Monday, May 11, 1998

Film about
Father Damien debuts

Stephanie Castillo will unveil
her biography of the beloved priest

By Mary Adamski

Hawaii filmmaker Stephanie Castillo will unveil the product of her long fascination with Father Damien DeVeuster tomorrow.

The premiere of "An Uncommon Kindness," a film biography of the missionary who ministered to Hawaii leprosy patients during the 19th century epidemic of the disease. It will be at 6:30 p.m. at Hawaii Theatre.

The opening will benefit the nonprofit Life Foundation, which provides education on HIV/AIDS and support for patients. Tickets are available at the theater.

Public fear and horror generated by the modern epidemic of AIDS often has been compared to the stigma attached to leprosy. Castillo made that link in the 1992 Emmy-award winning documentary, "Simple Courage," which she co-produced with Hawaii Public Television.

"We don't tell a horrible story, we tell a triumphant story in the midst of the horrible conditions," said Castillo.

To her, Damien always has been "a universal symbol of extraordinary courage and compassion," she said, a man who acted with those qualities but was himself in need -- of "courage and compassion from his own brothers and the church for all the criticism against him."

Co-producers of the new film were Walter Josten and Jeff Geoffray of Blue Rider Pictures of Santa Monica, Calif., which is planning a feature film on Father Damien to star Robin Williams.

Castillo said she was able to make the new film with the "modest" budget of $200,000 because she had 40 hours of unused footage from her first effort. Itmr6 Stephanie


includes actor Terence Knapp as the voice of the priest, scenes from Kalaupapa, where Damien served and interviews with Hansen's disease patients Richard Marks, Bernard Punikaia and Olivia Breitha.

Damien's story is well-known in Hawaii, especially since the 1995 celebration of his beatification by Pope John Paul II, a step toward being named a saint by the Catholic Church.

But the 50-minute film includes "something new even for Damien fans," said Castillo. There is 1936 vintage film taken when Damien's body was disinterred from its grave at Kalawao. The historical footage, from the archives of Damien's religious order, shows the crowds that gathered and the ceremonies accorded the priest's body as it was returned to Belgium, his homeland.

The bones of the missionary's right hand were returned to the Kalawao grave after Damien was beatified.

"There is a procession from Antwerp to Louvain. It shows you how great he was in his day. People from all over Europe were honoring him. We wanted to establish how big he was around the world, even though he's not too well known in the U.S.," she said.

One aspect of the story is not an accurate reflection of history. That is a virtual ban on what Castillo calls "the 'L' word."

Patients "Bernard and Olivia talk about how hurtful it was to them to be called that," she said. "We had to struggle with creative license ... to change everybody's words, edit the word out." The word leper, with its connotation of shunned outcast, was in common usage in Damien's time and still is used widely today.

At the premiere, the film will be blessed by Hawaiian activist Kekuni Blaisdell and the Rev. Ed Popish of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the order to which Damien belonged. Castillo's co-director and professional choreographer Daniel Marra will perform a dance.

"Father Damien stands to this day as a profound example of someone who was willing to fight through the ignorance, fear, stigma and conventional wisdom," said Paul Groesbeck, executive director of the Life Foundation.

"You can see there are ready comparisons. Where leprosy patients were forcibly removed from their homes and lives, with AIDS it happened emotionally. Because of fear born in ignorance, people found their friends turned against them, their family ostracized them, their employers, landlords and other people turned against. Some people might have well been isolated," he said.

Hansen's disease exhibit starts tour here

A World Health Organization exhibit on the fight to eliminate Hansen's disease around the globe will be shown in Honolulu at the beginning of a world tour.

"Quest for Dignity: A Victory over Leprosy/Hansen's Disease" will be on display from July 1-15 at Honolulu Hale before being taken to China for the International Leprosy Congress in Beijing.

Several Hawaii residents participated in the October opening of the photographic display at the United Nations in New York. Photographs of Kalaupapa and of new senior housing on the site of the former Hale Mohalu hospital are part of it.

The WHO objective is to eliminate the disease as a public health threat worldwide by the year 2000, said Anwei Skinsnes Law, coordinator of the exhibit and a researcher and advocate on behalf of Hansen's Disease patients.

She said Hawaii is an exception to the prejudice that patients encounter in the United States and other countries.

Drugs in use since the 1940s now control the disease, which has carried a stigma since ancient times. There are 351 people with Hansen's disease in Hawaii now, according to state Health Department records.

Some 57 are historical cases, people who contracted the disease before drugs came into use and were put into mandatory isolation at Kalaupapa. The others are treated as outpatients.

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1998 Honolulu Star-Bulletin