A coming of Age story
A FORMER BLOGGER SHARES HER JOURNEY INTO A CLOISTERED RELIGIOUS oRDER wHOSE MEMBERS SEEK ANONYMITY AND OBSERVE MONASTIC SILENCE
Set within the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Illinois, Chosen (Custody of the Eyes) forms an intimate portrait of Heather*, a former blogger and painter confronting what she believes is her calling: Becoming a cloistered contemplative nun in one of the strictest religious orders.
Chosen is a coming-of-age story by first-time filmmaker Abbie Reese in collaboration with Heather, the film's primary subject and cinematographer. The Novice Mistress deemed this project a "once in a lifetime" occurrence, with a video camera allowed into the enclosure to captured monastic life from the inside.
*She selected the alias "Heather" to reflect the Poor Clare Colettine pursuit of anonymity.
The Aspirant – 2005
Motivated to understand the interior journey of a young woman joining a cloistered life that traces to the medieval era, Abbie arranged to meet "Heather" in 2005, when the 18-year-old was discerning a religious vocation.
The postulant – 2011
Granted unique and continued access, Abbie was allowed to make photographs and record video footage within the cloistered monastery, where no one other than the nuns are allowed. She conducted oral history interviews with Heather through 2011, when the young entered the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford,
THE novice – 2012
Wanting to extend the collaboration and create a portrait from the perspective of the newly renamed Sister Amata, Abbie sought permission to lend a video camera, then worked closely with Sister Amata, who became the film's cinematographer. Chosen could not have happened without Sister Amata's proficiency as a visual artist. The project would not have happened without the trust developed since 2005 between Abbie, Sister Amata, and her community (the same one that is the focus of Abbie's book). And this work could only have happened during Sister Amata's liminal phase — before she became so immersed in cloistered life — and the pursuit of anonymity — that she no longer wanted to record footage of herself.
In my interdisciplinary relationship- and research-based artistic practice—a hybrid of experimental and documentary filmmaking with oral history and ethnographic methodologies—I focus on primary oral cultures and enclosed communities. I am interested in the liminal phase or transformation within a rite of passage; the construction of individual and cultural identity; and the performances of social roles.
Since 2005 I have worked with a cloistered contemplative community of Poor Clare Colettine nuns in Rockford, Illinois. I arranged at that time to meet a young woman considering joining the community. For six years, she hovered along a psychological edge, encountering the possibility that she had been chosen, by God, for a radical, countercultural life. In 2011, she entered the Corpus Christi Monastery.
In Chosen, “Heather,” who has made an exodus from our world, in the process of becoming “Sister Amata,” a member of an ancient religious order. Just as the enclosure is an intermediary physical space, in which the nuns mediate on behalf of humanity to the divine, believing that their prayers and penances can change the course of history, Sister Amata inhabits a threshold—a space between worlds.
My collaborative practice was extended in Chosen to a “visual dialogue” to embed, materially and formally, the tensions and negotiations of a para-ethnographic documentary.
obtained permission to lend Sister Amata a video camera and acted as a director with this subject-collaborator cinematographer. Viewers are granted her vantage point of Sister Amata during her interior journey into a new social role, identity, and culture.
In a sense, this film focuses on the Female Hero’s Journey. An underlying theme is universal—how we parse destiny and agency in our lives.
Cloistered nuns remove themselves from the world in order to mediate on behalf of humanity through penance and in prayer. The video camera also mediates, provoking and recording action with cinéma vérité, intimate confessionals, and direct cinema to yield contradictory and complicated public-private performances. The film, at points, mirrors Sister Amata’s own disorientation as she inhabits a liminal phase, attempting to assimilate into a heterotopia. The viewer might not apprehend immediately what she is witnessing; this reflects the very common experience of the nuns’ own confusion as they attempt to adapt to the self-built subculture.
Parts of this film might be challenging for viewers, as scenes extend what one might anticipate and require sustained attention, or mindfulness, as small actions unfold in real time. This choice was made to allow viewers to enter into the pace of monastic life, where members seek the divine in the ordinary and mundane.
– Abbie Reese