How a letter by Pope Francis became a movement, a TED Talk and now a film

Posted by:

In October 2020, for the launch of TED’s climate initiative, Countdown, HH Pope Francis gave a TED Talk (his second) on the moral imperative to act on climate change. It was inspired by his encyclical letter (book) Laudato si’, “On caring for our common home.”

An excerpt from that TED Talk is now featured in a new documentary film centered on the Pope’s message.

First published in 2015, Laudato si’ became a rare papal encyclical that permeated mainstream discourse. It hit a nerve and became a global sensation, widely commented on (and criticized).

It also gave rise to the Laudato si’ Movement, which has now brought together a stellar production team (whose previous works include the global hit My Octopus Teacher) to make the new film called The Letter – A message for our Earth. (See the trailer). It is supported by YouTube Originals, where it will premiere on October 4 at 9am US Pacific time and 6pm Central European time.

We have asked Tomás Insua, the executive director of the Laudato si’ Movement and executive producer of the film, to tell us about it.

Why turn Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato si’ into a movie?

Pope Francis wrote Laudato si’ not only for Catholics but, as he says, “to all men and women of good will.” Indeed, this letter’s message comes from a deep reflection, listening to his predecessors, leaders from other denominations, and numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups. Since not everyone is able to read a full, dense book, we decided to tell the Laudato si’ story in a different way, to spread the immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.

The film doesn’t follow the structure of the book: it rather tries to bring its essence into a dialogue between Pope Francis and voices from the world.

This idea of dialogue is central to Pope Francis’s letter, in which he says he wants to “enter a dialogue with all people about the future of our common home.” He’s so humble and willing to listen – which is in marked contrast with many of the world’s most powerful people, who continue to lead us closer to planetary collapse and are not interested in listening.

Sadly, even many who are committed to environmental solutions often don’t listen, and true dialogue with people of different perspectives is astonishingly rare. Supporting dialogue between Pope Francis and the communities that often go unheard seemed like a good way to reflect the world the Pope is calling for.

Who are those voices and how did you pick them?

The voices that are present in the dialogue documented in the film come from communities of the Indigenous, poverty, youth and science.

Cacique Odair “Dadá” Borari comes from the Borari people in Brazil’s Amazon region, where he has led groundbreaking work on environmental defense in a very dangerous place.

Arouna Kandé comes from Saint Louis in Senegal, a city he was forced to move to as a climate refugee. He now studies sustainability in order to bring new solutions to his village.

Ridhima Pandey comes from Haridwar in India, where she has led youth movements for the climate since the age of nine. Now 14 years old, she is in school and continues her leadership.

Scientists Greg Asner and Robin Martin come from Hawai’i in the United States, where they have developed an innovative technique to map underwater heat waves that kill coral reefs.

No one person is completely representative of millions of other people. But by listening to these frontline champions describe their experiences, we hope that viewers will have some sense of the world beyond them.

That gives an interactive angle to the project.

Yes, through the film’s website we also ask viewers to respond, access more information, and support the people in the film.

The five participants traveled to Rome, and then to Assisi. What happened there?

None of the people described above is traditional Catholic. And they hadn’t met before the trip. Before speaking with Pope Francis, they sat down for several days of conversation and broke bread together. During the meeting with the Pope, there was lots of laughter and even a few tears. The group then traveled to Assisi to reflect on their experiences. Tragically, while they were there one of them received devastating news about an event related to the planetary crisis that had taken place in his home territory at that very moment. In the film, we see him receive the news and how the others rallied to support him. They truly became friends. They are aware of each other’s stories, and they trust each other. They continue talking and supporting each other to this day. That kind of empathy and closeness is so important for everyone who is working on climate.

What learnings do you think they brought home from the experience chronicled in the film?

Probably one of the biggest learnings is that they have more power than they knew. All of these leaders developed incredible initiatives in their home regions long before traveling to the Vatican. But they left that meeting with Pope Francis with an even greater sense of how much they matter. They are people who are protecting this planet on behalf of all humanity. Pope Francis spent more time with them than he usually spends with heads of state and visiting dignitaries. After the meeting, which was reported by the media in his region, Cacique Dadá, the Borari leader who has been a powerfully effective land defender in a very dangerous place, said: “They will think twice before trying to kill me now.”

Tell us about the title, The Letter.

Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato si’ is addressed to “every person living on this planet.” It is meant for all of us. In the film, the Vatican invites these grassroots champions through letters sent to them. We see the letters traveling along rural roads across the world. We see the letters arriving in the hands of these people whom we will come to know so well through the film. The letters connect them, and they connect us as viewers in a wider dialogue. We are called to respond to this letter.

What do you expect viewers to take away from the film?

Let me answer by quoting two very important things Pope Francis says in Laudato si’. The first is that everything is connected. What I do is based on how I value the people who will be affected by my actions. Nothing is in isolation. The second is that “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” This realization that the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same is transformative.

Who filmed and produced the movie?

The film was produced by the Laudato si’ Movement, along with an Oscar- and BAFTA-winning team at Off the Fence (which has produced many great documentaries, including the global hit My Octopus Teacher). It is presented by YouTube Originals.

Tell us about the Laudato si’ Movement.

The mission of the Laudato si’ Movement is to inspire and mobilize the Catholic community to care for our common home and achieve climate and ecological justice. Like Pope Francis, we are truly worried about the state of the climate. We do believe in the power of the Laudato si’ message and believe that showing it through a movie is a great way to inspire people.

You started this project before the pandemic and had to suspend it during it. What impact did that have on the final story?

The pandemic was definitely a big challenge. Every place we worked in was very vulnerable to the virus, as we worked in places that were either isolated or had very limited healthcare services. Our production partners at Off the Fence could not in good conscience send camerapeople and staff to those locations. Instead, we sent cameras in. Over messages and video calls, we trained the local people in the use of cameras, and we gave them salaries. These constraints forced us to be creative, to go beyond what frankly had been our own limited ways of thinking. We developed much deeper and more real relationships that ultimately flowered in the film and beyond.

Has Pope Francis seen the film?

Pope Francis is a humble person. He makes it a practice to never watch films about himself.