Hell's Angel pulled out of film festival... etc.
- The Hindustan Times, August 4, 2003
Hell's Angel pulled out of film festival
Agence France Presse
(Kolkata, August 3)
A controversial film on Mother Teresa, Hell's Angel, has been dropped
from a film festival planned here to mark her beatification later
this year, an organiser said on Sunday.
"Hell's Angel would be withdrawn as Missionaries of Charity and
Bishop Lobo who was in the Diocesan team probing the life, virtue and
reputation of Mother Teresa's sanctity for the cause of her
sainthood, opposed its screening," said Father C.M. Paul, a member of
the organising committee.
Italian Channel 4 has produced the film and Christopher Hitchens has
"Father Brian Kolodie-jchuk, postulator of the cause of Mother
Teresa's sainthood and Missionaries of Charity priest, now in Rome,
also faxed a letter to the organising committee of the film festival
to drop Hell's Angel," he added.
Hell's Angel is based on the 1997 book The Missionary Position:
Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice" by US-based British author and
columnist Christopher Hitchens, who breaks with orthodoxy by
questioning the work of the Missionaries of Charity.
Hitchens faulted Mother Teresa for using her political clout on
behalf of conservative causes and accepting money from dodgy sources.
He contended that her work was focused on the dying and made little
effort to improve the bad circumstances behind Kolkata's public
The film had stirred up a hornet's nest as Missionaries of Charity,
the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa, and Bishop Salvador Lobo,
a member of the Diocesan team shepherding her candidacy for
sainthood, said the film distorted the work she did.
They had written a letter to ask the Archbishop of Calcutta Lucas
Sircar to exclude the film from the festival planned in November.
o o o
[ For those who havent read the book here are the details]
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
by Christopher Hitchens
Verso books April 1997
ISBN: Paper 1 85984 054 X
[Also available cia amazon.com]
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THE MISSIONARY POSITION:
Mother Teresa's Crimes Against Humanity
by Danny Postel
An interview with Christopher Hitchens
What exactly inspired you to write a book about Mother Teresa?
I went to Calcutta-for a different reason-a few years ago. There was
a general election in India, and I was actually making a documentary
about a fraudulent cult movement there. I didn't go specifically to
Calcutta, in other words, to see Mother Teresa. But when I was there
I thought: here is probably not only the greatest name recognition in
the second part of the 20th century for an ordinary human
being-someone who isn't in power, so to speak- but also the most
fragrant name recognition.
Apparently the only name about whom no one had anything but good to
say. Now I will have to admit-no I won't have to admit, I'm proud to
admit- that this was enough to make me skeptical to start off with.
Call me old-fashioned if you will; say I have a nasty mind if you
like. I won't say I'm a practicing Catholic or even a sympathizer
with the Holy Mother Church, because I'm not. And I have my
reservations in any case about the whole idea of the Christian
missionary project in India and its historic links to British
imperialism and the rest of it.
Okay. I went with an open mind, with the constraints I've just
identified; it was as open as I could get it. And there she was. And
you felt when you saw that grizzled face: I've known this face all my
life. She gave me a tour; we went around a small
orphanage-drop-in-the-bucket size, but quite nice.
So it began as an amicable encounter?
Indeed. I was even sort of thinking, hmmm. . . maybe I should fumble
for some money. And with a gesture of the arm that took in the whole
scene of the orphanage, she said: you see this is how we fight
abortion and contraception in Calcutta. And I thought: Oh I see-so
you actually say that do you? Because it had crossed my mind that
part of her work was to bear witness for the Catholic creed regarding
the population question, to propagandize for the Church's line. But I
hadn't realized it was so unmediated. I mean, that she would want to
draw my attention to the fact that this was the point.
I don't know Calcutta terrifically well, but I know it quite well.
And I would say that low on the list of the things that it needs is a
Christian campaign against population control. And I speak as someone
who's personally very squeamish on the abortion question. People who
campaign vigorously against contraception, I think, are in a very
weak position to lay down the moral law on abortion.
So I thought, okay, that's interesting. And then I noticed something
else which I guess I'd noticed already without realizing it. Calcutta
has the reputation as being a complete hell hole thanks to Mother
Teresa. You get the impression from her that it's a place where
people are just about able to brush the flies from their children's
eyes, the begging bowl is fully out, that people are on their knees
Nothing could be further from the truth. Calcutta is one of the most
vibrant and interesting cities in the world. It's full of film
schools, universities, bookstores and cafés. It has a tremendously
vibrant political life. It's the place that produced the films of
Satyajit Ray. It's a wonderful city. It's architecturally beautiful.
And the people do not beg. They're not abject. They're very poor;
some sleep on the street, but they're usually working and hustling at
something. They don't grovel, as in some parts of India I must say
It's hugely overpopulated partly because of the refugees, mainly from
the successive wars of religion-stupid wars about God that have been
fought in the neighborhood. That's not its fault. It's basically a
secular town. So I thought: What a pity that Mother Teresa should
have given this great city such a bad name and made us feel
condescending toward it.
So partly for the honor of Calcutta, and partly out of my feeling
that her actions are being judged by her reputation rather than her
reputation by her actions (a common postmodern problem in the image
business of course, but amazing in this case), I sort of opened a
file on her, kept a brief. And then I noticed her turning up
supporting the Duvalier family in Haiti, for example, and saying how
wonderful they were and how great they were for the poor and how the
poor loved them.
What a coincidence. . .
Yes. And then I noticed her taking money from Charles Keating of the
Lincoln Savings and Loan and saying what a great friend of the poor
this great fraud and thief was. Then I noticed her get the Nobel
Prize for Peace though she had never done anything for peace. And say
in her acceptance speech in Stockholm that the greatest threat to
world peace is abortion.
Then I noticed another thing. That no matter what she said or did at
this time nobody would point it out because she had some kind of
hammer lock on my profession. It had been agreed she was a saint and
there was to be no argument about it. So I thought, okay, that does
it, and I wrote a column for The Nation. That was all I did at first.
And then I got approached from some comrades in Britain to make a
documentary based on the column, and we found that an amazing number
of her crimes against humanity were actually on film.
There is film of her going to Albania and laying a wreath at the tomb
of the dictator Enver Hoxha, vile bastard who oppressed Albania for
years. She was Albanian by nationality, incidentally. Born in
Macedonia. There was film of her groveling to the Duvaliers and
flattering and fawning on Michele Duvalier in particular. There was
film of her jetting around on Charles Keating's plane which he used
to lend her as well as giving her a lot of money that belonged to
How how did she explain things like this?
She was never asked to.
She was simply never approached with these questions?
No. Nor have any of her defenders-many of whom have attacked me or my
motives-ever come up with any reply. I've had acres of print
reviewing this book, certainly in every country where English is
spoken, including, by the way, a lot of very intelligent and
interesting reviews in India. But also a lot in Britain and Ireland
and the U.S. and Australia and so on. And a lot of it has been very
abusive-from the faithful-which I expected and don't mind.
But what did interest me was that at no point did anyone say:
"Hitchens falsely accuses Mother Teresa of groveling to the
Duvaliers." Nothing like that. It was: "Hitchens attacks a woman who
is older than him and helpless." Well excuse me. If I had attacked
her thirty years ago it would have been alright? I mean infantile
stuff of this kind. A real refusal to think that people might have
been wrong, in other words. She was interviewed last year by the
Lady's Home Journal. I don't know if you get that publication.
I had just cancelled my subscription around that time. Afraid I
What a pity. In any case, they asked her what the effect of my book
had been. And I wondered what her reply had been. She said it had
been to get her to cut down on the number of interviews she gave to
the press and to instruct her nuns when reporters came to Calcutta to
say that she wasn't in.
In other words to lie. As a matter of fact I don't think she meant to
keep this resolution because she remained more or less the recepient
of uniformly heroic publicity. She did in the course of this
interview say another interesting thing worthy of mention as an
instance of what I mean about her morality.
They asked her about her friendship with Princess Diana. The two had
become very matey. They had several meetings over the last few years.
I think you can probably guess what each wanted from the other. And
both of them got it. It made sort of the perfect friendship in a way.
In any case, she was asked about Princess Di's divorce. She said,
yes, they're divorced and it's very sad but I think it's all for the
best; the marriage was not working, no one was happy and I'm sure
it's better that they separate.
Two months before that Mother Teresa had been campaigning in Ireland
on the referendum to lift the constitutional ban on divorce there.
Ireland was the only country in Europe that had a constitutional ban
on divorce and remarriage for women. It was a very hard-fought
campaign for obvious reasons. First it was going to bring Ireland
into the European family, as not having church-legislated law. Second
it was very important in the negotiations for the Protestants in the
north who quite justifiably, in my view, will never agree to be
governed by the Vatican.
So most Irish political parties said, look, we really must show that
the Vatican doesn't control life here. So a lot was hanging on it.
And third, obviously, because Irish women should have the right to
get divorced and remarry. Mother Teresa took the stand on this
referendum and said: There will be no forgiveness for you if you vote
Unless you happen to be the Princess of Wales.
Unless it turns out you're the Princess of Wales. In other words it's
pretty much like the state of indulgences in the Middle Ages. The
bulk of humanity is described as a bunch of miserable sinners
condemned to everlasting hell unless they've got the price of a
pardon, which they can purchase at the nearest papacy. It's no better
than that. In fact it's slightly worse given the advances we think
we've made in the meantime. I've said this repeatedly. But I might as
well not have bothered as far as most people are concerned. They
simply do not judge her reputation by her actions. They consistently
do the reverse and judge her actions by her reputation.
You mentioned the money she got from Charles Keating. The court
attempted to contact her to let her know how Keating had gone about
obtaining that money. Her response to the court says it all.
When Mr. Keating was finally brought to justice after the
embezzlement of that titanic sum of money that we're all still paying
off-because, as you know, among the key principles of Clintonism is
that private debts are covered by public money-he was sentenced to
the maximum that California law allows, which he's still serving. The
court, interestingly enough, was Judge Ito's court.
As in the judge for the first O.J. Simpson trial?
That's the one. Mother Teresa wrote to the court and said, look,
Charles Keating is a great friend of the poor and a lovely man and
you should go easy on him. I reprinted her letter, in which she says
if he's done anything wrong she can't believe it and she doesn't know
what it is. The deputy D.A. of L.A. County a very clever guy by the
name of Paul Turley, who I would say from his letter must at least
have been a Catholic in his life, if he isn't still. He wrote her
back a letter, explaining the process by which Keating had separated
really large numbers of poor people from their life savings without
any scruple at all or remorse, and then pointed out that in their
audits they discovered that quite a lot of the money he had stolen
he'd given to Mother Teresa. He said, now that you know this when are
you going to give it back? At this point she broke off the
correspondence and made no move to return the money.
Let's say she really didn't know. Let's make the assumption of
innocence and imagine that when she wrote the letter to the court she
really had no idea what Keating had been doing. Well, she knew
subsequently because the letter is extremely careful and highly
persuasive and very well-sourced. She knew she was in receipt of
stolen money. She did nothing to redeem that. As a matter of fact
it's not possible to discover anything about what is done with the
huge fortune she amassed. There's no audit. Nobody knows what the
accounts are; it's impossible to get at them. But I can tell you
where it isn't going. It's not going to the hospices and orphanages
of Calcutta, because I've been to them and so have many other people.
Most people are surprised first off at the sheer primitiveness of the
poverty and backwardness of these places. I mean when Mother Teresa
got sick she didn't go there-let me put it like that. People go there
to die; there's not much else you can do. Needles are washed in cold
water. There have been many reports in the medical journals of really
squalid and primeval conditions there. So that's not where the
With half the money she got just from the prizes she's been given she
could have built a teaching hospital for Calcutta; she certainly
never did that. If you wonder where it's gone my best guess would be
the interview she gave where she said she's opened convents in more
than 150 countries. Sorry to have to break the news to people who
think their money is going to the relief of the poor of Calcutta.
Instead, they've just equipped a nice chalice-infested convent richly
decorated with lots of incense somewhere in Kenya.
Aside from this sort of muckraking you do in the book, you also
explore Mother Teresa as symbol, as icon: the place she occupies in
the cultural imagination of the industrial world. What is it,
precisely, that she symbolizes? What do we need her for?
I make the case in the book that she's symbolic indeed, or
emblematic, of two things larger than herself. One, the fact that the
rich world has a poor conscience-a poor conscience about what it used
to call the Third World. It knows it doesn't do much about it. It
likes to think someone is doing it and hands off the task vicariously
to the old mission racket and probably therefore doesn't want to hear
this isn't all that it appears or all that it might be.
That's only one aspect of the way in which religious figures are
given this sort of special pass on credulity. It's either consciously
or subconsciously assumed that a person of the cloth actually has
better morals. There's precious little evidence of this; there's a
great deal of evidence to the contrary, in fact. But somehow it's
still considered-especially in a country like America which suffers
from a sort of mediocre version of multiculturalism-a possibly
offensive thing to suggest. Because you're not attacking a religion;
you're attacking the Catholic community-a rather different
proposition. And the idea of offending that is anathema to so many
Do you think the title of the book might have contributed this? Could
it have deterred certain people from even opening it up?
It was a risk one ran. Once I thought of the title I realized I was
gonna have to do it. I was very hurt by somebody describing the title
as "sophomoric," because it's a triple entendre, which is not all
that common. You have three layers of pun. I had wanted to call it
Sacred Cow (laughter), but that would have had only one pun in it.
The Missionary Position has two.
What are the multiple meanings, after all?
Well, there's the theory and practice of the missionary-the idea of
the evangelizing of the world by Christians, which has this long
imperial history. There's Mother Teresa's desire to have control over
the sex lives of the poor-in other words, her belief that only
Princess Diana had the right to get divorced, that there should be no
contraception, etc. She adopted the most extreme version of all
Catholic teaching on matters of sex and reproduction and did so in
countries where it is actually possible, if the church is powerful
enough, to withhold these things from people, to deny them access to
contraception. And her extraordinary view that abortion is the
greatest threat to world peace. And the third meaning is one I've
forgotten, but I'm sure some of your listeners will remember... [ L i