by Emily Black.
Last week, the Stella Mar team travelled to St. Augustine for one of the final shoots for our upcoming film Where There is Darkness. The film is a true crime docudrama about Fr. Rene Robert who was murdered in 2016.
What drew us to this story was a document that Fr. Rene signed before he died: 'the declaration of life.’ In this declaration, Fr. Rene stated that if he was the victim of a violent crime, the perpetrator was not to be subjected to the death penalty. Learn more about the film.
This incredible pre-emptive act of mercy inspired us to delve further into the story of Fr. Rene’s life and the events surrounding his death. We soon found that the story went so much deeper than we had previously imagined and we knew we needed to share Fr. Rene’s message of mercy.
Our first trip to St. Augustine revealed to us that Fr. Rene’s forgiving, compassionate nature went past the declaration, that he lived a life of love and selfless service to others. We learned of his inspiring ministry with the deaf community and his special compassion towards people on the peripheries of society, people who were suffering and alone.
Over the past year of interviewing his family, colleagues and friends, an image of Fr. Rene as a modern day saint has gradually emerged. His idiosyncrasies and eccentricities have also stayed with us and we hope our film will provide a truthful portrayal of Fr. Rene’s character.
St. Augustine has been an important touchstone throughout the production of this film, we have returned there again and again to gather stories about Fr. Rene from those who are still grieving his loss, and to capture the places he lived and worked while he was alive.
We have also travelled to the town with our actors, Eric Newcombe, who plays Steven, and Dick McMahon, who plays Fr. Rene, to shoot reenactment scenes in the area. Every time we come to St. Augustine we are overwhelmed by the willingness and enthusiastic cooperation of those in the community who wish to help us tell Fr. Rene’s story.
Our last trip began in Athena, a Greek restaurant which Fr. Rene frequented when he was alive. We were lead there by a story about Fr. Rene - a friend of his told us that when he went to the restaurant he would ask for half of his food to-go so he could give it to homeless people. George, the owner of Athena, didn't want the priest to give away half of his food, so he began to feed the homeless out of his own hand.
We spoke with George to get a better idea of the story and to hear his thoughts on Fr. Rene.
The next day we visited the shrine of Our Lady of La Leche to light a candle and offer a prayer of thanksgiving for all those who have supported us with this film.
We are so grateful to all of you who have donated to our crowdfunding page—it means everything to us!
Despite the torrential rain and dramatic thunderstorm, that afternoon we filmed Dick walking around town, visiting a statue of St. Francis and praying the rosary.
He got completely soaked but he persevered. We’re so grateful for his dedication to his role of playing Fr. Rene.
In the evening we visited the home of Nancy and Bob, close friends of Fr. Rene. Nancy cooked us Fr. Rene’s favorite meal—beans, rice and fried plantain. It was muy delicioso! We then interviewed Nancy and her friends in Spanish, English, and sign language.
Nancy’s daughter went to the School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine and was ministered to by Fr. Rene throughout her time there. That’s how Nancy met Fr. Rene, who then became her dear friend and confidant. Hearing about their relationship and the grief that Nancy has struggled with since his death was incredibly moving and has helped us reach a deeper understanding of Fr. Rene’s loving character.
On the last day of the trip we visited Lourdes Hall to meet with the Sisters of St. Joseph and to shoot some reenactments with Dick. They told us that Fr. Rene would often cycle over to Lourdes Hall to eat breakfast with the sisters, his close friends.
We interviewed Sr. Irene from Ireland who shared her thoughts on Fr. Rene, Steven, and the declaration of life. Sr. Irene admitted that she struggled at first with the declaration and the challenge of forgiving the man who had murdered her friend. However, she has since come to terms with Fr. Rene’s decision to forgive his killer and she spoke with confidence, saying she believed Steven and Fr. Rene would meet again in heaven one day.
Our final shoot was with Shaun, Fr. Rene’s nephew, and Shaun’s son, Garret. Shaun and Garret are enthusiastic baseball players and Fr. Rene would support them by going to watch their games.
We filmed them playing baseball and interacting with Dick as Fr. Rene.
And that was a wrap!
Although this was our last shoot, we know we’ll be back in St. Augustine in no time at all. It's such a beautiful place and we hope to premiere the film there when it is finished.
Please keep us in our prayers as we enter into the editing process and please, if you can, donate to our crowdfunding page!
Emily Black, from Scotland, has been interning with Stella Mar Films this month. Her family, the Macfarlan-Barrows, run Craig Lodge House of Prayer and Mary's Meals, both of which will be featured in our other upcoming film, Cross Mountain.