British filmmaker Michael Whyte lives in West London’s Notting Hill area across the square from a Carmelite monastery, Most Holy Trinity. For years he wondered about the building across the square; then one day he inquired about making a documentary there.
The sisters considered his proposal, but kept putting him off — for 10 years. Finally, they opened their doors to him for a full year. The resulting film, No Greater Love, is now being screened in the U.K. by Hot Property Films, which hopes to bring the film to the U.S.
I recently exchanged emails with Whyte about the film.
SDG: Cloistered religious life is obviously something very far from the experience and outlook of most people today. How have audiences responded to the film? What aspects of the sisters’ lives do audiences most connect with? What aspects are most difficult or challenging?
Michael Whyte: The audience response has been wonderful. Many people of all ages have come up to me after a screening and thanked me for allowing them into the world of Carmel for that period of time the film runs: 105 minutes.
Nobody has talked about the most challenging aspect of the sisters’ lives … I imagine it would be the cloistered life, lack of personal possessions, and learning to live in silence before finally coming to terms with yourself before God.
SDG: What kinds of questions do you get from audiences? What do people want to know about the film?
Whyte: People ask why I wanted to make the film, how the sisters reacted to being filmed. The idea of a cloistered monastery in the heart of London struck me as very unusual, and all filmmakers are curious, or should be. At first, the sisters were a little wary, but over time they eventually became more relaxed; and after that I was treated as one of the community. One questioner asked how I managed to cast all these wonderful actors — he thought it was a drama.
SDG: The story of your 10-year quest to make this film raises inevitable comparisons to Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence. Have you seen Gröning’s film? If so, at what point in your process? How do you see your film as similar and/or different?
Whyte: I have seen Into Great Silence and admire it very much. There are some similarities, inevitably, because both films deal with monastic life. I didn’t see Into Great Silence until I was well into editing my own film. I was allowed to interview the sisters, whereas Philip Gröning wasn’t [able to interview the monks], so I was able to have some personal insights into the life of a monastic order. I would hope that both films complement each other.
SDG: How long did you spend shooting at Most Holy Trinity? To what extent was your time there shaped by the pattern of the sisters’ way of life? I’m supposing that with the monastery located in Notting Hill rather than, say, the French Alps, you were able to come and go as you pleased, so you weren’t “cloistered” yourself. How did being a man among cloistered women affect the process?
Whyte: I spent a year going in and out of the monastery. Some weeks I would go in for a couple of days, others just for a day; sometimes I wouldn’t go in for a couple of weeks. It all depended on what I wanted to film and what was happening in the monastery. For instance, if several of the sisters were ill with a flu or something, this would put an extra burden on the other sisters, and it would be too much extra for me to come in. During Holy Week I was inside the monastery every day. During my time in the monastery, I tried to live as the sisters did, so if I wasn’t filming them, I would join them for the Divine Office and so forth. I would go in early in the morning and leave last thing in the evening.
At one time, whenever a man entered the monastery, say a plumber or builder, he would be preceded by a senior nun who rang a bell to warn the other sisters in the monastery of the presence of a man, and they would then make sure they were not seen. Behind the man there might be another two nuns to make sure he only went where necessary. All the nuns would have their faces veiled.
This practice died out sometime in the ’70s and ’80s. Nowadays, the nuns still accompany the man and watch over the work being done. They no longer wear a veil over their faces, but they ensure that as far as possible noise is kept to a minimum. The men are not allowed to bring in a radio or telephone. If they need to make a call, they have to leave the monastery. In my case, I think having met me several times before I went in, they felt it was probably okay. I wasn’t accompanied into any of the areas I wanted to film.
I began filming in the common areas, such as the corridors, the altar bread-making rooms and the choir, where they prayed, which were always open to other nuns. It wasn’t until much later in filming that I spent some time alone in a room with a nun.
In the end, it came down to a question of trust. I was aware of the privilege afforded me, and acted accordingly. I never felt discomfort from whichever sister I was with. I would always check with a nun: that it was okay to film her; if she wasn’t keen, I wouldn’t film her, but that never happened.
SDG: What technical challenges did you face? Did you work alone or with a crew?
Whyte: I worked alone and had to monitor sound levels as well as make sure the picture was correctly exposed and composed. One of the problems was recording events that only took place once, such as the processions, the Mandata during Holy Week (a Carmelite tradition in which the prioress washes the feet of all the nuns), the profession of a sister and the funeral of a sister. These events were “one-offs,” and if I missed them or messed up, then the sequence would not work. And, therefore, there would be a gap, as there was no way of repeating them.
I didn’t take any lights into the monastery, so I relied on natural light or the light in the monastery. Some days it was almost impossible to work because it might be too dark; I wanted to blend in as much as I could, so any extra equipment other than a camera and tripod was ruled out.
SDG: How did you approach the challenge of structuring your material? Is there a dramatic arc, whether narrative, thematic or otherwise? Is the material in chronological order? What should audiences watch for when viewing the film?
Whyte: The film has two linear narratives running side by side: a year in the life and a day in the life. The core of the film is Holy Week, dealing with the central tenet of the Christian faith: the Resurrection. During this year, a sister gets professed, and one of the senior nuns dies. In and around these narratives, some of the sisters are interviewed, and they speak very candidly about their faith.
SDG: May I ask you to comment on your own religious background and what the experience of working on this film was like for you?
Whyte: I was brought up low-church Anglican. My experience of a year with the sisters was one of the most profound of my life, and now I would describe myself as a good friend to the Roman Catholic Church.
Filmmaker Michael Whyte actually lived across the square from the monastery for years without realizing it was still occupied. One day he heard the monastery bell calling the sisters to prayer.
In 1984, filmmaker Philip Gröning had an idea for a film. He took his proposal to the prior of the Grande Chartreuse monastery, the head monastery of the Carthusian order, high in the French Alps between Grenoble and Chambéry. Gröning wanted to shoot a documentary inside the Grande Chartreuse — not an ordinary documentary, concerned with the transmission of information, but a spiritual voyage into the inner meaning and experience of monastic life.
Ultimately, Into Great Silence reveals itself to be about nothing less than the presence of God. So many spiritually aware films — The Seventh Seal, Crimes and Misdemeanors — are about God’s absence or silence. Here is a film that dares to explore the possibility of finding God, of a God who is there for those who seek him with their whole hearts.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.