Q: What was your very first impression when you met Mother Teresa?
Shirin Bazleh: Mother Teresa is barely 5 feet tall. Her back is curved and her body is bent. So at the first meets, the first thing one immediately reacts to is her unexpected size. In order to make eye contact with her, you have to bend down and she looks up at you.
When her eyes first met mine, I was motionless for a moment. She has an extremely powerful presence. I never knew the tangible meaning of a “holy” person until I met Mother Teresa. Although she is filled with love and affection, yet there seems to be a magnetic energy that draws you to her seeking her comforting embrace.
Q: You could do a documentary on so many subjects. Why did you choose her?
Bazleh: This documentary is for Lifetime Television's “Intimate Portrait” series. The series features unique and important women of the 20th century. Mother Teresa was an obvious choice.
Q: How did you arrange the interview?
Bazleh: I had been told that Mother Teresa does not give private interviews anymore. In the past few years, she and the activities of her order — Missionaries of Charity — had been under attack by several articles, a nasty book entitled “The Missionary Position” written by Christopher Hitchens, and a British documentary called “Hell's Angel”.
So, naturally the Missionaries of Charity are very reluctant to allow journalists or filmmakers visit Mother Teresa. I contacted the Missionaries of Charity in the United States and told them I'll be going to Calcutta in early July and would like to meet Mother for an interview.
At the time Mother Teresa was traveling and I was told only she herself can tell me if I should go or not and that I should wait and contact her when she is back in Calcutta. We had already started our production and I decided to go to Calcutta anyway. I thought even if I can't interview her, at least I can visit some of the missionary homes and show her work.
I wrote several letters and also had some of my contacts in Calcutta try to pave the way for me, but once I got there I had 2-3 messages from my contacts, all negative, saying there is no way I could get an interview or see Mother Teresa.
Q: That must have been very disappointing. How did you finally manage to see her?
Bazleh: The month of July is the peak of the Monsoon season in Calcutta. It was raining heavily. After a 33 hour flight, the jet lag numbs your senses. So I didn't have the energy to get too upset with the negative news. Instead I decided to go to the Missionaries of Charity “Mother home” where Mother Teresa lives and make a personal plea.
With thunder and lightning in the background, I asked for Sister Prescilla, the superior sister of the Mother Home. I was soaking wet. The concept of rain in summer for those of us from Southern California is an unimaginable thought, so of course, I had no umbrella.
Sister Prescilla, God bless her, is the key person in the Missionaries of Charity operation. After a rough and merciless exchange, telling me, rightfully so, how “silly” I had been to travel half way around the world to go there without invitation, she repeated what I had heard all along that Mother Teresa no longer gives interviews and there is no way I can take cameras into any of her homes.
It was at that moment that all my senses came back to me. I now felt the exhaustion from the long trip, the wetness of my bones from the rain, and the seriousness of the fact that if I couldn't shoot in any of the homes, my entire trip was useless… I was speechless. I was at the pinnacle of misery.
I just mumbled something about my “good intentions” and got up to leave. Then I saw something resembling a smile on Sister Prescilla's harsh face. She asked me to go and get some rest and return the next day for afternoon prayers.
The next day, Mother Teresa herself met with me and I was given written permits to film at Kalighat, the home for the dying; Shishu Bhavan, the home for retarded children and orphanage house; Titagarh, the lepers colony and Prem Dan, another home for the dying.
Q: What impressed you about her as a person?
Bazleh: Mother Teresa has always said “if you want to know me, go see my work, do some of my work…” When I met her and told her we are doing a tribute program on her, once again she said she is really nobody, it is her work that matters. She asked that I go see her work and then come back and talk to her.
What impressed me the most, was her humility, her dedication to Jesus and the fact that she believes she is just a vehicle, doing “what Jesus would do.” Her faith is something extraordinary.” I don't think an average person can have the kind of inner conviction and strength that Mother Teresa has.
Q: What are the most important activities of Mother Teresa's organization.
Bazleh: Missionaries of Charity have homes in 120 countries. She started with Kalighat which is the home for the dying. When she first went into the streets of Calcutta, she didn't know exactly what she was going to do. She gathered children in the streets and taught them the alphabet. She would encounter people who were sick dying on the streets with no place to go. She decided to open a home for such people. And that's how Kalighat came into being.
The home is next to a Hindu temple (Kali). And sick people, regardless of their religion, are brought into these homes and are taken care of. Then she opened a home for abandoned children. She also opened a lepers colony. In the U.S. she has AIDS hospices. In every country, depending on the needs of those who are unloved and underprivileged, she creates homes for them.
She has been doing this for half a century all over the world. See the documentary and you'll see some of the places that I've mentioned.
Q: Some think missionaries exploit the vulnerabilities of the poor. What's your opinion?
Bazleh: I think people who make those statements probably have never been to any of these homes. I suppose it can be intellectually entertaining to question some of the rules and regulations of the Missionaries of Charity. After all, they are an order of the Catholic Church.
What I have personally seen — the love and care that is given to the destitute regardless of their religion — I don't believe anyone, under the umbrella of any religion, is doing anywhere else.
When we were at Kalighat, we saw a woman that was brought from the streets. She looked terribly ill and shivering. There were worms coming out of her ears and insects crawling all over her face. God knows what were the moving creatures that were tangled in her hair.
The sisters carried her in, washed her, cleaned her, cut her hair and got the insects out, removed the worms from her ears, clothed her and then she was attend by a physician. She was then assigned a clean bed and she was fed. As it turned out she was so weak from malnutrition that she had fainted in an alley and was left there for days.
Now, can someone explain which part of the sister's actions were exploitative? These are the kinds of work the Missionaries of Charity sisters do ON A DAILY BASIS. Would you or I be willing to do the same work? If not, we are not qualified to have a negative opinion about them.
Q: Has this experience changed you in any way?
Bazleh: I saw volunteers from all over the world who go to Calcutta just to work at one of Mother Teresa's homes for one week, one month, a year or just one day. They all spoke on how the experience enriched them as human beings.
They got more pleasure in giving than in receiving. That has made a great impression on me. I realize that just writing a check for Red Cross or giving donations to the Salvation Army is not enough. I know I am capable of doing more to make a difference, even to one person. Unfortunately my lifestyle is such that I don't have the time to go to a homeless shelter for children and try to just be with a child for an hour or two and give them love and attention. That, they cannot find in my $50 check.
I've learned that I have room to become a better person and hope that I can allow time in my schedule so that I can be more involved.
Q: What was your position on religion before and what do you think of it now?
Bazleh: I am not a religious person. Spending time with Mother Teresa has not changed my views on religion itself, but it has made me have more appreciation for those whose faith guides them to do more good for humanity.
If religion and faith helps bring the best in people, I think it is a great thing. I don't care what religion it is. I don't think Mother Teresa cares either. We see it in her work. In her service and actions, she does not favor one religion over another. She has said several times that “I love all religions, but I am in love with Christianity.”
I admire her totally, for who she is and what she does. She gets the credit, not the label of the religion that she practices.
Q: Can you tell us more about the documentary and how it was made.
Bazleh: The documentary is about Mother Teresa's life. From early childhood until today. We have a lot of archival material from her home town in Skopjia in Macedonia, her Nobel peace prize acceptance speech, her Beirut experience,etc. We also have interviewed Navin Chawla who is the authorized biographer of Mother Teresa and has recently written a book called Faith and Compassion about Mother Teresa.
We interviewed Raghu Rai who is one of India's most respected photographers and has extraordinary photographs of Mother Teresa which we show in the program.
I also got to interview Martin Sheen who is a great admirer of Mother Teresa. He believes that Mother Teresa brought him back to Christianity. He helps at a restaurant in Los Angeles that provides food for the homeless every week.
There are interviews with sisters at Loreto order where Mother Teresa first started teaching in Calcutta, plus some volunteers who work at her homes. I think you will get a very good sense of Mother Teresa's life and experiences by watching the program.