Kavanagh Lecture 2010: Margot Fassler beckons other scholars to try filmmaking

By Sean McAvoy ’11 M.A.R.
Margot Fassler, former director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, has fully immersed herself in the world of filmmaking. That is a bit out of the ordinary for a scholar, she acknowledged in her Aidan Kavanagh lecture on Oct. 12 during Convocation and Reunions 2010.  But she wishes more scholars would test the waters with her.

Fassler FilmThe title of her lecture, part of the Women’s Reunion celebration, was “Film and Theological Education: The Saga of a Fledgling Documentarian.” On the following day, there was a screening of Fassler’s new documentary “You Can’t Sing It For Them,” which focuses on John Berryman, music director of the Messiah Baptist Church in Bridgeport, CT.

Fassler, currently the Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy at the Medieval Institute of the University of Notre Dame, opened the lecture in ISM’s Great Hall by touching on the life of Aidan Kavanagh, for whom the lecture series is named.  Kavanagh was a Benedictine monk, a renowned liturgical scholar, and the first Roman Catholic priest to lead the Divinity School, serving as acting dean for the 1989-1990 academic year.  Fassler invoked his capacity for vivid description, saying “You can taste things when you read Aidan.”

Fassler showed a packed audience various renditions on YouTube of the Coptic hymn “Epouro,” demonstrating how its performance crosses generational and stylistic lines.  “The Copts are very proficient with technology,” she said, bringing up www.tasbeha.org, a Coptic web site, on the screen as an example.  She noted that one church she encountered had five cameras filming every service in addition to PowerPoint presentations projecting the texts of hymns in both English and Arabic.

Regarding her own journey into filmmaking, Fassler referenced the many great films dealing with liturgical practices, some of them available on websites like folkstreams.net, and how their example inspired her.  A list of her films followed, and she touched briefly upon the subject matter of each, adding that her films are being used in two forthcoming textbooks.

There are constraints in the documentary format, she noted, and special problems, such as editing down material into the industry’s forty-minute standard, the various musical rights clearances needed whenever a copyrighted piece of music is used, and the propensity of many in the academy to avoid filmmaking.

“Scholars should make films,” she said.  “They rarely do,” adding with a laugh, “Filmmakers always tell you to not work with scholars, and scholars always tell you to not work with filmmakers.”

Fassler groupFassler proceeded to show clips from her current project, a documentary on a Coptic church in New Jersey.  Several scenes from the documentary were shown with running commentary by the filmmaker:  a Christmas liturgy, the activities of a choir as it conducts the service, and the ritual method of bread baking for the liturgy, using methods from ancient Egypt.  Fassler explained how she is attempting to structure the documentary, still very much in the editing phase, in a way that mirrors the structure of the Coptic liturgy.

“There’s a whole theater going on up there,” she said of the personal involvement by laypeople in the Coptic liturgy—how small details like a look, or a movement, can reveal depths of meaning.

The following day, on Wednesday evening, Fassler and members of her production team, including Jacqueline Richard '06 M.A.R. and ISM Technical Media Coordinator Sachin Ramabhadran, presented their recently completed documentary “You Can’t Sing It For Them: Continuity, Change, and a Church Musician” in Niebuhr Hall.  The film details the struggle of John Berryman, the music director of Bridgeport’s Messiah Baptist Church, as he tries to consolidate the church’s many choirs into one.

Interviews with the pastor of the church, choir members, and members of the congregation are intercut with scenes from Berryman’s extremely busy life, which include a job as a teacher in a public school as well as serving as choir director at Messiah.

Many people came out on the last evening of Convocation to view the film and talk to those involved in its production, including Berryman himself.