The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has named a Rochester Institute of Technology student’s documentary a Student Academy Award finalist.
“Spiritus,” which recounts the travails of a controversial former Catholic priest and his confrontation with the Vatican, is a thesis film directed by Matthew Spaull, of Rochester, a Master of Fine Arts student in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences’ School of Film and Animation (SOFA).
The 26-minute film—one of seven documentary finalists—chronicles the story of Father James Callan, a former Roman Catholic priest and one of the founders of the Spiritus Christi Community in Rochester. Callan was removed from his post as administrator of then-Corpus Christi Church in Rochester after the Vatican received a number of complaints about his church’s policies toward blessing same-sex unions, inviting non-Catholics to receive communion and having a woman perform duties traditionally reserved for priests. After he was reassigned, Callan was later excommunicated when he began to preside over services at Spiritus Christi.
“This became national news and the ensuing battle that took place between the Vatican and the church pitted the rules of a religion versus its ideals,” Spaull said. “I’m very honored to have had my film be selected to advance out of the hundreds of films that were submitted.”
Spaull added that his film—while telling of events nearly two decades ago—is as timely as ever today as Americans debate gay marriage, gender inequality and other social issues.
“In a lot of ways, the story was strong enough to get noticed, but I battled with how to craft it,” Spaull said. “Advancing makes me feel that I have achieved what I was trying to tell.”
Spaull’s was one of two RIT student films with SOFA connections to advance to the semifinals of the Student Academy Awards. “Simorgh,” a film directed by Meghdad Asadi Lari, a native of Shiraz, Iran, had advanced in the animation category. He graduated from SOFA in 2014 with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 3D computer animation.
The choreographic piece incorporates Persian music and calligraphic art to tell the traditional Persian story of life that deals with the fragility of self-worth. The film has been recognized at numerous film festivals worldwide and earned the Iranian native SOFA faculty awards upon his graduation in 2014.
The 42nd Student Academy Awards presentation will take place in September at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif. Documentary films will be chosen to receive one of three medals – gold, silver or bronze. All Student Academy Award winners—regardless of medal received—become eligible for Oscars consideration.
Past Student Academy Award winners include such acclaimed filmmakers as John Lasseter, Spike Lee and Robert Zemeckis. The awards were established in 1972 to support and encourage excellence in filmmaking at the collegiate level. The U.S. competition is open to all full-time undergraduate and graduate students whose films are made within the curricular structure of an eligible accredited institution.
Spaull is the son of Malcolm Spaull, administrative chair of SOFA and himself a former Student Academy Award winner in 1979. Malcolm Spaull won the award in the animation category with Tom Gasek, an assistant professor and MFA director in SOFA. The two RIT colleagues shared the award with Lasseter, currently the chief creative officer of Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studios and the principal creative adviser for Walt Disney Imagineering.