Albert Maltz, blacklisted screenwriter, novelist and one of the Hollywood Ten, once said that the trouble with America was that “everyone has a job when what they’re really seeking is a calling.” But how many of us would recognize a calling if we heard it? And what would it mean to be called?
On some level, those questions, ultimately unanswerable, animate the new documentary “The Calling,” which has its debut on PBS’ series “Independent Lens” on Dec. 20 and 21. The two-part, four-hour program follows seven young men and women — Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Muslim — who are studying for the clergy, and it does so with real sympathy and intelligence. That it leaves viewers wanting more is in no small part due to the ineffable nature of the quest for an understanding of what it means to have been called.
Daniel Alpert, the series director and executive producer, and his four individual directors — Yoni Brook for Jewish stories, Alicia Dwyer for Evangelical Christian, Musa Syeed for Muslim, Maggie Bowman for Catholic — have chosen their subjects well and treat them with sensitivity. Every one of the seven has an interesting back story or hits a significant speed bump on the way to the pulpit.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro emerges from Avi Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale as a sweet, good-natured guy with an uncertainty about his own intellectual chops, and a potentially divided focus as he plans to serve as primary caregiver for his first child, while his wife pursues her dental practice. Rob Pene, working towards his master’s degree from Azusa Pacific University, is juggling his commitment to the church with the responsibilities of assuming his late father’s mantle as a Samoan chief. Jeneen Robinson is a single mother who has to feed and care for her asthmatic child while trying to make ends meet on the meager salary of an assistant pastor in the AME Church.
You can see from just this overstuffed recounting of three of the stories how hard it must have been for the filmmakers to pick and choose among the developing lives of their subjects. With four crews following seven protagonists over several years, the amazing thing about “The Calling” is that it ever was completed. Some of the focus of the program was inevitable — Shapiro dealing with an aging, withering congregation in the suburbs, Bilal Ansari struggling with currents of anti-Muslim bigotry since 9/11, Tahera Ahmad asserting the importance of women in modern Islam, Steven Gamez dealing with the fallout from scandals surrounding some of his predecessors in the Catholic Church, Shmuly Yanklowitz also of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, (whose “Street Torah” blog runs on The Jewish Week’s website) trying to find a place for meaningful social action for young Modern Orthodox Jews.
What is most compelling, though, is the unexpected common threads that unite all of the program’s central figures. All of them walk a difficult line balancing the needs of their communities and the professional demands on their time against the need for a personal life and the obligations that entails. As a member of the faculty at the Hartford Seminary says bluntly, “You’re really on call 24/7.” Those who seem the most at ease with this enormous task are those whose family ties are fewest. Gamez, who says, “We’re called to be part of people’s lives,” is, of course, “married” to the Church, and he seems to have the balance firmly in hand. Rabbi Yanklowitz is still young and unattached, and he brings the boundless energy and unencumbered calendar of youth to bear on his work. By contrast, Robinson and Shapiro are being pulled in multiple directions.
Although scene by scene “The Calling” is never less than riveting, the program’s overall structure is a bit problematic. Inevitably, we leave one story when it’s getting really interesting in order to catch up with another. A couple of the subjects seem to just drop out of the show for no apparent reason, and Steven Gamez and Shmuly Yanklowitz, perhaps the most engaging and articulate of all the protagonists, only appear in the second half of the program. Frankly, it is possible that “The Calling” might have worked better as four or five separate feature-length offerings than in its current form. Alternately, the end result would have benefited from being an hour or two longer; the stories are certainly rewarding enough to sustain a three-part program.
That said, “The Calling” makes for involving viewing, a tribute to its subject and its subjects. n
“The Calling,” a presentation of “Independent Lens,” will be shown on PBS stations on Dec. 20 and 21. Check your local listings for broadcast times.