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First full-length film on Flannery O’Connor highlights faith

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For years, countless high school and college English students have paused, stunned, at a moment in a Flannery O'Connor short story.

"Her cold, precise, brutal style has the shocking power of a blow between the eyes," a New York Times reporter wrote in 1955.

This assessment of O'Connor's craft is quoted in the first full-length documentary film about the Southern writer, entitled "Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O'Connor." Producer/director Bridget Kurt teamed up with her brother-in-law Daniel Kurt to expand perceptions formed from brief encounters with O'Connor's work and to provide seasoned O'Connor readers with new insights - primarily into the author's life and her devotion to her Catholic faith.

Kurt, a parishioner of St. John Neumann Church in Reston and head writer for the film, said the role of faith in O'Connor's work is being lost in some academic circles.

"But when you understand her relationship with the church, a richness starts to come out that, even if you're not Catholic, helps you understand her writing," he said. "While it's not the only way to read her stories, it is a key to unlocking them."

Kurt, who works as a business and personal finance reporter, first encountered O'Connor's writings in college, when over summer vacation he discovered his parents' collection of her short stories.

"I was immediately taken by the power of her writing," Kurt said. "They have these dramatic events that you can't always glean the full meaning of on the first read."

When his sister-in-law asked if he'd be willing to help create a documentary, the father of five quickly accepted.

The two-year-long project was "a learning experience," said Kurt, adding that he was able to draw upon his skills as a reporter. "Good storytelling is good storytelling," he said.

The one-hour documentary is narrated by Bridget, and the Catholic film-making duo hope it will be used as an educational tool in classrooms.

Following O'Connor's life from her childhood as a Catholic schoolgirl in Savannah, Ga., to her death at 39 from complications from lupus, the film draws on old photos, letters and extensive research. It is interspersed with in-depth interviews with clergy, Catholic educators, her biographer Brad Gooch and her close friend William A. Sessions.

Viewers encounter O'Connor as a shy but smart, spirited child whose first brush with fame was when she taught her chicken to walk backward - a feat shown through original footage in the documentary.

The film also includes photographs of the young O'Connor engrossed in novels and close-ups of her youthful critiques scribbled in book margins.

"Uncommon Grace" emphasizes the author's close relationship with her father, who encouraged her creativity. At age16, O'Connor was devastated by his death from lupus, the same disease that would later restrain her movement but not her imagination or productivity. In total, O'Connor wrote two novels and 32 short stories.

The Protestant South is featured prominently in O'Connor's work, and the film looks at how the Southern dialogue, dialect and cadences that color her stories emerged from the world she lived in.

Chronicling her time at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, the documentary highlights the influences of more seasoned writers such as John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, who won a Pulitzer Prize for All the King's Men.

Yet instead of joining many of her young writing peers in vibrant New York City, O'Connor's lupus eventually forced her to return to her family's Georgia estate, Andalusia.

Doctors originally told O'Connor she had five years to live, and the film suggests the prognosis inspired the discipline she imposed on her writing.

After attending daily Mass, O'Connor worked for three hours before needing to rest the remainder of the day. Although she would go on to live twice as long as doctors predicted, O'Connor endured fevers, pain and itching, Kurt said.

"What stood out to me in making this film was how heroic she was," said Kurt. "She had this autoimmune disease, and everything about her career was a struggle in a sense."

With no time to spare, her writing was "lived like a spiritual vocation," he said.

Anyone who has read "A Good Man is Hard to Find," in which a family of six is brutally murdered, knows the graphic, at times grotesque, content of O'Connor's stories.

But her style served her intent, says professor David A. King in the film. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University, located in northern Georgia.

She was "trying to reach a jaded, secular, intellectual, post-modern audience with the truth that Christianity is indeed a matter of life and death," King says.

"To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures," O'Connor said of her work.

The film, available on Amazon.com, recently was named "best documentary" at the Milledgeville Film Festival in Milledgeville, Ga. The Kurts are organizing screenings around the country.

"Her ideas are universal about the way God works in our lives," said Kurt. "Her view was that grace is not always something that feels pleasant at the time; it can take the form of pain or heartache."

Nevertheless, he added, she shows that "God can use it."

Watch the documentary

"Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O'Connor" is available on Amazon.com. Go here.

Find out more

To learn more about the film and filmmakers, go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016