Founded by actor Robert De Niro and his producing partner Jane Rosenthal in 2002, the festival was organized to celebrate New York City as a major filmmaking center and to bring money and people back to lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Set to debut on April 27, “Saint of 9/11” chronicles the fascinating life and heroic death of Father Mychal Judge, the Brooklyn-born son of Irish immigrants and the beloved FDNY chaplain, who, at the age of 68, was killed after giving last rites to dying firefighters at the World Trade Center.
“It was the perfect match,” Holsten told the Irish Echo in a phone interview Wednesday. “It can share Mychal’s wonderful, inspiring story and it also can sort of act as a healing story for the people of New York who lived through the tragedy. To live through it again with Mychal’s healing words, comforting them throughout, I just think it is going to be a pretty special experience for the audience.”
More than 340 firefighters, many of whom had roots in Ireland, were killed when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
Father Judge, a Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, was the first official recorded victim of the attacks. A picture taken by Reuters photographer Shannon Stapleton of Father Judge’s lifeless body being carried out of the ruins by a policeman and four firefighters was dubbed the “American Pieta” and has become an iconic image of that horrific day.
Father Mychal’s helmet was presented to Pope John Paul II before he died and a grass-roots campaign proposing the gregarious clergyman for canonization is now underway.
Holsten, a Philadelphia filmmaker who has spent most of his career working in public television, says he first conceived the idea to make a documentary about Father Judge after he viewed videotaped footage of a well-attended memorial that the churchman’s friend, gay rights activist Brendan Fay, had organized about a month after his death.
It was in watching those tapes that Holsten realized how the cleric had acted as a bridge to different communities that didn’t always interact. A fine counselor and deeply committed churchman with a great sense of humor, Father Judge was also known to some as a “proud homosexual” who played a “vibrant part in the gay community,” as noted in a synopsis of the documentary on the film festival’s web-site.
“The film’s working title was always ‘My Mychal,’ just because of the way Mychal spelled his name and the fact that I would speak to so many people from so many different walks of life and they all acknowledged they had their own ‘Mychal.’ It was only after his death that they realized that everyone had their own ‘my Mychal,'” Holsten explained.
The title for the film changed only after Holsten and his associates heard Fay, now the film’s co-producer, utter the phrase, “From the rubble of this disaster, the saint of 9/11 emerges…”
“We all stopped,” Holsten recalled. “And the executive producer (Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the gay advocacy group, Equality Forum) at that point just said, ‘That’s our title!’ We wrestled with it because it’s a big title and it sort of leads you to believe it is a 9/11 story, which it is, but it’s also Mychal’s life and goes beyond that one day.”
A life well lived
The documentarian says it was the way Father Judge embraced life’s challenges and incorporated them into his personality, then used them to help other people, that made him such an interesting subject to research.
“I think he would do the best that he could and he wasn’t so entangled by life’s complications,” Holsten observed. “All the parts of his life — his love of Ireland, his love of his Franciscan tradition, his sexuality, his commitment to Alcoholics Anonymous — they all feed into the fabric of a man and he juggled all of those elements skillfully, beautifully.”
Holsten says most of the people he interviewed for the film were cooperative and eager to share what they knew about Father Judge. His Franciscan brothers, however, were more reluctant to involve themselves in the project.
“There was some hesitation on the (part of) the Franciscans and I understand that,” the director revealed. “They allowed us to film outside the friary … I’m a bit of an unknown element to them and I don’t know if that goes into it or that his life story includes discussions about his sexuality, something that they weren’t supportive of, but most everyone else was really, really excited and really happy.
“Mychal is really well-known and really well-loved and I feel like this film tapped into that energy-especially in New York City,” he continued. “And what the film is going to do is just send a ripple effect throughout the country and the world. I feel like the world is ready to hear his message. The world came to know him in his death and it really is such a treat to be able to share his life with the same population.”
Piecing it together
Narrated by “X-Men” and “The Lord of the Rings” star Ian McKellen, “Saint of 9/11” uses Father Judge’s own words and interviews with those who knew and loved him, including former fire department commissioner Thomas Von Essen and writer Malachy McCourt, to paint a portrait of a compassionate and spiritual man, a recovering alcoholic who tirelessly ministered to the needy.
His humanity, as well as his strength to overcome his own struggles and his pride in who he was, helped make him one of the city’s most effective and popular clerics.
“He had a special gift of connecting with people and I see that in his language,” Holsten noted. “I didn’t know Mychal Judge. I’ve only come to know him through news clips and articles and reprints of his prayers and speeches and I think his command of the language was magnificent. It was very emotional. It was very compelling. It was grounded in his faith, but it was also grounded in his love for people. He wasn’t a fancy orator, but he was such a beautiful speaker and I think that comes through clearly and with Ian McKellen narrating his words, it sort of elevated them to another level of poetry.”
So, how did Holsten convince the British actor to lend his distinctive voice to the project?
“He was on our wish list,” Holsten said. “And the executive producer is the head of an organization that had given Ian an award years ago and he e-mailed him and Ian e-mailed back and said, ‘Yes, I’d be interested.'”
The filmmaker says McKellen was committed to the story from the start, but tried to convince him an Irish actor would be better suited for the job.
“I feel like Mychal is in the film and Mychal’s voice is true in the film through a lot of news excerpts,” Holsten remarked. “Having someone else (with a similar voice or accent) might have been confusing. So, I liked the idea of having sort of a clean break between the narrator and Mychal’s true speech pattern, which was this great New York, Irish voice.”