s callings and think about what their own calling may be, what it
is that they feel passionate about.