Bishop Donald J. Hying launched Ahava Productions’ first day of filming in May 2014, by asking, “Did you ever wonder how we got here?”
“The moment I heard that, I was hooked,” said Ahava’s audio engineer, Bill Armstrong.
Ahava Productions, though similar to many other professional film companies in its day-to-day work, has a unique mission: to “create magnificent movies that move the soul” by exploring the faith through the eyes of individual Catholic priests.
Erin Berghouse, Ahava’s founder and executive director, and member of St. Jerome Parish, Oconomowoc, conceived this mission six years ago. Berghouse said that the idea came in response to the negative press about Catholic priests prevalent at the time.
“The Lord placed a mission on my heart for using the energy, anything that I had really, to work to serve the Lord in creating a production that would show the true beauty of our holy Catholic priests,” Berghouse said. “God not only sent the mission on my heart, but you know how it is – all you have to do is say yes, and he sends everything else.”
Bishop Hying, a longtime friend of the Berghouse family, was one of the first to get involved with Ahava, and agreed to create the content for the first series of films produced by the company.
Ahava held its first major fundraiser in December 2013, with the support of Catholic Financial Life and Town Bank. Jay Mack, president of Town Bank, is a member of the Ahava board of directors. Other board members include Cardinal James Harvey, Bishop Joseph Perry, Fr. Luke Strand, Archdiocese of Milwaukee vocations director, and noted writer and apologist Jeff Cavins
Filming began at the end of May, with the goal of producing and distributing the first three films in Bishop Hying’s series in 2014. The series was titled “Anima,” meaning “soul.”
Each of the three films was given a different topic, chosen by Bishop Hying. The first, “Crux,” focuses on God; the second, “Kenosis,” on Jesus; and the third, “Blaze,” on the Catholic Church.
All three films were shot in Milwaukee, and feature compelling images of well-known locations around the city. Each film also incorporates original music written to further explore the film’s message.
At least seven more films are planned as part of the Anima series. Bishop Hying will continue to be involved after he becomes bishop of the Diocese of Gary, Indiana.
A second series is also in the works, featuring Fr. John Burns, administrator at St. Mary Parish, Menomonee Falls.
Berghouse said future Ahava film series will continue to focus on individual priests. She said she considers the films to be platforms for priests to share their unique teaching and perspective.
Priests, Berghouse said, are “such a gift to us, and what they have to teach us and what they do to shepherd us is just a phenomenal gift to all of us … they deserve just the most beautiful platform that they can be provided in order to speak to the world.”
Mike Gillis, Ahava’s head cinematographer, became involved three years ago after Berghouse attended his lighting and camera seminar. Gillis and Berghouse worked to assemble the “dream team” of crew members that have worked together on all of Ahava’s projects.
Gillis, who has 20 years of experience in film, said that while the technical aspects of working on an Ahava film project are familiar, the content and approach are different.
“Most of the religion-based projects I have done have been dry and boring to watch. Mainly a talking head and some basic images intercut. Erin is committed to making this series stand out with its visual style,” said Gillis. “She is always striving to push the limits and try and stay a bit edgy with the visuals involved with the storytelling.”
Gillis said the films’ unique cinematography will set them apart and will be of benefit in making an impact with a younger audience.
“There are so many images coming at us every day that I think this could easily get lost in the shuffle, but with the visual style we are trying to create this hopefully will stand out.”
Armstrong agreed it can be hard to get noticed in a world where people experience a constant stream of media entertainment, but thinks the style and message of Ahava’s films will “cut through the clutter.”
“We’re constantly bombarded by media that’s negative and has little or no cultural value, but the Ahava films stand out because they combine a very simple, positive message with beautiful imagery. When you see it, you can’t help but pay attention to it.”
Berghouse also believes Ahava’s films will be an effective and compelling medium for evangelization.
“We live in a culture that loves to be entertained – I love to be entertained. I love to watch a good movie, I love to listen to a great song. In order to be able to communicate in our culture, we have to be able to speak and communicate in a means that is really the language of our current day.”
The first three films in the Anima series premiered to a sold-out crowd at Marcus Majestic Cinema in Brookfield on Monday, Dec. 8, with more than 400 people in attendance. Prior to the screening, Bishop Hying celebrated Mass in the theater for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
As of Friday, Dec. 12, the first film, “Crux,” became available at the Marian Center bookstore, and is also available for purchase digitally from Ahava’s website, www.ahavaproductions.com.
Distribution to other stores will take place in the coming weeks through the film’s distributor, Catholic Word. Berghouse said that Ahava’s goal is to distribute its films on a large number of media platforms and formats.
The films have garnered interest from throughout the world, as evidenced by the number of Ahava’s international supporters on Facebook. “Technology today just allows us to communicate with people anywhere on the planet,” Berghouse said. “It’s so beautiful how God has no boundaries.”