“We’re absolutely thrilled about it”, said Tong, an award-winning filmmaker who has been producing documentaries for 30 years. “The section had about 130 entries and they only took a handful of films, and we were one of them”.
The film, over four years in the making, tells the story of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, an order of American nuns, from their founding in 1912 down to the present day. It weaves rare archival footage together with candid interviews with the nuns, and the reminiscences of some of the people whose lives have been transformed by their charity and humanitarian work.
The documentary will be screened in Sarasota, Florida on April 6th and 8th in the Through Women’s Eyes section of the festival, which features productions “that increase awareness of the lives of women throughout the world”.
[Click on the video below to watch a trailer for the film.]
Tong said that when she began work on the film she focused on the order’s mission here in Hong Kong, which includes the Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon – she herself is an alumnus of that school – the Marymount Secondary School in Happy Valley, and Our Lady of Maryknoll Hospital in Wong Tai Sin.
“But then as I did more research, I began to realize that their work in Hong Kong and China was only the foundation for their subsequent global work on social justice and women’s rights”, Tong said.
The Maryknoll Sisters were among hundreds of groups of foreign missionaries expelled from China after the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and the suppression of religion that followed.
“After the Maryknoll Sisters were kicked out of China, they looked for other places that needed their work”, Tong said. “So they went to Africa and Central America and basically wherever there was poverty and poor people fighting for their rights for land and food and medical care”.
The sisters were among the first American Catholic nuns to become doctors. Since the Catholic Church did not allow nuns to study medicine, Tong said the order encouraged women who wanted to be nuns to finish their medical degrees before taking their vows.
“They were early feminists”, Tong said. “They were professional women before there were really any professional women. And they were able to practice medicine and open and run hospitals wherever they went”.
They accompanied Americans of Japanese descent to relocation camps during World War II, and opened the first fully racially-integrated hospital in the United States in Kansas City in 1955. Two of their members were killed in El Salvador in 1980 while trying to help the victims of the civil war there.
Tong said she aims to use the documentary to raise at least a half million dollars for the order. The first public screening of the film, at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in New York last October, raised US$150,000.
A benefit screening open to the public will take place in Hong Kong in October. More information about the film may be found on the Trailblazers in Habits website – trailblazersinhabits.com. To read the blog that Tong kept while she was making the film click here.
Born in Hong Kong, Nancy Tong graduated from York University in Canada with a BA in Film Production. Who Killed Vincent Chin, a film on which she served as associate producer and production manager, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1989.