Even if you fancy yourself to be the most caring and appreciative nonfiction filmmaker around, you have to admit that not all documentary subjects are created equal. In the case of Pope Francis - A Man of His Word,Wim Wenders's latest documentary that follows and engages with the current leader of the Catholic Church, there are not many subjects harder to obtain the approval of working with. 

Perhaps that's why the Vatican proposed the idea to Wenders. Few filmmakers possess the respect that the three-time Academy Award nominee holds, and Wenders, himself long fascinated with St. Francis of the 13th century, was intrigued by the idea of documenting a man who would choose to voluntarily take on the name upon assuming the papacy.

"A documentary film could do justice to the radical approach of Pope Francis' papacy."

Known as a progressive figure who openly speaks out in support of gay rights and against climate change (and vigorously denounces the rampant child abuse apparent within the church), Pope Francis proves to be a compelling subject, sitting down with Wenders to discuss practical means to a better life, meeting with the sick and imprisoned, and traveling to countries  that have recently experienced unprecedented natural disasters and heartbreak.

A few days after Pope Francis - A Man of His Word premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, No Film School sat down with Wenders in New York City to discuss the Pope as a political figure, if the Vatican had any say over the final cut, and how Errol Morris's Interrotron provided Wenders with a more opportune way to interview the world-famous figure.

No Film School: You personally have a strong fascination with St. Francis of Assisi, from whom Pope Francis, derived his name. Were you originally looking to make a historical study of St. Francis, or about this Pope in particular? How did those seeds plant themselves?

Wim Wenders: This film was indeed instigated in quite a unique way, but thinking about it the other day, I realized it wasn’t all that unusual. A lot of my documentaries started with a “request”. I did Buena Vista Social Club because [guitarist and producer] Ry Cooder gave me a cassette one day and said, "You have to listen to this music from Cuba. It’s maybe the best thing I’ve ever done. Soon, I'm gonna go back to Havana, and you should really come with me!” With Pina, it was similar. Pina Bausch kept asking me, "Wim, people don't know how to film my work. And you like it so much, and I'm happy about that, but, can't you film it? Nobody does it right."

In the case of this film, it wasn’t all that dissimilar. It was a letter by the Vatican asking: “Would you be interested in thinking about a movie with Pope Francis?” In a way the letter said, we know that you filmmakers think a Pope is off limits. So, can we plant a seed? There’s a possibility this can be done. Could we talk about it? It had indeed never crossed my mind.

However, I had watched this Pope for a year already, with great expectation. (That letter reached me at the end of his first year, in late 2013.) I had really been excited when we all first saw him, on that night of his election, because the fact alone that he called himself Francis was remarkable for me. It was a real bang, that a Pope dared to take on the name of one of the great revolutionaries of the church, a great visionary, who 800 years ago realized that the relationship between nature and people was getting out of whack. When I was a little boy, the only saint I knew was St. Francis. He spoke to the birds and called all animals his brothers and sisters, [laughs] and I tried that. 

"I cannot just make a TV documentary. I cannot just make a commissioned film. I have to be more in control."

NFS: You did?

Wenders: I tried. He captured my imagination. He was radical in the way he dealt with the sick and the poor, and those who were outcast. His solidarity was indefatigable. And, so, when this new pope stood on the balcony as the first Pope from the Americas, and from the Southern Hemisphere, and dared to take on this name, he had my attention. So I followed him with great interest. And I felt that he did live up to his name." And then came this letter, “Would you consider…?” Yes, I would! I cannot just make a TV documentary. I cannot just make a commissioned film. I have to be more in control. But of course, I went to Rome, eventually, to see what they had in mind.

It turned out that the man who had written to me was a real cinephile—he had been teaching cinema, had even written books about it—and now happened to be the Prefect of Communication. He knew what he was doing, and he knew that cinema was a means of communication that no Pope had ever ventured into. He figured that a documentary film could do justice to the radical approach of Pope Francis' papacy, at least that’s how I understood it.

The man left me with nothing less, or more, than, “If you want to do this, we will enable you to do this, but you're going to have to write and conceive it yourself, and it’s going to have to be financed and produced independently. We're going to keep out of it. I just want to plant a seed, and if you like the idea, we'll help you. You will have a privileged access to the Pope, you will have access to the archives, but other than that, it's your movie."

Popefrancis2Pope Francis provides a blessing in Wim Wenders' 'Pope Francis - A Man of his Word,' courtesy of Focus Features.

NFS: With the Pope being such a public figure, constantly being photographed and recorded, what kind of challenges did you face trying to find an undiscovered part of a character who is so very much in the public eye?

Wenders: I knew we would have access to all of the footage that everybody can see on television anyway, like when he spoke at the American Senate or at the United Nations. All that was filmed anyway, so if I’d go travel with him and produce more of the same kind of images, then I'd have missed my job. What was specific about it was that I could be face-to-face with the Pope, that I would even have several sessions with him. In the end, it was four long sessions of a good two hours each. 

I realized that I had to use this face-to-face privilege in a different way. I had to translate that into cinematic terms, into a different contact and different communication between the Pope and the audience. I couldn’t keep that privilege for myself! I remembered Errol Morris' beautiful device, the Interrotron, with the help of which the Pope could speak to everybody in the audience, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. 

"Altogether, he answered 55 questions in the course of these eight hours, and by looking at me, I was then able to share that privilege with the entire audience."

NFS: As both a filmmaker and an interviewer then, how does the Interrotron change the way you would conduct an interview and film it? 

Wenders: The device allowed me to disappear as the interviewer, both as a person and as a voice. That made it a bit more difficult for Pope Francis, because he had to incorporate the questions in his answers. But he really understood well that, while he was talking to me, even if I was asking the questions, he was talking to a lot of people. Altogether, he answered 55 questions in the course of these eight hours. By having Pope Francis look “through me”, so to speak, I was thus able to share that privilege with the entire audience. 

Those were very intense talks, really one on one, and there was nobody else around in the Pope’s field of vision. He didn't even see the camera, nor the operator, my DP Lisa Rinzler, because she was invisible to him behind the screen on which he only saw my face. It was as if we had been alone, eye-to-eye, for two hours each time. You feel that intimacy now and you experience it, as you see the film, as if Pope Francis was speaking directly to you, alone.

Popefrancis3_0Pope Francis being interviewed by Wim Wenders in 'Pope Francis - A Man of His Word,' courtesy of Focus Features.

NFS: Earlier you mentioned the Senate sequence, where we're seeing these American politicians reacting (or not reacting), standing up (or not standing up), to applaud the Pope's views. With Pope Francis being viewed as somewhat of a political figure, was that something you wished to emphasize in your edit? There's a certain feeling we have when we see Barack Obama and Donald Trump now, both make quick cameos in your film.

Wenders: Well, Pope Francis made it clear from the beginning that his word and his message weren't only spiritual. When he is speaking to us as a man of God, he’s also concerned about our interactions between each other as human beings. He made it clear that he has something to say on social issues, on justice, on refugees, and most of all, on our environment. That was the “package”, so to speak, he assumed when he took on the name of Francis. And that entire package included even more: 800 years ago, Saint Francis did something unbelievable. He traveled to Egypt, in the time of the Crusades, to speak to the highest authority of the Islamic world at the time, to end the bloodshed between Christians and Muslims. The name Francis also comes with an obligation to instigate peace between the religions. Pope Francis really had his work cut out for him.

The film deals with all these issues, the social issues, the inequality especially, and the fact that so many people from all over the planet have become human waste. When Pope Francis talks about “the culture of waste”, he makes it clear that he's not just speaking about oceans full of plastic and mountains of junk, but also that we're turning people into junk and waste, by discarding them. He's speaking of our social responsibilities, appealing to all of us to fight for Mother Earth and to reunite behind all these efforts to protect the climate, both individually and as societies.

"The institution gave me an incredible freedom, and that was courageous in itself. But then again, that was the whole point of the film."

A lot of his call to action today is indeed “political”. I realized from the beginning—and throughout our talks—that he was taking on that responsibility, and that he knew that his voice in many ways contradicted the voices of other leaders.

As I've been working on this movie for four years now, it became more and more obvious that this man, Pope Francis, has a moral authority to speak up in a world where our world leaders, in America, in Russia, in China, and in Europe as well, have no moral authority to talk to us, and increasingly so. I think he knows that, and he is fully conscious about the fact that he is trying to call people, not just Christians and believers, but all people of good will, to a moral revolution. And these days, that is, in effect, necessary. We do need a new kind of responsibility towards each other, towards the community of men.

Pope1docPope Francis in Wim Wenders in 'Pope Francis - A Man of His Word,' courtesy of Focus Features.

NFS: You've noted that being granted final cut by The Vatican made the experience more challenging for you as a filmmaker. Why is that?

Wenders: In all the films I've been making before, there have always been parameters. For instance, when I worked in Havana on Buena Vista Social Club, my parameters were: "Look at these old men! Look at their enthusiasm! Their music has almost become obsolete, but they're still giving everything for it. They didn't leave their country, like so many others, because they know they belong there and they love it, they can’t separate their love for their music with their love for their country.” Now I could have made a political film about Cuba at the same time, but that would have hurt them. I had to refrain from that, and that was one of the parameters, too. I had to make the film about their music, their courage, and their beautiful energy. The parameters were clear. 

With the Vatican saying, “You'll have a very privileged access to Pope Francis,” and “You really define yourself, what kind of film you’ll be making,” I realized that this meant I also took on a huge responsibility towards my subject, which was, after all, the Pope! While they didn't tell me what to do or what not to do, sometimes I wished they could have been a little bit more restrictive with me. “No, this is not possible, we don't want you to do that.” But they kept their word and never interfered, even if sometimes I would actually have welcomed some more guidelines or restrictions.

"I think it would not have been seen as legitimate, if they hadn’t told me, 'You go and run with it.' They did actually let me run all the way.​"

NFS: Did you show them the footage you had shot?

Wenders: I did show them a rough cut. They said, “Okay, it's too long obviously, but we love what you're doing, so continue.” They never gave me any correction, so to speak, or any demands, and in between that did become sort of a burden. Normally you have producers and distributors, and with that come certain expectations. Sometimes a director is happy to have somebody helping with the dramaturgy, and here I was left to my own devices. That was great on one hand, and on the other, I thought, “Wait a minute, can anybody help me out a little bit?” 

NFS: How did that change things for you? Making a film where the institution allows you that freedom?

Wenders: The institution gave me an incredible freedom, and that was courageous in itself. But then again, that was the whole point of the film. There would have been no point if they had interfered or produced it themselves, because then everybody would have said, “Well, this is a commissioned work by the Church!” I think it would not have been seen as legitimate, if they hadn’t told me, “You go and run with it.” They did actually let me run all the way.

So I had this responsibility, and I still have it now as I represent the film. But on the other hand, it’s not all that different from my other films. Pina or The Salt of the Earth were trying to be at the service of somebody else’s art, in the first case that was the beauty of Pina Bausch’s choreography and in the second case it was the photography of a man who had seen too much of the horrifying misery on this planet and who then found comfort and inspiration in nature.

This new film now is trying to be at the service of a man who, I think, is very courageous, and connects us to another man with the same courage 800 years ago. Both are highly inspiring in this day and age, and worth a film that tries to be at their service.

For more information on 'Pope Francis - A Man of His Word,' click here