Uncommon Grace: Flannery On Film
An interview with Bridget Kurt, producer/director of the first film about the life of Flannery O’Connor.
By Nevada McPherson
Filmmaker Bridget Kurt is currently on the festival trail with her new documentary “Uncommon Grace,” the very first film about the life of author Flannery O’Connor. A self-described “lifelong literature junkie,” Kurt became interested in O’Connor when she moved from Wisconsin to Atlanta, where she now lives with her husband. She produced and directed the film on weekends, while working full-time as a hospice educator weekdays.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Kurt at the recent Milledgeville Film Festival, where “Uncommon Grace” won the award for “Best Documentary.”
NM: What made you choose Flannery O’Connor as your subject for this documentary?
BK: I started reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s stories when I moved to Atlanta about six years ago. I’m from the Midwest so reading her stories about Southern characters and culture was very illuminating for me. As an Irish-Catholic, I especially identified with her and I became very interested in how her Catholic faith influenced her work. Her work is easily misunderstood because her characters are complex and she is often addressing the moral and spiritual struggles that all human beings face, but she does so in surprising ways. I decided to make the documentary when I realized that there were currently no films specifically about Flannery O’Connor and her work. I felt that it was important that her literature and her perspectives be properly understood. I also wanted educators to have a tool that they could use in the college or high school setting to get students more interested in O’Connor.
NM: What was the most difficult challenge you faced in making this film, and how did you deal with it?
BK: The most difficult challenge in making the film was that it is the first documentary ever made about O’Connor. I was very fortunate to have two O’Connor experts assist me with the project. Both Professor Bill Sessions, the authorized biographer of O’Connor, and Professor David King live in Atlanta so I was able to show them the film as it progressed and get their feedback.
As I made the film, I also learned that some scholars have been afraid at times in publishing their work about O’Connor because of restrictions from the individuals and scholars who control her estate. The estate actually requests that anyone who writes about O’Connor in a term paper contact her agent for permission to quote O’Connor’s works. Can you imagine English teachers not being able to assign term papers about an O’Connor short story because they have to get approval from her agent in NYC? Of course, this is not a legal requirement. Academic freedom, free speech and fair use laws allow anyone to write about O’Connor and her works as long as they follow normal academic standards of scholarship, citations and acknowledgments. We hired an intellectual property attorney to ensure that we were in compliance with Fair Use laws when selecting photographs and other material that is included in the documentary. We made sure that we obtained all necessary permissions. I feel that we really pushed the boundary, which hopefully will help others in the future. Additionally, Emory University recently obtained new archival material from the O’Connor estate, which should help advance the scholarship and research on O’Connor.
NM: What was the biggest surprise about Flannery O’Connor that you learned from your research?
BK: In researching O’Connor, I learned how much she suffered at times from lupus. I didn’t emphasize it a lot in the film, but some of her friends shared with me how much she suffered from itching and fatigue. It was also difficult for her at times to be confined to Andalusia with her mother, who could be very domineering. O’Connor’s friends, including an elderly nun, also wanted me to know how loyal Flannery was as a friend and how she made others around her so happy. Others emphasized how funny she was. She was a genius writer, yet she could also appreciate the simplicity and goodness in others whom she encountered in everyday life in Milledgeville, Georgia.
NM: Was there a chapter in her life, or an encounter that you wish you’d had time to deal with more thoroughly in the film?
BK: I really wish we could have included a discussion of more of her short stories in the film. We wanted to keep the documentary to an hour so we had to cut out some great stories including a segment on “The Displaced Person.” “The Displaced Person” addresses issues of racism, xenophobia and exclusion. O’Connor was influenced by Hannah Arendt’s concept of the ‘banality of evil’ that was evident during the Holocaust. This story is still so relevant today as we continue to confront difficulties related to immigration as well as Islamophobia and genocide.
NM: Do you think O’Connor’s writing is still as provocative and shocking to today’s audiences as it was when first published?
BK: O’Connor’s stories are universal because they portray the flaws and frailty of human nature and the power of grace — both the grace from God’s blessings but also the grace that we receive when we have moments of spiritual enlightenment.
O’Connor perceived secular humanism as a moral threat. Her writing remains powerful today because she wanted to convey the importance of religious faith and ethics to a world that often saw God and organized religion as irrelevant. But she expressed herself in clever, intelligent ways. [Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal was published in 2013.] She never comes off as didactic or preachy. There is a depth to her writing that anyone can recognize as true regardless of their religious beliefs. Her stories really call all of us to self-examination.
NM: What about O’Connor’s writing do you think leads many of her readers to convert to Catholicism?
BK: I think O’Connor appreciated the logic, order and consistency of Catholic theology. She truly believed in the doctrines of the Catholic Church and publicly defended teachings that are often difficult to accept or explain. She believed that the truth was absolute and she was critical of moral relativism. There are only a few O’Connor stories that actually feature Catholic characters. I think that some people become interested in Catholicism through her because they realize the genius of her work and then want to learn more about the faith that inspired these amazing stories. Her strong faith is also reflected in her essays and the many letters that she wrote to a multitude of people over the years.
NM: In recent Q&A sessions following screenings of the film, what questions have been the most difficult and provocative for you to answer?
BK: So far there haven’t been any provocative questions. All of our screenings and events so far have been in Georgia where there is a greater awareness and connection to O’Connor. In Georgia, we have also been fortunate to have O’Connor relatives, friends and acquaintances attend some of the events where they have been able to share their experiences of knowing Flannery on a personal level. In Atlanta, some of Flannery’s first cousins from the O’Connor side of the family attended a screening of the film. We will be having screenings in other cities in Tennessee and Virginia, so it will be interesting to hear what questions come up in those cities.
NM: What’s your favorite O’Connor story?
BK: My favorite O’Connor story is “The Lame Shall Enter First.” The story really captures O’Connor’s critique of those who rely solely on science and psychology to solve human problems. The innocent little boy Norton to me represents so many of the children in this world who often aren’t appreciated and loved by a parent until it is too late.
Nevada McPherson lives with her husband, Bill, and rescue Chihuahua, Mitzi, in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she is a professor of Humanities at Georgia Military College. She received a BA in English/Creative Writing and an MFA in Screenwriting from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She’s written over a dozen feature-length screenplays, plays, short stories and two graphic novels, Uptowners and Piano Lessons. She’s currently at work on her third graphic novel, Queensgate.