NEW YORK – Christianity in today’s Russia was on full display on the big screen April 29, as the documentary, Faces Among Icons, made its theatrical debut at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
Faces Among Icons chronicles the devastation of the Russian Orthodox Church following the 1917 Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution and its rebirth following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
The Rome-based filmmaker of the documentary, Robert Duncan of Catholic News Service, was on hand to participate in a panel discussion of the movie and its topic. He was joined by the seminary’s president and president of the student council.
“I set out to make a film that was representative of Russian Orthodox life today,” Duncan said.
“Superficially, a film about the Russian church and its relationships to geopolitics was a way I could tap into the extraordinary interest of the secular media in Russia following the 2016 presidential election,” he said. “Since the Danilov Monastery, at least in popular imagination, looms in the background of Kremlin politics, there was an obvious ‘church angle’ to the Russia story post 2016.”
Faces Among Icons was released by Catholic News Service in 2017, timed to coincide with the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
It also marked the 100-year anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, at which time the Virgin Mary was said to have predicted the conversion of Russia to Christ.
Faces Among Icons showcases a range of Russian citizens who offer firsthand accounts of the changes in religious life inside their country since the fall of communism.
Following the documentary’s screening, Russian Orthodox Archpriest Chad Hatfield, president of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, noted the individuals speaking in the film provide widely diverse personal perspectives to which church-state cooperation is deemed beneficial.
Hatfield also noted that some of those Russian citizens were wary about how much influence the state should yield over the Russian Orthodox Church, which currently enjoys favored status by government leaders.
There is a need for a “new ecumenism” in Russia, Hatfield said during the question-and-answer session after the screening.
State-sponsored atheism wiped religion out in Russian for seven decades or made it go underground, he said.
So, while the Orthodox church may enjoy favored status, some other religions are met with suspicion or referred to as cults by the government, Hatfield said.
Duncan told audience members it was his observation that the Orthodox Church was still trying to figure out its place in Russian society and how to deal with its favored status.
The filmmaker said he was thrilled when representatives of St. Vladimir’s notified him they were giving the film its first public screening in a theater and asked him to be a part of the panel discussion.
“St. Vladimir’s is one of the premier Orthodox theological schools in the world,” he said. “It even owes its existence, in part, to the very story this documentary recounts — the Russian Revolution and consequent diaspora.”
So far the film has been seen online, in various iterations and postings, about 25,000 times. It has been broadcast in Canada on Salt and Light Media, and has been reviewed privately by several leading academics who specialize in Eastern Christianity.
“The New York screening at a Russian Orthodox seminary is important for two reasons. One, it calls attention to the film and its message,” said Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, who gave Duncan the green light to produce the documentary.
“Two, it also shows that Catholic News Service is interested in the Eastern Church,” Erlandson said. “As Pope John Paul II famously described, the Eastern and Western churches are the two lungs of Christianity. As a news organization we are interested in both the East and the West, and this is a way to demonstrate our commitment.”