“Don’t just do something, stand there (or be there)” is the directive of Reverend David Fleenor, turning the “don’t just stand there, do something” admonition upside down. Or perhaps right side up. For attentiveness is crucial to this religious leader dauntingly tasked with supervising a group of aspiring chaplains, including a viscerally vulnerable protege named Mati Engel, as they undertake an emotionally exhausting residency in the spiritual care department of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. But the mantra could likewise apply to award-winning filmmaker Luke Lorentzen (2019’s Sundance-premiering Midnight Family) who has a knack for bearing silent witness through his cinéma vérité lens.
That said, the intimate collaboration that led to his Sundance-debuting followup A Still Small Voice — and also to Lorentzen receiving an “honorary certificate” at the end of filming the yearlong program (not to mention the US Documentary Competition Best Directing award in Park City) — is both extraordinary and somewhat troubling. On the one hand, for Lorentzen to immerse himself in a project in which he “absorbed other people’s pain and experienced depletion” and was “pushed as far as I would ever want to be pushed” for a film, as he stated in the doc’s press notes, seems a truly remarkable act of devotion, as was his choice to include an interview with Mati in those same press notes, in which she calls the camera an “extension of chaplaincy.” It’s a somewhat disturbing characterization. For where does such a dedicated documentarian draw the line between cinematic partnership and potentially allowing a character to choreograph the story?
While on its surface A Still Small Voice follows selfless caregivers drawn to a higher cause, dig a tad deeper and that stubborn White savior complex begins to bubble up. What starts out as a film about “being there” becomes a film about being seen — and not necessarily by the camera. The relationship between Mati and the Reverend David reveals some uncomfortable power dynamics as Mati pushes the clergyman to push her limits and the Reverend declines to push outside his own self-imposed limits, instead repeating a standard mantra of self-care to a trainee still grieving the death of her father. It’s telling that some of the most memorable scenes in A Still Small Voice involve the pair listening to their own (not small) voices over those of one another or their patients — for instance, Mati attempts to connect with a distraught woman by revealing a personal trauma; the reverend bears his soul online to his own therapist/mentor. It all culminates in a final showdown between the two, filmed by Lorentzen.
These dueling protagonists no longer work together at Mount Sinai, or directly with patients, for that matter. Reverend David currently manages the Clinical Pastoral Education program that he founded at Stony Brook University out on Long Island (which I learned by visiting his website) while Mati has added a new role to her spiritual care CV: practicing performance artist. While A Still Small Voice has a noble conceit in the end it veers too close to performance art itself.
A Still Small Voice will screen at the DC/Dox Festival on June 17.