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Catholic Vancouver Apr 1, 2015

Wildlife filmmaker manoeuvres rocky road of industry

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

John Banovich (wearing cap) directs Clayton Richard Long (fourth from right) and actress Daniela Smitlener (seated) on the set of Stolen Path. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

VANCOUVER—Focusing a camera on grizzly bears while camping in a tiny trailer in B.C.'s north makes filmmaker John Banovich feel closer to God.

"Most of where I go is untouched by the hand of man," said Banovich, the director of Green Earth Films and a member of Precious Blood Parish. "For me, it's where the Holy Spirit is: that peace, the calm, that beauty."

Banovich navigated a rocky, mountainous road to get to this spot in his career.

Roll film

Banovich joined the movie industry as an actor while studying business at Simon Fraser University. He appeared in TV series including Wiseguy, Booker, and 21 Jump Street.

Banovich then took up some night courses in film and bought his first camera: an Arriflex 16mm. He and a wildlife photographer headed off to B.C.'s wilds.

"I really, really enjoyed it. I plugged away at that and didn't make any money," Banovich said.

To support himself, he entered the mainstream film industry, manning cameras, positioning lights, and doing other work.

Action

Banovich's career screeched to a halt when a drunk driver in Surrey had a head-on collision with him in 1997. The driver died at the site and Banovich was rushed to the hospital with so many injuries and crushed bones he was told he wouldn't walk again. "It was a very tough time in my life."

He defied the doctor's prediction 18 months after leaving the hospital. He began speaking about the dangers of drunk driving at high schools and made it back in to the film industry, taking the director's chair in 1999.

He received a Courage to Come Back award in 2008. "God can make good out of anything."

Banovich has directed productions including Behind Barbwire, a World War II documentary concerning a Norwegian prisoner of war, as well as TV series The Last Bushmen, starring burly men braving the outdoors with guns and axes.

Director's cut

After working in the film industry for many years, Banovich had a crisis of faith. Friends who had been brought up Catholic began falling away, and he realized some films he was involved in had anti-Christian messages.

"I began questioning what I was working on and how I could support something that had a wrong message," he said. "What were the long-term effects?"

He would soon find out. A producer from Los Angeles approached him with a golden opportunity: a directing role in an American TV series. "Canadian directors rarely get opportunities on American projects, especially as principal director."

Banovich read the script, and one character made him cringe. "There was some very offensive language, which was using Our Lord's name in vain. This did not sit well with me. It was very offensive to me and for the Church, for that matter."

He declined. "That didn't go over very well. Rest assured they wouldn't hire me again."

Banovich turned his efforts back to filming wildlife, as well as taking on projects that agreed with his morals. "It was really nice to have lunch and do something I've not done for a long time: pray and make the Sign of the Cross without being ridiculed."

PG-13

That story resonates with Vancouver director Clayton Richard Long, whose career in film also started in TV in Los Angeles. "It's very difficult to work in mainstream and keep your Catholic identity," he said.

"Most mainstream or secular movies are devoid of God, first of all, and usually there are several anti-Christian elements within them," such as unnatural relationships or blasphemy.

Long switched to Catholic media five years ago. He made his debut as a director in Letter to a Priest, which premiered at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.

A Catholic short doesn't have to stay away from challenging topics; Long's Best Friends reveals a conversation between two prostitutes with a message against human trafficking.

He said the single biggest problem faith-filled filmmakers face is a lack of funds. "Catholic benefactors are gravely needed for the arts. It's the most powerful medium of the day," he said.

Fellow filmmaker Alsandair Toms agrees. "None of us earn our living working solely on Catholic projects; usually these projects serve only to drain our finances!"

Toms has also turned down projects against his morals. "There was this time I was asked to shoot a car show video," he said. After a few exchanges over email, "I realized that the cars were actually meant to be the backdrop, and that they had some young women who had volunteered to pose with the cars."

He declined the job. "I usually define the line by asking, 'What is the intended purpose of this content?'"

Feature film

The three movie aficionados are currently working on Stolen Path, an old-fashioned romantic drama set in Croatia in 1910. Banovich, the director, re-wrote the script and removed any suggestive scenes.

"Value-wise, moral wise, this project has a lot of merit," he said. It is set to be finished this summer.

Banovich also has plans in the works for another trip up north. "You can find a lot of Our Lord here in B.C."