PBS’ interfaith exploration

Seven years in the making, interfaith verité documentary series The Calling will air on PBS' Independent Lens tonight and December 21. The series provides an in-depth look at people pursuing paths in four different faiths.
December 20, 2010

The Calling is a two-part, four-hour verité series exploring seven people taking up the respective ‘Callings’ of their religious faiths. Danny Alpert, the series director and executive producer, brought together four directors over the past seven years to provide a comprehensive look at people training to become professional clergy.

The idea for the program stemmed from Alpert’s own career path, which almost led to his becoming a rabbi, but over time Alpert decided it wasn’t the life for him. He also began to recognize the divide in America between modernity and faith, and saw that as fertile ground to explore.

Alpert, editor and coproducer Susanne Suffredin and series coproducer Beth Sternheimer went to work looking for the stories to follow, in four different faiths: Muslim, Jewish, Evangelical Christian and Catholic. Filmmakers from within each faith were chosen to gain an inside perspective, as each director was a ‘member of the club,’ says Alpert. Directors included Yoni Brook, Alicia Dwyer, Maggie Bowman and Musa Syeed.

Alpert says that they talked to 30 to 40 different seminaries in the early stages, as they were the gateway to accessing the characters. ‘It’s kind of like the military; nobody’s going to participate in a documentary without the permission of their seminary, [and without it] it would be professional suicide,’ he says.

Within each seminary, about 120 potential subjects were interviewed. The material was then whittled down to the seven people that made it into the film. ‘We were looking for people who were doing interesting things as you don’t want to make a film about people sitting in class all day,’ says Alpert. ‘They were just about to get married or expecting their first child, or just short of ordination. We’d follow them out into the real world and see how that worked,’ he says.

Some of the characters were filmed for almost eight years, while the rest were followed anywhere between a year and a half to two and a half years.

With the film set to finally debut, over seven years after shooting began, Alpert believes that The Calling is unique in its approach. ‘You have films that were made about singular religions, about priests or nuns, rabbis. I don’t know about any other film that covers the breadth of faith that we cover, in terms of having this interfaith look,’ he says.

As part of the project, the online campaign What’s Your Calling? (// features submissions from a wide swath of individuals who believe they’ve been called to do something, secular and/or religious. A growing library of profiles has emerged, featuring religious faith leaders, poets, a Thai boxer, a tugboat captain, environmental activists and comedians – all of whom see their work as a calling. ‘The idea is to use these as sparks for conversations,’ says Alpert. The website’s second phase in the spring will allow public submissions. ‘We think that’s a way of reaching religious and secular audiences and that’s been a goal of ours from day one – to make this a film that could speak to religious and secular audiences.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.