Discovery's Documentary on Pope Francis Issues a Call to Action to all Humanity
When the world's leader of the Catholic Church grants filmmakers unprecedented access to his life, it's a pretty big deal. This week, viewers are getting the opportunity to learn more about Pope Francis and the issues that matter most to him through Discovery's documentary, "Francesco." Released on Discovery+ at the start of Holy Week and just in time for Easter Sunday, "Francesco" is the first of a whole new slate of original programming by the streaming service—which launched in January—and represents the network's new investment towards premium documentaries. At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Discovery described "Francesco" as "the story of Pope Francis and his perspective on some of the biggest challenges facing the world today."
Evgeny Afineevsky, the Oscar-nominated director and producer of "Francesco," shared at TCA that he was granted full freedom as an artist both by Discovery and the Vatican to cover the Pope and tough issues including climate change, religious intolerance, LGBTQ rights and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. According to Afineevsky, Pope Francis was open to being filmed not because he was interested to be on camera, but to raise awareness of the disasters and catastrophes that humans themselves have created in the hopes that this would inspire people to change the world for the better.
"The key element was to tell the story of the world, of humanity and what state and what condition we are in, and [Pope Francis] navigating us through this world and not just through the world of the Vatican or the Church," said Afineevsky. "From the beginning, the idea was to have us—humanity—as the key element of the story. What we created, what disasters we created, what poverty we created, what injustices we created. And to tell his story as somebody who is trying by himself to navigate us through it, to show us by example, to show us how we can step by step change these things."
Afineevsky is no stranger to directing impactful documentaries, having produced films like "Cries from Syria" where he brought the plight and voices of refugees in Syria to the screen. Because of these experiences, he knew from the get-go that the documentary genre was the right one to give viewers an intimate look at Pope Francis. "I realize that to make a full impact and to have a call for action, it’s much more important to create this as a documentary. Documentaries, for me, are activism, advocacy and action," said Afineevsky. "As of right now during the pandemic, I see it as the red line where we need to reevaluate our actions, leave a lot of things in the dust and take a different approach as we move into the future."
Also featured in the film is Juan Carlos Cruz, a sexual abuse survivor and activist who was abused by a Chilean Catholic priest as a child. Pope Francis initially dismissed Cruz’s claims but in recent years has actively listened to and asked him for forgiveness. In fact, he appointed Cruz to one of his commissions to serve as an international advocate for survivors of clerical abuse. Pope Francis also previously made a statement in 2014 in which he asked the world for forgiveness for the transgressions performed by Catholic priests towards children.
"By no means is [the sexual abuse crisis] solved, but what I see in him is the resolve to fight it, to do things," said Cruz during the TCA panel. "Another thing that I love about him is that he is by no means afraid to stand up to the powerful. And when something is not going well, he speaks. The equitable distribution of the COVID vaccine, immigrants, you name it. He is not afraid to speak up. Many leaders in our world right now are so afraid for politics. They think, 'Oh, I’m not going to speak about that because I’m going to upset this and that.' He’s not afraid of upsetting anybody."
This boldness that Cruz speaks of makes Pope Francis stand apart from the Popes that came before him and an all the more intriguing figure to capture on film. In "Francesco," Afineevsky and Discovery+ set out to tell the story of the issues that drive the Pope and make him who he is, but also to issue a call to action for humanity to change the course of the avoidable calamities currently befalling the world.