“God’s projects are not determined by money; they are determined by action. When we think we can’t do it, we must ask: God, show me a light. My path is to open paths so others can walk. I can’t just stop. I move forward and they come along.”

— Sister María Rosa Leggol

Given that the Institute’s mission is to inspire global content creators to tell stories that reflect diverse and authentic portrayals of our culture, “With This Light” — opening in theatres on August 11th — presents a deeply moving and beautiful portrayal of a fierce heroine changing the world for girls as well as having at its helm an esteemed group of female filmmakers.

President & CEO of the Geena Davis Institute, Madeline Di Nonno, spoke with Executive Producer Jessica Sarowitz and Co-directors Laura Bermudez and Nicole Bernardi-Reis to learn more about Sister María Rosa Leggol, a self-described trouble making nun and what it was like trying to keep up with her.

L to R: Jessica Sarowitz, Laura Bermudez, Nicole Bernardi-Reis. Photo Credit: Jasmine Lauryn

Madeline Di Nonno: Jessica, I was deeply moved and heartened to hear that you met the sister when you were nine years old, and it left such a lasting impression on you. Would you mind telling us that story?

Jessica Sarowitz: I am an immigrant to the US. I was born in Honduras. Throughout the course of my childhood my parents were always very philanthropic, and they supported Honduras, especially when there was a disaster. On one of those trips when the family was down there, I saw this ball of energy running around, bossing everyone. She was in charge. She gave me a big hug and I got to experience as a child that charismatic, loving presence. So that was my first introduction to Sister María Rosa Leggol. As an adult, when I became capable of doing my own philanthropic work, I went to Sister and said, “I’m here to be of service. Tell me what you need.”

Madeline Di Nonno: You use this term to describe her, “badass.” Why do you use that when you describe the sister?

Jessica Sarowitz: “Only a badass can have the profound impact that she had. She knew how to navigate throughout different political systems and business sectors. She knew how to fire people up, organize people. She even did a cooperative bank, an agricultural cooperative for small land holding farm owners. Her life was threatened when the Contras were in Honduras. The bottom line is she got services for communities that were vulnerable and marginalized. She even did something for AIDS patients.”

Madeline Di Nonno: You said you wanted to do justice to her legacy. When did you start thinking about, “I need to get this story told.”

Jessica Sarowitz: Well first and foremost, we all know that women’s stories do not really get told. We do all the work. We are out there, boots on the ground doing all the work. That was part of the thinking that I had. What a great model for this new young generation. We need these women. Another thing is her view of what it is to develop holistically a community via education, healthcare, jobs, finance, and the environment. All of that is wrapped up in the way in which she did her work. So, I said, this is the sort of development that we need in some of these Latin American countries. Instead of having outsiders impose what they think that people need. They don’t really transfer knowledge or really, truly lift people up in a way where they can continue and in a way that’s sustainable.

Madeline Di Nonno: Nicole and Laura, you are co-directors, and Nicole you are also a producer. When did you meet Jessica?

Nicole Bernardi-Reis: I met Jessica in 2018. She said, “I have a story about an amazing nun, an amazing woman. Would you like to come down to Honduras with me and see if there’s a film there?” I had never heard of Sister María Rosa before. Seeing her and seeing all her projects, I was like “We have to do it!” And we talked a lot about having women behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. So, I reached out to the Documentary Producers Alliance to find women Honduran filmmakers. Laura was highly recommended to me and the two of us just really hit it off.

Laura Bermudez: As a Honduran, of course I knew about Sister, but I hadn’t met her. I really submerged myself in one of her favorite projects, Reyes Irene, a school for girls and women who are marginalized and live in dangerous neighborhoods. It was amazing, specifically because it was so unexpected for me to find this school project with a lot of very progressive stuff, women’s rights, that I didn’t study. I was amazed by what these women are doing, specifically the girls who are fighters and survivors of cruel violence. This film has been a journey to understand what it’s like to be a woman in Honduras.

Madeline Di Nonno: Nicole, tell us about Lisa Rinzler, your Director of Photography, because I there are some really pivotal and deeply moving scenes that you’re capturing in these girls’ lives.

Nicole Bernardi-Reis: Lisa’s got an artist’s eye; she’s got a painter’s eye and she also just has this amazing ability to connect with people. She was really, really, key to getting everybody who was in front of the camera comfortable with us. Also, the Honduran filmmakers were fascinated by Lisa, as it was the first time they saw a woman in this role.

Laura Bermudez: There’s a lot of time spent with the girls that’s not on camera. We needed to gain trust. This film wasn’t about victimizing. It’s about a chance to tell your story on your own narrative.

Jessica Sarowitz: We had such a strong female character. We needed badass filmmakers with that feminine eye. Because that is a different perspective and you cannot get the intimacy of the two young women discussing family,and abuse issues. They can open up and discuss intimate moments and their aspirations for the future.

Madeline Di Nonno: The story of the sister herself, from childhood throughout her life is massive, but we also fall in love with the protagonists: Rosa, Maria, and their families. How did you decide to structure the film?

Jessica Sarowitz: You have someone that’s 92 years old. 70 years of mission work. Every single person said, “You need to tell the story about healthcare. You need to tell the story about what a great educator she was, about how many people she helped to get started in their business.” Also, we had to answer a basic question. How did she do this transformational work for 87,000 abandoned, abused children? That’s the storylines of the two young girls. It’s all interwoven.

Nicole Bernardi-Reis: “People tend to look back at older women as if everything’s in the past. At 92 she started a catering kitchen. We really wanted to show her life not just as something that was behind her, but that is also her being active. And we wanted to give these young women a chance to tell their stories as well. Her legacy is not just the works that she did, her legacy is the people that she has transformed.”

Laura Bermudez: We knew that this was going to be a story about Sister, but we also wanted to show contemporary Honduras and the young people. I chose Rosa because she was born in the homes. Her mother, Margarita was in the first program for single mothers. Maria represents what it’s like to grow up outside of Sister’s projects. She is in a vulnerable condition. She lives in a dangerous neighborhood. Her mother was a violence survivor. She has this one opportunity. This one chance.

Madeline Di Nonno: As an audience viewer, I am left feeling hopeful. I’d love for you to talk about the role of faith.

Nicole Bernardi-Reis: We always knew that this story had to be one of hope. For us it was really important to show that Sister’s work actually does work.

Laura Bermudez: It gave me hope as a Honduran because it’s very easy, living here, to be overwhelmed with the bad news. This is a complicated country.

Madeline Di Nonno: What is your desired impact of the film?

Jessica Sarowitz: I told Sister that this film is an extension of her mission work. We had a screening at the Vatican and Holy Father, Pope Francis loved it. He loved her work and has greenlighted the beatification process. We are working with the United Nations on domestic worker rights and gender rights. We had a special event with Dolores Huerta. She’s 93. Sister was also 93. There are powerful women’s stories out there and they need to be told. Not just in Honduras, not just in Latin America, but globally. We are so connected globally these days, and this is why this movie is transcending.

In a devastating twist, before the completion of filming, Sister María Rosa Leggol succumbed to COVID-19 in October of 2020. The Sister’s mission remains ongoing and with a vision for the future to “not repeat the past,” Sister María Rosa Leggol’s projects will have an everlasting impact on the women, men and children of Honduras.

“With This Light” opens in theatres on August 11: https://www.withthislight.com

Find out how you can support the mission of Sister Maria Rosa Leggol: https://www.withthislight.com/impact