by Rich Kiley
An RIT graduate student’s thesis film received Hollywood’s attention after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named his documentary a Student Academy Award finalist.
Spiritus, which chronicles a former Catholic priest and his confrontations with the Vatican, is directed by Matthew Spaull of Rochester, a Master of Fine Arts student in the College of Imaging Arts and Science’s School of Film and Animation (SOFA).
Spaull’s compelling 26-minute film tells 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 a controversial figure in the 1990s after the Vatican received a number of complaints about his policies toward blessing same-sex unions and having a woman perform duties traditionally reserved for priests. He was later excommunicated.
“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 observed.
He added that his film—while telling of events nearly two decades ago—is as timely as ever today as Americans debate social issues such as gay marriage and gender inequality.
“In a lot of ways, the story was strong enough to get noticed, but I battled with how to craft it,” Spaull said.
While Spaull recently learned that his documentary fell shy of an Oscar nomination, “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 receive Hollywood’s praise. 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.
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.
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.