Man-on-the-street interviews can often be unexpectedly hilarious, insightful or surprising if the interviewer is a prankster like Triumph The Insult Comic Dog or a non-traditional reporter such as an anthropologist, professional prostitute or ….a pair of nuns. The latter, in fact, are showcased in the 1968 documentary, Inquiring Nuns, which is not an oddball stunt but a sincere attempt to capture some honest responses about the human condition via two unlikely interviewers. It was produced by Kartemquin Films, the non-profit documentary collective that was founded in 1966 in Chicago by Gordon Quinn, Jerry Temaner and Stan Karter and has produced such acclaimed work as Hoop Dreams (1995), Vietnam, Long Time Coming (1998), the PBS miniseries The New Americans (2004) and The Interrupters (2011).
Divided into two segments, approximately a half hour in length each, Inquiring Nuns was filmed in Chicago in 1967 and follows two young nuns as they interview people from all walks of life in different locales around Chicago – outside churches, supermarkets, in the Museum of Science and Technology, the Art Institute of Chicago and along the Loop, the city’s central business district. What could have been little more than a quirky experiment becomes a fascinating and rich sociological study of people reacting – either candidly or guardedly – to the questions of two rather guileless interviewers.
The documentary, which occasionally turns up in retrospective screenings at movie theaters and film festivals, opens with an establishing shot of Chicago and a funky urban organ riff by composer Philip Glass who provides the music score (according to IMDB, this is his first film credit). We are then introduced to Sister Mary Campion and Sister Marie Arne being briefed by the director in a van as they travel to their interview location.
We are given no information on how these two women were chosen by filmmakers Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner as their on-camera interviewers or how the project was conceived but it is obvious that the approach is going to be loose and improvisational. Both nuns are completely inexperienced in interviewing and question their role in the project. Sister Campion asks “Are we going to pick whoever we want to or is that going to make any difference?” while Sister Arne worries that “I’m not sure what our goal is. Really, what do we want from the people?”
After being shown how to hold the microphone, Sister Campion accepts that responsibility while Sister Arne still seems unconvinced that people won’t ask, “What are you nutty nuns doing?” As a reference, one of the filmmakers mentions a French documentary from the New Wave period which influenced him. He might be referring to Jean Roach and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961) in which Parisians responded to the question “Are you happy?” or possibly Chris Marker’s influential Le Moi Mal (1963). Using that same tactic, the two sisters soon hit the street (across from the now extinct Burny Bros. Bakery) and approach strangers with variations of “Are you happy?,” “What makes you happy?” and “What makes you unhappy?”
While the questions are relatively banal, the results are often surprising candid or just as flat and boring as the unimaginative solicitation; it really depends on the chemistry and interaction between the nuns and their subjects. Some interviewees, in deference to their ecumenical interviewers, appear cautious and chose their words carefully or speak in generalities while others become fully engaged and even challenge their questioners with the same question. What is wonderful to see is the wide range of people polled – Russian and Polish immigrants, college students, museum patrons, musicians, housewives and African-American church-goers. And one topic continues to surface though it is never explored in any depth – Vietnam. It pops up in the first interview with the female singer of a band called Bubblegum Orgy who is asked if she sees any obstacles in her search for happiness. “Vietnam,” she says without hesitation, adding, “And President Johnson. He’s a crook and a phony.” It becomes a refrain throughout Inquiring Nuns, indicative of a major problem that is affecting everyone’s mental state and attitude.
Among the first interviewees we see is the legendary and still controversial African-American entertainer Stepin Fetchit aka Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (1902-1985). Accompanied by a friend who claims to be the songwriter of “One Little Candle,” Father Keller’s theme song on the 1952 TV series “The Christophers,” the 76-year old actor begins pulling out a stack of publicity shots from his coat to show the nuns, “Here’s Danny Thomas…Here’s me and Shirley Temple. Here’s me and Will Rogers. Here’s me and Robert Goulet.”
The conversation quickly shifts to a religious confessional with Stepin Fetchit noting, “I’ve been the first Negro millionaire that you had years ago…I blew seven million dollars and in all that time I was in daily communion….If everybody could go to communion, there would be no suffering.” In most of the interviews, unhappiness, in general, is equated with financial woes, a lack of faith, a bad attitude or someone’s born disposition. Curiously, race relations or discrimination does not surface as a discussion topic at any point.
Instead, people seem more philosophical or introspective. Outside a supermarket, one woman states, “Well, there are three big things that make people happy or are responsible for happiness. Sex, social life…ummmm, what’s the other? [pauses briefly] Your work. And then somehow you wind up being thwarted in one degree or another in one of these things….little things make me happy, sleeping late, things like that.” A serious-looking gentleman in the Art Institute of Chicago reveals that, “I have moments of disappointment but if you mean in the generic sense, in the larger philosophical sense, no. I never ask myself that. I take that for granted. If I didn’t, I might cut my throat. I would.” He delivers those last words almost as a provocation and with resolute certainty but the nuns never flinch and take everything in stride, rarely registering anything other than an all-accepting openness.
One of the more thought-provoking interviewees in Inquiring Nuns ponders the intent of the nun’s question, asking, “Well in what context? Am I personally happy or professionally happy? Am I religiously happy? I’m professionally dissatisfied because I want to do better. Personally I’m happy. I’d like to have peace in Vietnam. In that sense, I’m unhappy but how can you ask a person to throw everything into one category? I don’t think it’s an unfair question. I think it’s an irrelevant question.” When the questioning continues with, “Are you searching for happiness in life,” he says, “No. Satisfaction, maybe I’d use that word…Happiness is a word like conformity, like togetherness I shy away from…Happiness has become a societal word…Happiness is far too complicated a subject to bandy around…it’s very important and consequently very hard to define.”
What is particularly refreshing about Inquiring Nuns is the simple and unpretentious way in which it is filmed and edited. With the two nuns always at the center of every scene, the interviewees are rarely distracted by the cameraman who is able to capture their responses and facial expressions from a privileged viewpoint. One is also struck by the way people looked and dressed during the late sixties in an urban mecca like Chicago. There is a strong sense of fashion on display across all socio-economic levels. People used to dress up more. From the evidence on display, there’s no denying it and we look like slobs in comparison today.
The documentary concludes with Sister Campion and Sister Arne assessing the entire experience as they return home in the van. While both of them were never less than totally committed to what they were doing, they acknowledge that connecting with their interviewee on some level and winning their confidence is key, even if they weren’t always successful. Inquiring Nuns might have been an even more potent and insightful snapshot of its era if the sisters had pursued or explored some of the issues raised during their rote questions. Whether they were simply following the filmmakers’ instructions to the letter or were too shy and hesitate to go off-topic when the situation presented itself is hard to know. But occasionally, when they do dig a little deeper in their questioning, the results can be quite moving such as the final interview that appears in the film with a middle-aged female musician who was visiting Chicago while on tour with an opera company. At first a bit guarded in her responses, the woman slowly drops her mask, revealing something personal and touching. “Well, I could be happier,” she admits, “Someone told me the other day that I needed someone that would want me, that would need me and I think that’s partly true.” There is something very sad and searching in her manner before she turns the question back on the nuns with “Are you happy?”
Inquiring Nuns remains fascinating for the little glimpses into human behavior it gives us but I can’t imagine this same scenario with two nun interviewers being a viable documentary approach today. For one thing, most potential interviewees would probably think the nuns were poseurs – not the real thing – and would treat them like a comic street theatre act. Also, everyone is so much more conditioned and self-aware in regards to media now whereas the interviewees in Inquiring Nuns still have an innocence about them due to a culture that was not yet inundated with pervasive TV screens, the internet, email and social networks.
I couldn’t help wondering what happened to Sister Campion and Sister Arne after they returned to their convent but I found the answer on the official Kartemquin web site. Andrew Hermann of the Chicago Sun-Times did a follow up feature on Inquiring Nuns in 2008 and here is an excerpt from that which ties back directly to that final and poignant interview in the film: “One subject..turns the question back on the nuns and asks them, “Are you happy?” They both quickly reply “yes,” but for Sister Campion, “It was an ah-hah moment,” recalled the woman now known as Catherine Rock.
“I was always smiling but it was a naive kind of happy. I was never introspective about it. But when that girl said to me, ‘Are you happy?’ It all of a sudden dawned on me, ‘Well maybe I’m not,” Rock said Thursday from her home in Florida. Rock would leave the convent in 1969, marry, have three children and become a school superintendent in New Jersey. Sister Arne also would leave and, as Kathleen Westling, would become a wife, mother and family counselor in Western Springs.”
Inquiring Nuns is still available as a stand alone DVD with no extras from Kartemquin and other video outlets. Kartemquin has announced that it does plan a Blu-ray release in the near future.
Other websites of interest: