International Film Gains Notice in America with Help from Charleston Scholar
A Serbian-born movie director found the story of a Greek Orthodox saint helped doors open in Greece where they had been closed in Hollywood.
A new film about a Greek Orthodox saint is attracting growing interest in the United States after making a big splash in Europe last summer. “Man of God” was written, produced and directed by Serbian-born Yelena Popovic after she got to know more about a man she had only heard a little about growing up.
Following her father’s funeral, “I bought a book about him, because I’d heard about him, but I didn’t know much about him,” she said. “I read the book about him, and I was struck as if struck by lightning. By his light, by things that he’d gone through.”
Nektarios Kephalas was an Orthodox bishop in the late 19th century whose goodness and love for the common people made him so popular that his power-seeking peers became jealous of him, and through multiple false accusations, drove him out of his position in Egypt to settle in Greece. There he suffered more persecution through stints as director of a combined religious and secular high school, and as the founder of a convent on the island of Aegina. His story of piety and endurance led Popovic to write, produce and direct the independent film.
“What I was interested in was that the lust for power and riches is basically something that destroys human souls, and the world in general,” said Popovic, further explaining what drew her to the story. “But where the drama comes from is the conflict. And that conflict started when he was exiled from Egypt.” From that point on, Kephalas became “a man who constantly has to overcome obstacle after obstacle which, for this kind of story, creates drama, and this is what brings you in and makes you identify with him.”
Popovic is getting help from a South Carolina Greek Orthodox theologian and scholar. John Panagiotou of Charleston wrote a review of “Man of God” that showed Popovic that he understood what she was trying to say with the movie, so he volunteered to help publicize it. Panagiotou said the movie is not just a religious film or an inspirational film, or even a Christian film, though it is all of those things.
“I think even for somebody with no faith, they can go in there and see a human interest story that they can relate to. Most people have felt alienation, ostrasization, disenfranchisement, despair.”
“Man of God” became the number one box office hit in Greece last summer, and earned praise throughout Europe, especially in France. It recently was shown in hundreds of American theaters for three days in March, which Popovic considers a huge breakthrough for a foreign independent film. Word of mouth has been strong about the movie, but Popovic is working to get it seen in more media, perhaps through PBS and other avenues.
“Our goal is to expose this film in as many different places, whether it’s transactional or online platforms like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon,” she said, adding she’s pursuing its release “also on (broadcast) television, and we are really looking forward to it. It’s already shown that people have an interest in this film.”
“I think this film is one of those things that, it’s gonna have a life beyond its cinematic theatrical release,” chimed in Panagiotou. “I think as time goes on it goes from being an art house historical film…it becomes like the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ of religion - in a good way, where it has its own little cult following. Not in a negative way, but - it’s got a niche.”
Popovic had lived in Hollywood for nearly 20 years, writing a few screenplays, acting occasionally and directing the film “L.A. Superheroes,” but was still not a big name in the movie business. After moving to Greece for family reasons, then finding the story of St. Nektarios, she was startled that doors which had been shut in her face in Los Angeles suddenly started to open in Greece.
“And what was even more amazing, the monks found out that I was making a movie, and they called me,” said Popovic. “They played a pivotal role in this film getting made, because the initial financiers of this film came through their contacts.
“So that in itself was a miracle. I never knew these people. How did they know I was making this film? For them to call me. I never heard of anything like that. And all of a sudden we get a number one producer in Greece who gets on board with this. Then all of a sudden I’m getting really famous actors in Greece, then everything just starts moving. So when things were getting more serious, I went to the monastery of Aegina to get a blessing from the nuns and their superior, and they greet me and they say ‘we’re waiting for you. Because St. Nektarios wants this film to get made.’”
Though Nektarios continued to suffer persecution until his death in 1920, the church ultimately recognized the wrongs done to him, and made him a saint in 1961. While hoping for opportunities for more people to see this film and learn about this remarkable man, Popovic and Panagiotou agreed that the saint’s tremendous capacity to love, forgive and live humbly are things that everyone can still learn from today.