St. Peter Goes to the Dump: A New ELCA video

Squeezing a few days in Rome between a Greece tour and researching in Istanbul this fall, I met my friend Tim Frakes — who produces videos for the Lutheran Church (www.elca.org) — to finish a video about St. Peter.

Over the years, Tim and I have collaborated on five teaching videos, taking us from Lutheran-funded hospitals in Papua New Guinea to the room where Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin to the people’s German (…really annoying the pope).

For this video (similar to an earlier one on St. Paul), Tim filmed places around the eastern Mediterranean where Peter had lived and worked. We planned to have me “host” the video in Rome by filming (over two days) about 20 “on-camera” bits at the Vatican and in generic ancient settings.

Filming on St. Peter’s Square is always thrilling, with a backdrop of the greatest church in Christendom and so much rich Church history to share. While the square is a crowded mess through midday, it is glorious — rich colors, striking architecture warmly lit by a low sun, and no crowds — early and late. That’s when we filmed there.

(Of course, there is the nagging issue of whether St. Peter ever even went to Rome. Scholars differ on this. And as Lutherans, we didn’t want to anger Roman Catholics by questioning the veracity of the claim that Peter is buried under St. Peter’s Basilica. We proceeded as if the tradition itself of Peter’s work and death there authenticated the story.)

We needed distinct and evocative sites for each of our 15 generic ancient setting on-camera performances. We tried for Ostia Antica, but failed to get permission (without paying the $3,000 fee that they asked). Finally the people at Hadrian’s Villa gave us permission, supporting our church’s educational work (but didn’t quite understand why we were “filming St. Peter” at a place he certainly never visited). As it turned out, Hadrian’s Villa was much better than Ostia Antica would have been for our needs.

Tim and I scouted the site and set out to shoot all the on-cameras. It was an exhilarating day and we were both happy with the work. Exhausted, we returned to our hotel and went out for a celebratory dinner.

Later that evening, Tim knocked on my hotel room door with panic and horror on his face. He asked me if I had seen a videocassette. One was missing.

It was the nightmare of every TV producer: While working at his laptop, he had knocked three tapes from his desk to the floor. He bent down a bit later and picked up two. Then he joined me for our pasta and red wine.

Rome is not a place where garbage moves fast…unless you dropped a precious videocassette into a trash bin. While we were out, the maid came in and emptied the garbage into a big plastic bag that went outside…and then, with incredibly bad luck, the garbage truck came and went.

We got lovely Annamaria from our hotel (The Aberdeen) to go into her building’s garbage room. With plastic gloves on, she emptied bags on the floor, analyzing the empty jugs and so on to determine which bags were from Hotel Aberdeen. All her bags had already been picked up and taken to the Rome dump. Heroically, Annamaria and her husband actually drove to the dump…only to find that all had been smashed together. Our cassette was hopelessly lost.

Tim felt so bad, considering how hard we had worked. We just agreed not to punish ourselves, changed our morning flights home, and arranged to return to Hadrian’s Villa to re-shoot the 15 on-cameras…which were absolutely critical to the production.

Back at Hadrian’s Villa, the weather was as good as the earlier day. But there was a different man in charge. We explained our story (with the help of our gracious driver and Annamaria on the phone). The bureaucrats running the site seemed to enjoy watching this humbled American film crew begging for a chance to enter and reshoot our lost bits. They said no.

I couldn’t believe this. The light was perfect. We were permitted the day before. I had a flight that night to Turkey. And the gate was closed to us and our camera. We sat there looking like abandoned little puppies, sad faces, trying to stay cool…until noon, when they finally agreed to let us in “as tourists” and re-do our work.

With time ticking away, Tim and I lined up all 15 stops efficiently and, with precision focus, re-shot the entire list. The work went perfectly, and I was impressed by how easy it was to call back the lines I had previously memorized. I think my performance was actually better this time around. By 3:00 p.m., we had shot the last bit — just in time for me to zip out to the airport and resume my itinerary in Istanbul.

Tim flew home with all the footage to complete his St. Peter video. A week later, I was home and recorded the general voice track. Within about a month, the project was compete and a new teaching video was in the mail to all 11,000 ELCA Lutheran churches.

Our friends at the ELCA website have organized all the videos Tim and I have done into one fun page at www.elca.org, so anyone can click on over and see our work.

My favorites of this work have been the Papua New Guinea show (even thought it’s pretty old…our first collaboration, which let me share my thoughts on First/Third World relations) and the Martin Luther story (since I had to sit through the old-fashioned, black-and-white versions when I was a kid in Sunday school, and this would pump up the color and energy for kids warming those same little chairs today). And for understanding the work that St. Paul and St. Peter did in the formative early years of the Christian Church, the other videos tell that story.

If you’re interested, I hope you can enjoy our latest work: The Life of Apostle Peter.

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