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Fr. Schmidt: Grandfather/priest/filmmaker’s amazing journey

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He’s a Valley boy and retired Army lieutenant colonel who has had not one but two late vocations. Jesuit Father Ron Schmidt, a son/brother/father to acclaimed Hollywood film editors, is now a grandfather/priest/filmmaker whose mid-life Holocaust documentary, “The Labyrinth,” about a Polish Catholic Auschwitz survivor, has just been accepted this year for national airing on PBS television stations. His filmmaking career was sparked in the seminary, which he entered at age 50 following a conversion experience during a Jesuit retreat that he had attended a few years after his wife’s death from cancer. As he has admitted during his Sunday homilies, one of his three sons asked him when he announced that he was going to become a Jesuit priest: “Don’t you have to go to Mass, Dad?”“We were Christmas/Easter Catholics,” Father Schmidt, 69, told The Tidings with a chuckle during a recent interview at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood, the office location of his film production company where he spends most of his weekdays. On weekends, he can be found celebrating Mass at St. Francis de Sales in Sherman Oaks or Holy Family in South Pasadena, where his homilies sometime mention the antics of his seven grandchildren. He had to get special permission to enter the Society of Jesus, as he was one year past the age cutoff. The Jesuits gave him credit for life experience, and Father Schmidt was ordained in eight years instead of the usual 11. It was during his seminary years that he was inspired to dramatize the lives of the martyred El Salvador Jesuits who were killed on Nov. 16, 1989. He produced a one-act play and later — after attending the Sundance Film Festival with his son — decided to produce a short 10-minute film on the martyrs. This decision had him joining in the 100-year film industry legacy of the Schmidt family, which began with his grandfather’s film work in the early 1900s. His father, Oscar-nominated Arthur P. Schmidt, edited the classics “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like it Hot,” and his two-time Oscar-winning older brother, Arthur, edited “Forrest Gump” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”Father Schmidt asked to be assigned to Southern California, where he joined Loyola Productions and worked on their education films. He later became a co-founder of Hope Media Productions in order to pursue independent film projects.His friendship with a German Jesuit filmmaker Christof Wolf led to collaborating in the production of a documentary, “In Spite of Darkness: A Spiritual Encounter with Auschwitz,” centered on an interfaith retreat held every year at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where more than 1 million people were killed by the Nazis.While he was in Poland filming the 2008 documentary, he met one of the retreat’s presenters: Marian Kolodziej, a Polish Catholic Auschwitz survivor who was one of the first people detained in the camp after being arrested by the Nazis at age 17 on his way to join resistance fighters. Kolodziej spent more than five harrowing years in Auschwitz. Upon his liberation in 1945 near the end of WWII, he returned to the Polish city of Krakow to study at the Art Academy and later got married and became a set designer for Polish film and theatre. He kept silent for five decades about his experiences at Auschwitz, until, in 1993, when he suffered a stroke.During his rehabilitation, Kolodziej asked for a pencil, whereupon he began to create graphic drawings representing his hellish experiences in Auschwitz. Eventually, he made more than 300 drawings, many of which were hung in a Polish church basement, which Kolodziej called his Labyrinth.“This is the story we need to tell after we’re finished with the Auschwitz retreat film,” said Father Schmidt’s son, Jason, a film editor and director who edited “In Spite of Darkness.” A year later, Father Schmidt and Jason went back to Poland, shooting more footage of Kolodziej for what would become a 37-minute documentary directed by Jason and produced by his father called “The Labyrinth.” The result is a hypnotic video presentation of the tragic art exhibition created by Kolodziej, depicting skeletal beings driven to extremes of labor, starvation and torture by monstrous overlords. While most of the drawings represent nightmarish scenes, some tell stories of small acts of kindness and dignity. Kolodziej’s drawings of St. Maximillian Kolbe, who was in Marian’s same cell block before being executed after voluntarily taking the place of a condemned prisoner, are stark and iconographic. Besides showing close-ups of Kolodziej’s drawings, “The Labyrinth” has voice-overs of the artist’s recollections somberly narrated by Roman S. Czarny, with a touching and reflective musical score by Polish composer Marek Zabrowski.Though Kolodziej never saw the completed film (he died Oct. 13, 2009), he was very moved by film clips that he did see and told his wife, who translated for the film crew, that it was the first time a film about his life really showed him as a painter and as an artist. “The Labyrinth” premiered in Los Angeles at the ARClight in August of 2010 to a packed house. It was screened at 21 international film festivals and won 10 awards, including the prestigeous CINE Golden Eagle Award in 2012. A representative from KQED public television station in San Francisco saw the film at the Palm Springs short film festival in 2011, which led to “The Labyrinth” being accepted for airing on PBS stations this year. “We were flabbergasted,” said Father Schmidt. It is currently scheduled for airing in the San Francisco area in April, probably near the start of Holocaust Memorial Week which begins on April 7. Although “The Labyrinth” has been accepted for PBS airing consideration over the next two years, notes Father Schmidt, each PBS station independently selects its programming, and local air dates have not yet been scheduled. Viewers are advised to check local PBS listings for the film beginning in April.Last week, Father Schmidt screened “The Labyrinth” at the Religious Education Congress in a workshop co-facilitated with Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, professor of Jewish Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. On March 16, Father Schmidt will screen “The Labyrinth” during a Day of Reflection on Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Holy Family in South Pasadena. That evening, he will make a presentation at the Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust at the American Jewish University at the invitation of Rabbi Berenbaum, who is the event’s host chair. Also in March, Father Schmidt will travel to Regis College in Toronto to give a workshop on ways to use media to foster Catholic/Jewish dialogue. “I could have never predicted,” said Father Schmidt, “how far this has taken us and how in-depth we’ve gotten into a new track of ministry: Catholic/Jewish dialogue. The journey is quite amazing.”For more information about “The Labyrinth,” visit www.thelabyrinthdocumentary.com. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0301/schmidt/{/gallery}

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