The film, a joint project of Off the Fence Productions and the Laudato Si’ Movement, held its premiere at the Vatican on 4 October, the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology.
More than four years in the making, ‘The Letter’ follows the story of five people, each representing groups often marginalized in international environmental deliberations, on their way to Rome for a meeting with the Pope to discuss Laudato Si’ and the growing global threats of climate change and rapid biodiversity loss.
They include Arouna Kandé, a climate refugee in Senegal; Cacique Dadá, an environmental defender and leader of the Maró Indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon; Ridhima Pandey, a youth climate activist from India; and Greg Asner and Robin Martin, biologists studying coral reefs in Hawaii.
The film features exclusive footage from their encounter with Pope Francis, whose words serve as a spiritual guide alongside the personal stories and scientific findings throughout the documentary.
After their papal meeting, the group then travels to Assisi, the home of St Francis, whose Canticle of the Creatures provided the name to the Pope’s encyclical.
Behind the lens capturing their stories was Nicolas Brown, an award-winning filmmaker who has made more than a dozen documentaries on climate change and the environment. He says, ‘Our original question was: Can faith and science together somehow unite to save the planet? And that was a great foundation for me in starting the project and coming on board.’
Brown shared his amazement upon reading the encyclical for the first time. And he shares the path that transformed Laudato Si’ from 40,000 words on paper to a 90-minute visual journey into its ecological messages and the lives impacted by environmental destruction on a rapidly warming planet.
He admitted that ‘initially when I was approached, I have to say I wasn’t that keen because I’m not Catholic. I’m not even that religious myself, although I suppose I call myself spiritual I worried that it would be like a promotional video for the Catholic Church.’
Brown had to begin by reading the Pope’s encyclical. ‘Until I was approached about the film, I hadn’t even read the Laudato Si’. And I read it and was just so amazed that Pope Francis seems to have intuited the moment to reach out a handshake toward the science community for the saving of our planet.’
He continued, ‘the Pope’s message took me completely by surprise. I was raised in the evangelical tradition myself, and it was in a fairly conservative part of Colorado, where the tradition was somewhat hostile to science. And so I wasn’t prepared for such an accepted role of science in Laudato Si’. That’s what immediately struck me.
‘I came to realise that at heart, protecting climate change and biodiversity loss, because of the components involved, is a moral issue as much as a technocratic one. Now I’m of the opinion that there’s no way that we in the science community could ever solve the climate issue without the help of moral leadership.’
But there was a problem. Brown recognised ‘immediately that there was no story in the encyclical, so it was going to be very difficult task to figure out how to turn it into a movie. And I thought that it might be an idea then to bring people from different walks of life, people who are disenfranchised in some way from the process of decision-making around climate change.
‘So we came up with the idea then of the voice of the wildlife, voice of the poor, voice of the youth and voice of the Indigenous. Let’s tell these stories and use the Pope’s megaphone that he has to air these stories, to give them the time of day to understand who they are as people so that we can start to think of the climate change problem and the biodiversity problem less in terms of statistics and more in terms of human beings.’
He is clear about the aim of this approach. ‘So our aim is that these people would no longer become statistics but would become real people, and we’d really understand some of the human dimensions of the issues facing us that I think the Pope is really trying to point toward. So in a way I think we’re telling Laudato Si’ but through the eyes of the people who live it on the front lines.’
Brown believes that ‘given that Pope Francis addressed his encyclical to all people, it is important for people to watch this film at no cost. That is why we made it available on YouTube.
‘My dream is that this film is watched in Africa, in Latin America, in churches and little communities far away from the big cinemas and reaches people who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to watch or maybe wouldn’t have been interested if it weren’t for the fact that the Pope’s in it.’
His greatest hope ‘is that people understand that the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are the greatest existential threats ever faced by humanity, and it will take a completely unified human response across the world to combat them. So I’m hoping that people will start to look more into the moral dimensions of these issues. Laudato Si’ is a moral document and the Pope himself is a powerful moral leader.’
Brown holds that ‘the environmental crisis affects everyone, now and future generations. This film is a clarion cry to people everywhere: We have to act together, and we have to do so now.’
Film available free to watch on YouTube – click here: ‘The Letter: A Message for our Earth’