Poverty? OK. Chastity? There are worse things. Obedience? Now, hold on a minute!

You read that right, it’s not the Flying Nuns, it’s the Feminist Nuns! In this Justice League style match-up, a group of revolutionary sisters at Immaculate Heart College challenges the misogyny of the Catholic Church. The showdown changes religion, and the world, forever. 

Speaking with No Film School before the film’s premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, director Pedro Kos and producer Shawnee Issac-Smith share insight on the process of bringing Rebel Hearts to life with immersive animation, unbelievable archives, and heartwarming interviews collected over 25 years.

50610462041_8986945c76_cA still from 'Rebel Hearts' by Pedro Kos, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles

NFS: Shawnee, I read that this project started with you shooting interviews with the Immaculate Heart sisters for over 20 years.

Shawnee Isaac-Smith: I actually heard about this group of women maybe 25 years ago. A light bulb went on in my head: what an amazing story. I was raised Catholic and as a little girl always said, "I want to be a priest," but they said, "No, you can be a nun." And I thought, "Well, I don't know about that." When I met these women, I had never met women like these, let alone nuns.

I am dating myself, but when I got the idea to possibly film them, there was only film, no video. So it was very expensive. And finally, when MiniDV came out, I thought, "This is the time." It was the right moment, most of them were still alive.

And that was the beginning of a long, long road, with many bumps and curves along the way. The deal was if I recorded their history, I would have access to their world. Which was for me, one of the biggest honors of my life.

And pitched it all along the way until I finally ran into Kira Carstensen, who is a producing friend of mine. And she said, "I think I can put the team together." And enter Pedro, who is an amazing artist and filmmaker. I immediately knew that this was the right guy for the job.

Pedro Kos: I fell in love with Shawnee and the extraordinary interviews that she had directed of these women. It is physically impossible not to fall in love with those women after watching this material, and what an extraordinary journey they went on. And I myself was raised Catholic. The battle lines between the conservative and progressive parts of Catholicism run right through the middle of me. As a gay Catholic growing up in Brazil, I felt that in my skin every day in a certain way.

50610579572_05d9bd3d28_kA still from 'Rebel Hearts' by Pedro Kos, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Kos: These extraordinary women had the imagination to awaken to the structures that were governing their lives. They thought beyond that and of what they could really achieve. And I think the impact that they've had is...palpable to this day.

I thought, "This is too good. These women are too amazing." It was an arrow through my heart. I'm so extraordinarily lucky to be going on this journey with Shawnee, and we had a great time. And it's been a lot of obstacles along the way, but it's a dream come true to be able to premiere it here at Sundance 2021.

NFS: Pedro, I know you have a background as an Emmy award-winning editor. And so much of documentary story is, of course, made in the edit room. When you came on to the project, was it clear what the story would be?

Kos: I was so excited to dive in. For me, the key to the story was feeling that this story is very current. It speaks to where we are today as a society. First, I wanted to ground it in the present and frame the story within the present-day context of where we find ourselves. That's why it was important to film Lenore at the women's march, to film Patrice and Victoria at the human trafficking march. And Rosa and Jane going to Nogales, Shawnee went as well. People kept asking, "Well, why now?" It's because what these women are fighting for today is what was being fought for in the 1960s.

It's important to have that contemporary framing to really feel in our bones of the why now.

The other part was how to tie it all together. It's important for me as a storyteller to make the journey as immersive as possible, to feel like you're going along on this rollercoaster ride of life along with them, and feel like you are standing there with them.

50610463421_afdfef17a2_cPedro Kos, director of 'Rebel Hearts,' an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mark Lipson

There were a lot of extremely compelling and unforgettable stories, but how to bring them to life when, especially for the '60s, a lot of the material that we have are photographs and letters?

We really began to think more in the animation space and in the motion graphics space. I grew up with the comics of the Justice League. And for me, these women are like the Justice League, but the real-life Justice League. And instead of Clark Kent becoming Superman, they're taking off the habit to become these superwomen who changed the world.

So I was really rethinking the visual language. And Judy Korin, one of our extraordinary producers, who I had the luck to work with on The Great Hack, she knew exactly sort of the animator to go to, and that was Una Lorenzen. And Una, who is an Icelandic animator based in Montreal, was also equally inspired by Coretta’s art. We talked about taking elements from that and animating certain sections of the story, from becoming nuns to dispensing their vows at the end. We felt it was a cohesive element to bring this whole story together and elevate it, and give it the emotional resonance that we all knew that it had.

NFS: In the film, one of the women says something about why their work was to shape the story because “how the Church sees Mary is how the world sees women.” From the perspective of storyteller and filmmaker, part of changing the world is telling the story. Do you have any advice on the importance of the role of filmmaking and storytelling and what you’ve learned making Rebel Hearts?

Kos: We digest our experience so much through stories. The biblical stories that have really shaped Christianity through a couple of millennia, and we continue to do so. We all are moved by stories. Storytelling is tied to everything that we do, from how we elect our political leaders to how we decide to embark on certain projects. The great space race, going to the moon, that was wrapped around in a story. And these tales really become part of the fabric of who we are.

I think is integral that these Immaculate Heart sisters get their time because they made an enormous, huge impact. If you speak to the alumni of the Immaculate Heart College, they all talk about how they were taught to be empowered leaders. Not to just be good housewives, but to be leaders, political leaders, leaders in science, in the worlds of finance, in the worlds of law. We hope that it gets out there so that it can inspire. The power of story is the power to inspire and spark imaginations. When I heard their story, I was inspired myself. It touched my heart and sort of opened up a new world. And I think that is what good storytelling can do.

50622116632_8801a7a52b_cPoster image of 'Rebel Hearts' by Pedro Kos, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Isaac-Smith: One of the things that I continually heard when interviewing alumni of the Immaculate Heart College is that women never knew they were second-class citizens until they actually left that institution and went out into the world. There was a unanimous kind of empowerment they all took in. And in that world, when women were oppressed in the '50s and '60s, in '60s the role models, those women, were amazing. Very few women were able to take their power and be role models.

One thing I learned over the many years of recording their stories is, don't take no for an answer. A lot of people that I asked at the very beginning weren't willing to be interviewed. But if I kept going back to them, or time would pass and they'd be in another spot, they might. Then as things changed in the world, they became a little bit more settled and able to talk. If someone says no once, it doesn't necessarily mean you can't go back and find out again. So hold on to that star.

Thank you, Pedro and Shawnee!

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.