climate change film religion

Film review: The Letter

The Letter is a film inspired by Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter, Laudato Si. It was released on Youtube a couple of months ago and it is freely available for everyone to watch. There’s a cinematic scope to the film, but that’s a release strategy that reflects the encyclical itself. The pope wrote his message as a letter to everyone on earth, and the film is everyone too. Here it is in full if you’d like to see it, with my notes on the film below.

The documentary is not so much about the encyclical, though we do get some background to it and its message. The film is more concerned about doing what it says. Specifically, Pope Francis suggested in his letter that four voices had been under-represented in climate change dialogue. He wanted to hear more from those living in poverty, from young people, indigenous communities, and from nature. In partnership with what has now become a Laudato Si Movement, the film-makers bring together a small group people to represent each of these voices.

Arouna Sande is a climate refugee from Senegal. He moved from his farm to the city aged six, as his family knew there was no future on the increasingly dry land. Now the town he lives in is being claimed by the sea, and the government has built a temporary camp for those who have lost their homes. The young people have an expression: “Barca ou Barsak” – Barcelona or death. Others urge them to stay.

Elsewhere, Cacique Dadá is an indigenous leader in a part of the Brazilian Amazon that is under threat from logging. The voices of youth are represented by Ridhima Pandey, from India and already a seasoned activist at the age of 13. Greg and Robin Asner are conservationists based in Hawaii. They study coral and represent the voice of nature. “If you live below the waterline, you have no voice,” says Greg. “Its up to us to bring some of that voice above the surface.” The film moves from Senegal to Brazil, to India and Hawaii, and builds towards an audience with the pope at the Vatican.

It’s a documentary with a bigger budget than most and it’s nicely shot. There are some striking images, such as green shoots coming up in a burnt forest, widescreen montages of nature over the words of Saint Francis’ Canticle of Creation. There are also occasional moments that feel staged, where the director has clearly said ‘just put your hand on this tree and look into the middle distance’. The audience with the pope, which in some ways is the centrepiece of the film, is among the most staged elements. Working with multiple translators in the room and with a degree of unnecessary ceremony, it didn’t feel to me like the moment the film-makers wanted it to be. There are more difficult truths in the conversation the participants have under a tree afterwards, while visiting Assisi.

Throughout the film, Pope Francis himself is present at a distance. His words feature, usually over other images. He isn’t interviewed, and there are only the fleetest personal touches. This is entirely on purpose, I’m sure. Pope Francis consistently invites us to listen to the marginalised, and that’s a stark contrast to other public figures.

Consider Elon Musk as the polar opposite, who bought a social network with hundreds of millions of users and made it all about himself. Pope Francis is one of the most influential people on the planet, and he uses that influence to direct our attention to others.

The Letter is available for community screenings, so have a look and see if it’s something you could show where you are. There’s a lot to draw on in the film, perhaps more so for those who are not already heavily invested in climate action.

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