When it comes to different walks of life, film-maker Evgeny Afineevsky is more than just a few miles away from His Holiness Pope Francis.
One is a Russian-born Jewish, openly gay director; the other, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, is the head of the Roman Catholic Church, which has for centuries viewed homosexuality as ‘deviant behaviour’.
And yet the two men have reportedly become firm friends through the three-year process of Afineevsky’s latest project, Francesco, an intimate portrait of the 266th papal leader featuring unprecedented access to the Pope himself.
In the documentary, which is available to stream from Sunday on Discovery+, the pontiff offers his views on everything from climate change, empowering women and the global migrant crisis to far more controversial topics, such as the Catholic Church’s handling of recent sexual abuse allegations – a matter that resulted in the Pope acknowledging “grave errors” and apologising publicly to the victims.
More contentious yet are comments made by the Pope that same-sex couples should be accepted and permitted to have “civil unions”.
As he says in the film: “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it. What we have to create is a civil union law.”
Given the Pope’s more progressive stance and ability to reach out to people of all creeds and identities, Afineevsky felt that perhaps he was not so very distant from the sovereign of the Vatican City State, a feeling that spurred him on to realise his ambitious project.
The 48-year-old, who was Oscar and Emmy-nominated for his documentary Winter On Fire, about the 2013 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, says of the pope: “He’s a very open person. On the television, he seems like someone who is unreachable and superior to other human beings, but when you meet this person, you see your brother, your father, someone who is willing to listen, accommodate and even share a joke with you.
“There is no distance between you and him, which is remarkable. You can share anything with him.”
Still, I ask, was there any sense of conflict between his own identity and the ideological views of the Pope and the Catholic Church?
For Afineevsky, who was born in Kazan, western Russia, before moving to Israel and then, as an adult, relocating to the United States, there were no issues about remaining objective, he says, much as he has been with his previous projects.
“With Winter on Fire, it was about Ukraine and I am a child of Russia, but I did it despite Russia and Ukraine being in a kind of conflict, because of the importance of the story.
“When working on my film Cries From Syria, about the Syrian Civil War, I am a former Israeli who served in the Israel Defense Forces, but I told this story for the innocent affected by this conflict.
“As a film-maker, it’s important to be objective and bring attention to these disasters. I also need to be true to myself, but I’ve never had a problem in my identity coming from the other side of the issue.”
So it is for his latest film subject. “I found enormous inspiration in Pope Francis,” he continues. “I’m not changing my faith because of him, but I have changed my way of living, still being Jewish and gay.”
That sense of inspiration features strongly in the documentary. Since 2013, the pope has traversed the globe, including making a poignant trip to Israel just a year into his papacy. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he was pictured in a moment of interfaith union, as he embraced Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Imam Omar Abboud – both contemporaries of his from his native Buenos Aires.
Then, at Auschwitz in 2016, the pontiff eschewed making a speech, instead spending time in silent prayer before meeting several Holocaust survivors.
“He tried to give silence to this place that brought silence to so many human lives,” reflects Afineevsky. “At the same time, the action of staying silent spoke far louder than words.”
For the film-maker, perhaps Pope Francis’ most “remarkable” action to date is that of his handling of recent sex abuse allegations.
In 2015, he was chided for supporting Chilean bishop Juan Barros, who was accused of covering up sex crimes committed by fellow bishop Fernando Karadima against minors.
What impresses Afineevsky is that, within the next three years, the Pope’s views on this matter had evolved dramatically. Several high-ranking church leaders who were accused of sexual abuse were removed from office, the Vatican launched an investigation and, most significantly for the victims, including Juan Carlos Cruz, who is now an advocate and also features in the documentary, Pope Francis issued an apology.
“He said sorry, on behalf of the entire institution, and then took action – which is remarkable,” says Afineevsky.
“For the first time, we see a Pope fighting corruption, who is trying to bring more transparency to the church and bring faith back into the institution. For the first time, we see a man of action, not a man
- Francesco is available to stream on Discovery+ from Sunday, 28 March
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