Film examines life of gay priest lost on 9/11
by Matthew S. Bajko
The first body firefighters pulled out of the wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 11 five years ago was that of Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest and chaplain with the New York City Fire Department. Judge died while giving last rites to firefighters at the scene, becoming victim #00001.
A photographer captured the iconic image of Judge's body being carried away that September morning in the arms of five rescue personnel. The very men Judge had cared so deeply for in life encircled the priest, his feet and a hand seen dangling in mid air. A modern day Pieta, the scene struck at the hearts of people the world over.
It would take several days for the full truth about the priest in the photo to emerge. For he was not only a beloved man of the cloth known for his work with Manhattan's poor and people living with AIDS, but a gay man and a recovered alcoholic, as human and fragile as any other person.
Judge's story is now being lionized in the film Saint of 9/11. The documentary has been playing at LGBT film festivals around the world and was screened in 13 cities this past Monday, including at a private screening in San Francisco. Beloved by critics and audiences alike, the film is garnering Oscar buzz and already won the best documentary jury and audience awards at this year's Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
The film, directed by Glenn Holsten and narrated by out actor Sir Ian McKellan, weaves together archival footage with interviews of those who knew and loved Judge, from the people living on the streets nearby his St. Francis of Assisi Church in lower Manhattan to former President Bill Clinton.
Malcolm Lazin, the executive producer of the film, said he wanted to portray Judge's life to moviegoers because "Mychal became the Matthew Shepard" in the public debate around homosexuality and religion. The film is purposefully not directed solely toward LGBT audiences but was written for a mainstream one, said Lazin, because "we need to be talking to others, not just to ourselves."
Lazin, the executive director and founder of the Equality Forum, spoke about making the film last week in Miami during the LGBT Media Summit at the annual National Gay and Lesbian Journalist's Association convention. He said the film is not meant as a push to see Judge canonized by the Catholic Church, which many people are urging be done. Instead, he sees it lending a voice to the debate over allowing gay men to be priests and how the Catholic Church treats homosexuality.
"We now have an authentic, quintessential Franciscan priest who is an American hero who happened to be gay," said Lazin. "It challenges that proposition that gays are unworthy of the priesthood. For various cultural reasons this film becomes remarkably important."
While Lazin said the film is respectful to the traditions of the Catholic Church, whose hierarchy refused the filmmakers' request to film inside the Friary Judge attended or interview his fellow Friars, he said it is "no Disney film" and does shine a light on the church's anti-gay stance.
"I see a huge disconnect in the Catholic Church. If you look at polling, Catholics are more likely to be progressive on our issues. I am hoping this film will engage the conversation within the Catholic Church," he said.
For more information about the film and upcoming screenings, visit www.saintof9-11.com.