By: Amanda Guarragi
The one thing that can bring people together is faith. It can be faith in anything; in a sports team, in a higher being, or even faith in community. In 1960s Los Angeles, a trailblazing group of nuns, The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, bravely stood up to the patriarchy of the Catholic Church. They fought for equality, their livelihoods, and their own freedom against an all-powerful Cardinal, who sought to keep them in their place. Their bold acts of faith, defiance and activism turned the Church upside down. The sisters banned together and reshaped society in ways that continue to resonate today. Rebel Hearts brings together love, acceptance, and strength through the Immaculate Heart of Mary community, in order to inspire everyone, to be as open and understanding as the sisters.
On the surface, Rebel Hearts appears to challenge the Catholic Church and its ideologies when merging with modern ideas. Then once you dive into the stories of the sisters, individually, they all challenged the authority in different ways. Yes, it’s a documentary centered on community, but the community cannot flourish and rise up without the unique voices from each individual within it. This project began 20 years ago. Over time, writer/producer Shawnee Isaac-Smith assembled these interviews and gathered footage in order to tell this story. Director Pedro Kos said that he fell in love with this script, when Isaac-Smith approached him with it, “It was an arrow right through my heart, and I was just blown away by their tenacity, by their love, and by their forward-thinking.” Kos said that he has always been drawn to character driven pieces and that this is the same in many ways. He said it there was a fine line in creating the community as a character and also highlighting some of the sisters.
After watching these women go through this rollercoaster journey, as they desired to bring the church into modern life, they were always met with forceful opposition at every turn. The documentary shows the hierarchy in the Catholic Church and how they have always neglected new ideas in a changing world. As society changes, so should the system that “protects” it. The schools where the sisters were teaching became a safe haven for so many. The new methods of teaching from the sisters caused a stir because they were having such open and honest conversations. Even through the arts, there was freedom of expression in questioning how the system worked.
When asked about retelling their stories in this documentary, Rosa Manriquez and Lenore Downling shared two different perspectives. Manriquez was a student at the time, when all of this was happening. She adored her teachers and her school was the first one to close down because of the Cardinal. She said that retelling her story can sometimes be difficult because it’s like reliving a wound. Her school had a complete mixture of different ethnic groups, it was an all girls school, and it was a school in a lower income part of Los Angeles. It completely disrupted their lives. Manriquez learned a lot during that time but there is one thing she said that is her most valuable takeaway,
“We learned that institutions are going to value their existence over the lives of the people they say that they serve. It was hard and I’m extremely proud of my teachers. I also learned that you can walk through fire and survive.”– Rosa Manriquez
When you are a child, you look up to authority figures, especially teachers because they are educating you on the way the world works. When the people in the system, that you are learning from, are doing the exact opposite of what you have been taught, it causes your own perception of the world to shatter. The way Rebel Hearts shows the difficult moments between the sisters and the Cardinal, is by animating certain conversations. Almost to give that childlike essence when presenting the hardships they went through. There was an innocence that was taken away from these children at a young age, they were forced to understand that the system does not work with them, but against them.
On the other hand, Lenore Downling had a different outlook on retelling her version of this story. She explained that it is a story about individuals who had great heart, great courage, and great hope. She was always inspired by those within the community, after hearing these reports while she was living in the mother house. Downling said those were wonderful times but healing had to take place afterwards, “It was a joy to be part of a group that was willing to stand for what we believed in and as the film shows, holding hands together and know that we were a community with heart.” Rebel Hearts may deal with some tough realizations but it is incredibly empowering and uplifting.
Director Pedro Kos also said that even though these stories all take place decades ago, the issues will always be relevant because society is still dealing with the repercussions of a broken system. No matter how many years pass, the issues that are within the structure of any institution, will always be there, but will be masked as something different. When asked what they would change about modern society, Kos, Manriquez and Downling all had such insightful things to say:
“I think it’s integral that we need to learn to be more open, and additive, and supportive of one another, and understanding. I think it really stems from love and empathy for one another and to meet people where they are and work together.”– Director Pedro Kos
“We are loved and we will love in return and in doing that we have the courage to exorcise fear because fear is used so often to manipulate us and to enslave us. I would hope that is what we could do.”– Rosa Manriquez
“To finally understand the universal declaration of human rights and that everybody has access to what belongs to them. That would be a huge world change, to have human rights honoured in our local neighbourhoods and in our nations in the world.”– Lenore Downling
What audiences can learn from this documentary is that there is so much power in coming together for the greater good. One voice above the rest does work, but multiple voices, with different ideas, can create so much more against a flawed system. Rebel Hearts will open your eyes to a story about women who were being silenced, who had their creative freedom taken away and how deep the patriarchy goes. It does not matter which institution it is, as long as there are men in power, there will be people who will be silenced and have their loyalty tested.
Rebel Hearts is structured well because of the integration of interviews, old footage, newspaper clippings, and the addition of animated sequences to reimagine dark moments. It is in select theatres today and will be streaming globally on Discovery Plus, June 27th. After winning the hearts of many at Sundance, it’s finally time for their story to be heard. It is liberating, empowering, and will have you questioning the higher powers in any system by the end of it.