Documentary director Alex Gibney aims for the highest possible targets. He's exposed the masterminds behind the global monetary collapse (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Casino Jack and The United States of Money), the brutality of a vengeful American government (Oscar-winner Taxi to the Dark Side), and examined high profile, free-minded journalists (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S. Thompson; the upcoming We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks). His latest, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, is perhaps his most shocking work. The film chronicles the labyrinthine cover-up of vast sexual abuse in the Catholic Church from the point of view of a group of middle-aged deaf men who, as young boys, were molested over several years while in the care of Church-administered institution in Milwaukee in the 1950s.
it was important to do something about a story that led to a more panoramic notion of how the whole system works
Gibney spoke to SBS Film about his passion for factual filmmaking, his responsibilities towards victims of the Catholic Church and the best means to convey their story.
The scenes you recreate and the vast investigation you undertake in Mea Maxima Culpa reminds one of the all-time great documentaries, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line. Who are the filmmakers and artists who have influenced you?
Errol Morris and The Thin Blue Line inspired all of us. It broke such new ground and broke free of the old standard 'TV news' documentary rules. The other person I much admired was Marcel Ophüls (The Sorrow and the Pity). And I've always been a big fan of Gimme Shelter, which came from a very verité zone but also had a kind of discursive quality to it. It just kind of followed where the story went, which was great, but it was also beyond classic cinema verite. And the last one I think of in terms of a classic doc is Night and Fog by Alain Resnais, which has such a poetic narration that, along with the images of course, is one of the best films ever made about the Holocaust, even though it's quite short. If I had heroes, I'd say my heroes would be Thelonius Monk, Bob Dylan and Luis Bunuel; they are my artistic heroes. I have a lot of journalistic heroes, too. I admire people with an inbuilt vision and the courage to pursue it.
How aware were you of the extent of the deceit and cover-up that leaves a trail from Milwaukee to Vatican City in your film? Were there moments of revelation that you came across during research or filming that impacted you?
It was written about in the New York Times and that's how I came across the story. And even though it was a shocking story, I wasn't sure I wanted to pursue it. I [ultimately] thought it was important to do something about a story that led to a more panoramic notion of how the whole system works. That's what kicked me into it. But as a filmmaker, what intrigued me about the story was penetrating the world of the deaf, particularly in the time and place in which it occurs. They were the elements that took me to places that I'd never been before as a filmmaker and were most powerful for me.
More than any other film I've seen, you captured the emotion that can be conveyed via sign language. What direction did you give the voice cast (actors Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, John Slattery and Jamey Sheridan) to ensure the integrity of the signed words was not diminished?
We were very careful in terms of our translations. I wanted the actors to not just read the translated words but to inhabit their characters also. So we picked actors and voices that were of various ages and timbers so that they would be distinct. There was a huge debate in the cutting room as to whether or not we should use voice-overs or subtitles. I went with voiceover because I felt it would be more emotional and I didn't want anybody to distracted by the beauty of the sign language, which I think is like a kind of animated film within a film. If you are reading the subtitles, you can't really rhythm with that. And also, I knew we were going to show a lot of other images, so that the sign language itself was going to be like voice-over. And it was going to be very complicated to know when one voice started and one voice ended if you were using subtitles.
The multi-camera technique you employ immeasurably adds to the conveying of the language of the deaf.
It was very a complicated filming set-up. We used four cameras and over the 'A' camera we had a teleprompter rig – kind of like the one used by Errol Morris – and I was in a separate room, which I normally don't do. I wanted to have ongoing conversations with the deaf men instead of waiting for the interminable back and forth of the translator. The other thing I liked to do, which initially gobsmacked the deaf men, was try to record the sounds of them trying to communicate. I thought it would underscore to the hearing viewer just how difficult it is for the deaf to communicate to the hearing. So you hear their grunts and their slaps, and you see them voicing the words and blowing out their breaths.
Did you ever become conflicted, having to serve two masters, as it were, on this film? You're representing the story of these men but you are also constructing a film that needs a narrative. Was what stayed in and what went out particularly tough with Mea Maxima Culpa?
You are always conflicted about what has to stay and what has to go! [Laughs] You have to keep figuring that. As a director, you are always going to try to make it longer than the viewer will want. You have to keep looking for stuff to cut so, yeah, you usually end up cutting great stuff. One thing I learned over time, though, is that no matter how powerful thematic ideas are in a film, if they seem to be pulling away from the narrative momentum of the story, they have to go. The narrative momentum of the film has to come first. At the end of the day, sure it is a documentary, but I think of my docs as movies and there has to be a narrative power, a thrust. When I started, I was very much the other way. I thought, 'Who gives a shit about the story? What really matters are the ideas.' Over time I've completely changed my views on that.
Can you ever envision a day when the full library of Vatican records on paedophile priests and other sex offenders amongst the clergy is revealed? I imagine such a revelation would all but destroy the Church.
You'd think so. You'd think that there would be a way to manage it. You'd think an institution dedicated to charity and love would be able to demonstrate that to the world. But unfortunately, The Vatican appears to be run by rather venal men, who care more about power than God.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is in cinemas March 21.