A view inside the sanctuary

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A view inside the sanctuary

A conversation with filmmaker Helen Whitney

by J. Christian Jensen on Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 12:05pm

Helen WhitneyA Trappist monastery is an icon of male seclusion. Behind the tall stone walls men work on their faith, isolated from a world that pictures them as stern men of unshakable belief and perfect austerity. Women are strictly forbidden. Yet, into this secret world, Helen Whitney went, with her camera. “I wanted to know what was behind the walls,” said Whitney.  “Why would these men give up achievement, material goods, sexuality, everything, to enter such an enclosed space?  I’m fascinated by radical religious commitment.”

In order to answer such questions, Whitney would first have to gain the good graces of the men whose sanctuary she must interrupt. Before she was allowed to ask any questions from behind the camera, Whitney had to submit to inquiry herself.  One by one, every single monk at Saint Joseph’s Abbey – the Massachusetts monastery where she wished to film – was given a chance to interview her about her intentions. 

“At 3:00 in the morning I had to go to the cathedral,” recalled Whitney.  “All the monks assembled.  I made a presentation and then I took questions for two hours.”  It was in this setting that Whitney’s capacity to listen and boldly communicate the value of her intentions manifested itself.  She was able to help these men see that the relevance of their spiritual work was diminished as long as the outside world had misunderstandings about who they were and what they did. By the time she finished filming interviews, Whitney had gained the trust and admiration of the monks to such a degree that it lead the monastery’s renowned abbot, Thomas Keating, to say, “You have become the Mother Confessor.” 

Helen Whitney in convesation with Marilyn YalomIn many ways, Whitney’s prolific career – resulting in over 24 hours of nationally televised documentary specials – has been characterized by her ability to elicit powerful confessions of the soul from those she interviews. These vignettes become powerful tools for exploring deep into the heart of her subject matter, which has amazing breadth – from youth gangs to Pope John Paul II. In a recent conversation at Stanford with long-time friend Marilyn Yalom, Whitney began by discussing her early exposure to “the big questions” that would inform much of her life’s work.

Childhood and a positive mentor

As a young girl, Whitney experienced a collision of the rational thinking of her family’s Unitarian faith with the drama and ritual of her piano teacher’s Greek Orthodoxy.  As these contrasting religious perspectives began working on her young mind she was suddenly forced to confront the tragedy of death when she lost both her parents to illness at the tender age of twelve. She would return to “the big questions” over and over again later in her life as a filmmaker: “Why must we die? Is this all there is? Is anybody listening?”

While pursuing a graduate degree in the “god-haunted” literature of the Victorian era, Whitney was given an opportunity that would dramatically alter the trajectory of her life.  Seasoned prime-time documentary producer Fred Freed invited her to take a hiatus from her studies to work for him.  She accepted and never fully returned to her ivory tower.

What followed was a model mentoring relationship that Whitney still speaks of with tremendous gratitude.  “[Fred] saw someone who was well-educated and literate and he encouraged me to take that knowledge and jump into the thick of life.  I needed a more visceral understanding of the human condition,” said Whitney, “…to spend time with lobster men, Washington politicians, youth gangs, and scientists at MIT.”  Whitney also made it clear that it was not an easy apprenticeship, “He was tough,” she said emphatically, “but he took what I had and deepened it; he really applied the grace notes.”


Confessions of the soul were already a strong element in Whitney’s first television documentary feature, Youth Terror: The View from Behind the Gun (a title she adamantly attributes to the network).  She spent a great deal of time in some of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods researching and interviewing young men who frequently engaged in violent street crimes.  This film also established Helen’s authorial style of interviewing outsiders and finding spokespeople with the ability to speak articulately and memorably about a given subject.  “Along with my team, I must have pre-interviewed 400-500 kids in parks and jails and on the street before I found the few that I knew could speak on behalf of the rest.”

The film crew was faced with many dangers including having their equipment stolen and being mugged.  At one point Whitney herself was even assaulted and thrown onto the hood of a car – a confrontation that was caught on camera and appears in the final film.  Yet, despite these hazards, Whitney was still able to connect with her subjects and foster revealing insights into their being. 

A memorable intro to the film shows a young man on the rooftop of a New York City ghetto.  He yells and sends a legion of pigeons into flight.  “Out in the streets you feel like nothin’,” he says, “[but] up here you’re in control.  You’re the boss.  You control the pigeons.  You feel like a general – like somebody.”  With a disturbingly poetic cadence the young man describes his affinity for street violence or “breakin’ heads” as he casually calls it.  “When it’s dark,” he says, “everybody’s the king.”

Speaking on behalf of himself and other street criminals like him, the man shouts at the camera with chilling resolve, “We are here.  You can’t just ignore us because we exist.  We’re here, and we’re gonna’ be here always, so why not give us a chance!  Why not?”

In Youth Terror Whitney showed an extraordinary level of maturity as a young director by finding a balance in portraying the brutality of these boys’ actions while still allowing for empathetic insights into their minds so that audiences didn’t discard them as inhuman.  Referring to the personal change that the film had on her, as a young producer, Whitney said, “I entered the film as a good liberal and left it as a more nuanced one. I [also] left the film with a healthy respect for the mystery and complexity of darkness and evil.”

Faith and spirituality

After several other films and what Whitney described as a “disillusioning” experience exploring the world of politics in The Choice, a film about the Clinton vs. Dole campaign of ’96, Whitney returned again to examining spiritual themes.  Perhaps the most complete culmination of Whitney’s interest in themes of spirituality, outsiders, and confessions of the soul can be found in her 4-hour Frontline and American Experience co-production, The Mormons.   As the first mainstream documentary of its kind on the theology of Mormonism, the two-part series was a monumental task that took years of research and preparation.  Whitney’s reputation as a fair and thoughtful spiritual biographer helped her gain unprecedented access to a church that still seems shrouded in mystery to much of the outside world.  Her film walks a delicate line that features interviews with the top leaders of the mainstream Mormon church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while also turning the lens on disenfranchised individuals within Mormon theology – the outsiders in what has classically been considered an outsider religion.

The MormonsSaid Whitney, “I emerged after four years of making this film with great respect for this religion… and infuriated by it as well….” The Mormons was similar to another one of her epic spiritual biography, John Paul II: The Millennial Pope, in that some of the most heart-felt interviews came from the voices of dissent that dwell on the fringes of the faith.  These voices in both cases often spoke out against the standing of women and gays within both churches. It was while examining these areas of contrast and contradiction “inherent in all religion” that Whitney continually grappled with one of the lessons that her former mentor Fred Freed had instilled within her by saying, “It’s a lot more complicated than you think.”  “Many of my friends are filled with enduring caricatures of this religion,” said Whitney, “[and] Mormonism is filled with darkness and light as well.”  By seeking to capture this darkness and light, Whitney succeeded in painting a dynamic portrait of what she calls “the most interesting home-grown religion that we’ve ever had.”

What’s next?

Since her most recent documentary, Forgiveness, aired in early 2011, Whitney has traveled on several occasions speaking about the film and is preparing for a period of teaching at Harvard University.  During a final Q&A when someone asked “What’s next?” – a question commonly directed at filmmakers – Whitney’s response took on an existential tone. “What’s next?” she thought aloud, “That’s a good question – I suppose the hereafter – life after death; I’d love to do a film about that.”  True to form, Helen Whitney wrapped up the discussion by elevating the most mundane inquiry into an existential question of much weightier consideration.


Helen WhitneyHelen Whitney has worked as a producer, director, and writer for documentaries and feature films since 1971.  Her documentary work has appeared on ABC’s “Closeup” and PBS’s American Masters, as well as on FRONTLINE. Whitney’s documentaries and features have received many honors, including an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, an Oscar nomination, the Humanitas Award, and the prestigious DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award.  Whitney was invited by Stanford Humanities Center as a Marta Sutton Weeks distinguished visitor.  A gift to endowment from Marta Sutton Weeks in 1987 provides funds to bring visiting distinguished lecturers to Stanford University for stays varying in duration from one week up to one quarter.  The visitors join the Stanford Community to engage in meaningful discussions on a wide variety of humanistic topics.

Marilyn Yalom is a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research.  She is a former professor and author of many books including A History of the Wife, Birth of the Chess Queen, and she is currently working on a book titled, How the French Invented Love, Over, and Over, and Over Again.  In 1991 she was decorated as an Officier des Palmes Académiques by the French Government.

This article was written by J. Christian Jensen, a reporter on the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team and an MFA candidate in the Documentary Film program within the Department of Art & Art History. Christian has several years of experience working in documentary film including work for PBS and National Geographic Film & Television.