Dedicated to the One I Love: An Interview with Zita Erffa
In Zita Erffa’s film — if her brother is to be believed at least — The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life (2018) is commit to devotion, to surrender all freedoms in pursuit of a higher truth. Her brother László, a young man with whom she was once so close, has been away from their family for eight years, cut off in a monastery, in contact just once a year and by letter only. As a committed member of the Legionaries of Christ — a church with cultish devotees and a dark past — he lives amongst hundreds of other disciplined young men in Connecticut, USA — miles away from those who love him in both body and spirit, and seemingly unreachable.
Zita Erffa’s film tries to bridge the gap between them and come to understand how he ended up there, how she lost him, and if he can still be reached. Traveling to Connecticut, she films within the church’s walls for one intense week, offering an intensely personal vision of what goes on there, what draws so many young boys in, and what happens whilst they are there. Less of an exposé of a cult than it might first seem and more a portrait of the growing distance between two people with suddenly very different beliefs and lifestyles, The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life is an empathetic, searching study of faith and family, one that offers no clear or easy answers.
This is your first feature and it covers a very personal and, in many ways, painful subject. What made you decide to make a film out of the experience?
Actually, making this film was the last thing I wanted to do. It was way too personal, and also I didn’t want to think about my brother. I was trying to forget my brother, because I couldn’t understand his decision or his disappearance. The film started as an excuse.
I was studying scriptwriting in Munich, but I wanted to study documentary abroad. I was offered a place at a Mexican film school, having written to them stating that I wanted to make a film about the Legionaries, so I could understand why my brother might have joined the Church. I didn’t really want to do it, but even though my mother is Mexican, I didn’t know that much about the country. The Legionaries were founded in Mexico, so it seemed a good subject and setting to study in.
Arriving there, despite saying I wanted to film the Legionaries, I didn’t really start the research because I felt that I didn’t want to get close to them. I started to realize that I didn’t care about what any Legionary felt when entering the monastery; I wanted to know what my brother was feeling. So my friends and classmates said that I should do it about my brother. So I wrote him an email and that was it. Actually, it was more the film slowly started to approach me, emerging from the unconscious.
How did the filming begin?
I wrote that email, and then I found Bruno Santamaría Razo, a great cinematographer. There was very little time for preparation. Bruno and I had a lot of talks about my brother, my family, everything. Bruno’s way of working is to really understand the director’s story. With so much invested in the subject, he can make decisions while filming, knowing what the director’s intentions are and what story they want to tell. I have an aunt in Mexico, my mother’s sister; I presented him to her and the rest of the family so that he could understand our family dynamic. And then we just went to the monastery. Since we couldn’t do research, because the story was the re-encounter, we really had to think — and re-think — everyday about what we were shooting and if it was going to be possible to build a story out of it.
You are very much present in the film, right from the start. Do you think this was essential?
Oh, of course, I didn’t want to be in it. But now, I think it was really necessary, because in the end, although I don’t like to admit it, it is more a film from my perspective. My brother is happy in the monastery. I’m the one that is unhappy. It is I who decides to go on this journey and it is I who confronts him. So, in the structure that I chose for the film, I had to be on camera too.
But the diary that appears in the beginning was more because of my laziness. In film school, I had told them, “I will have off-camera narration,“ and the tutor, Luciana Kaplan, asked me, “what kind of off-camera narration? Please try to write it.“ So, since I had no idea, I just told her that I was going to record some diaries about how I was feeling. And that would be the narration. Of course it’s not, but the diaries made it into the film by themselves.
For the interviews, first we had three in which my brother is on camera. Then we had a conversation in which we both are. It should reflect that we were now able to communicate without the camera in-between us. This should be a conversation, not an interview. It’s the conversation in which we talk about how the Church treats homosexuality. And in the end, my brother interviews me. But I cut that, because there were too many endings for the film…
Why do you think that the Church granted you permission to film? What did they have to gain, knowing what we already know about their history? Did they expect to come off positively?
I think it was more that they didn’t have anything to lose. Maybe they realized that it is more mysterious if everything is always hidden behind walls. I think they saw it like an opportunity to show that they were not monsters, that they were not all like [Marcial] Maciel [the Church’s founder, later embroiled in a scandal] and that they are changing. I do believe they are, but when I filmed in Cheshire, [Connecticut,] there were still so many weird structures. I showed the film in Rome (where the Legion of Christ headquarters is) a few weeks ago to some of the brothers that are at the same level as my brother, and the responses were really interesting. They laughed at really revealing parts. But at the same time, somehow, I think that they had opened up more. Also, I realized — which is obvious — that there are also very different perspectives within the Legionaries. There are both conservative and liberal views. That somehow gives me hope.
Was it difficult to film within the Church? You seem to find creative solutions for certain obstructions at points, but in other moments, you have surprising amounts of freedom? Did the Church intervene at any stage or try to shape your story?
No, and that was very surprising. They let us film almost everywhere. The scene where they wake up — I couldn’t be there. It was only for men, but luckily my cameraman was a man. You have to have a signed permit to film, and usually you sign it the first day. Obviously I forgot and, on the last day, I had to go to the superior and ask him to sign it. He said, “can I see the film before I sign this?“ and I said, “no, otherwise how can I edit?“ So he signed it. He said that there are so many films that just talk about Maciel’s crimes. But he was not my main target; this was a story about my brother.
The younger boys seem to be struggling with their desire to talk and a voice in their heads telling them they should stay silent, or not be enjoying themselves as much as they are. How did you gain their trust, or convince them that it was okay to appear on film?
Yes, and at some points they are even quite rebellious. That made me happy! When they ask their superior how they should treat each other when somebody is sad, that made the superior really quite uncomfortable, but they had an urge to know. They are very young and insecure and they try to do everything properly. Some older Legionaries told me that when they had first joined, they too felt a lot of pressure to be perfect and not ever make any mistakes.
What made me sad was seeing that they are not supposed to be friends. I mean, they can be friendly of course, and they are, but largely only in group situations. For example, the three boys folding clothes, I don’t know if they were, but I felt they were genuinely friends. But you are not supposed to have a best friend. My brother told me that this is so they don’t become isolated and form friendships in which they exclude others. But another Legionary told me afterwards the real reason is that their superiors are afraid of the boys falling in love with each other.
Actually, all of the boys agreed to take part. The first day, we didn’t know what we were allowed to film. Then one of the superiors introduced us to the group and I explained what we were doing and asked whether there was anyone who didn’t want to be part of it. But everyone agreed. I know that some hid when they saw us — my brother told me — but also we were quite sneaky and just filmed quietly what we wanted. Since we were only a crew of two, it was easy to move quietly.
The football sequences are particularly wonderful as a moment of (relative) freedom. It’s really nice to see them behaving like normal boys, but also kind of sad because of this. How did you find the right tone for the film, and make sure it wasn’t too bleak, despite the pain that was present?
Interesting question, because you see pain but other people don’t. I think, more than pain, it is the urge not to make mistakes. Actually, there is a lot of joy at the monastery. I mean, boys will be boys! Seeing that made me happy, but at the same time, I think so much obedience can sometimes put you in a difficult place. I don’t know if any pain in the film comes more from my place in it and the pain I felt because I was so separated from my brother for such a long time.
Maciel is somehow still everywhere, since he set the very strict rules that the order continues to live by — rules that permitted him to commit all the crimes he did because everybody was so obedient. I think that this kind of blind obedience can be very dangerous.
Was it hard to remain even-handed and objective about the Church when you had already experienced what it does to families first hand? I think one of the film’s great strengths is how it tries to understand the set of social and psychological conditions that might lead someone to join the Legionaries rather than criticize them for doing so.
Haha, I am not objective at all! But yes, I tried to be fair. I have a lot of criticism, but I transfer my criticisms into action. For example, when one of the boys is talking about obedience, the audience has a sense that he might not really know what he is talking about. I put this scene in the film, because, as I said, I personally don’t like this hyper-obedience. The same with the scene with one boy asking how to react when another boy is sad.
The conversation at the end of the film between you and your brother is very touching and also very intense. What was this part like? Did you experience conflict whilst at the church, between having good moments for your relationship and getting good material for the film? Did the camera help or obstruct progress in this regard?
This conversation was terrible. We talked about a lot of things, and that was good. But the part that is in the film is the part that we talk about homosexuality, and I was shocked by what my brother was saying. I was conflicted about whether to include this moment. It was the juicy part, good for the film, but at the same time, I didn’t want to hurt my brother. But, at one point, during a screening in a program devoted to developing documentaries located in Mexico, the audience told me that I was protecting my brother too much. And if I protected him too much, the audience would destroy him. I also realized that… well, that was his point of view and I had to respect it as much as mine, so I decided to include it. Our relationship was always more, much more important than the film could ever be.
Will you be able to see your brother more now? What do you think he took away from the visit and from the film? Has he, or any of the Legionaries, seen it? Or has the organization commented on the film?
Yes, I see him regularly now, almost as much as the rest of the family. He has WhatsApp, and we can write or phone him whenever we want. It is great. To be in peaceful contact with my brother again really made me a much more relaxed and happier person. Before, there was always that foggy cloud of something that was unresolved in my head, a distance from somebody I really love.
And not just for me, it is much easier now for the whole family, especially, I think for my sister Assunta. She is two years younger than László, and she was always clinging to him, so when he disappeared, it was really hard for her. She was a great help, because on the one hand, she is very good at dramaturgy, and on the other, she becomes bored very fast. So when she said, “This is boring,“ I knew I had to kick it out.
What is next for you with filmmaking? Will it be something personal again or will you try to look elsewhere?
Oh, elsewhere! The best part of filmmaking is that you can immerse yourself in whatever you want! We were Legionaries for nine days, now I want to be a marine biologist in Mexico, or a hypnotherapist. That really interested me during the film; I want to learn more about hypnotherapy and work with Bruno again. We’re already working on a project that he is directing; and the devil is also going to show up in the next film, but it’s too early to tell. My father comes up with hundreds of ideas for my next film all the time, and my brother also said he would want to do another film with me. I don’t know what that could be about… but we will see! Maybe an eight-hour-long Spanish movie about Saint Teresa of Ávila.
Zita Erffa’s The Best Thing You Can Do With Your Life premiered at the Berlinale, and screens at London’s Open City Documentary Festival 2018 on Saturday 8th September at the Regent Street Cinema.