Helen Whitney: A Life in Film

By Alexa Epitropoulos | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Helen Whitney’s sojourn to document spirituality has led her through the United States, Europe and beyond.

It has also led her to Flagler College, where she recently delivered a four-part speech that discussed her life through the prism of the films she has written, produced and directed.

While her spiritual journey began as a search for answers to her own “existential questions,” she has, in the process, addressed many questions that people of all different religions haven’t been able to answer.

Her documentary, “The Monastery,” surprised many by revealing that the monks of St. Joseph’s in Boston experienced lapses in faith and periods of doubt.

According to Whitney, the biggest response to the film was relief. The relief derived from the kinship viewers discovered in the doubt even experienced by those who commit their life to their faith.

“These were real men, not spiritual paragons,” Whitney said.

She describes her experience with the film as a positive one, calling the process of researching and filming a “magical year.”

“It is sometimes possible to be better than you are and for your work to be better than it is,” Whitney said.

Although, many of her films portray different aspects of spirituality, Whitney has made documentaries on a variety of subjects, including youth violence, the 1996 Clinton-Dole presidential election and the mentally disabled. However, spirituality continues to be the primary focus of her films.

Some of her most recent films, detailing the spiritual response to 9/11 and the Mormon faith, have won critical acclaim for their investigation of significant issues left untouched by the mainstream media.

Many of these films have had relevance to her life experience. As a native New Yorker who lived a short distance from the World Trade Centers, her PBS Frontline feature film “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” stemmed from personal curiosity and intrigue.

Although political and economic questions were prevalent in the aftermath of 9/11, Whitney was drawn to the spiritual questions raised by the event.

Many surprises awaited Whitney in the making of the film. One of the most significant surprises dealt with the spiritual response of atheists and agnostics to 9/11.

While Whitney expected the response of religious individuals to be more pronounced, the responses of individuals without a religious affiliation, overall, overshadowed the religious response.

Whitney said that many of the responses resulted from awareness of the “fragility of life” and the urge to seek for solace through faith in something greater than oneself.

“It made people feel vulnerable,” Whitney said. “When we’re shaken, we reach out to a higher power.”

Further shattering Whitney’s expectations were the responses of religious individuals to 9/11. The faith of some religious leaders and individuals was cemented by the attacks, according to Whitney.

Many, in fact, grew in their faith due to the attacks. One conservative rabbi, instead of questioning his faith, prayed for the deceased and chanted the voicemails left by individuals trapped inside the twin towers.

Whitney’s spiritual journey has not concluded, but has given her a better understanding of many spiritual issues.

“I’m still on that journey, I’m still that pilgrim, but I’m closer,” Whitney said.

Producing documentaries detailing spiritual and other current issues was not always part of Whitney’s plan.

Whitney, who describes herself as the “ultimate homebody,” said her adventurous lifestyle came about due to a chance encounter which drew her away from her plans to join academia and to the open road

Whitney’s self-described “accidental pilgrimage” has resulted in thirteen original documentaries for ABC and PBS Frontline. Whitney has won awards for her work ranging from the duPont-Columbia Journalism Award to the Humanitas Prize. Whitney also does freelance writing for a number of publications.

Whitney’s speech was part of the “Ideas and Images” series. Whitney previously visited Flagler College when she addressed the Class of 2012 at its Convocation ceremony.

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