Student’s Documentary to Air on KCET : Film Looks at Soviet Religious Underground

Times Staff Writer

When Eugene Shirley started his master’s project at Claremont Graduate School, he intended it to be a revelation of Soviet religious practices that would be worthy of nationwide attention.

Six years later, his project has culminated in “Candle in the Wind,” an hourlong film that is scheduled for prime-time television on Monday evening.

Public Broadcasting Service officials hail Shirley’s documentary, to be shown on KCET-TV at 9 p.m., as “an unprecedented look at the state of religion in the Soviet Union.”


Herb Ellison, director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington, who introduces the film, calls it “the most impressive document I have seen of religion in the Soviet Union.”

Shirley, who is 28 and still does not have his master’s degree, spent six years in painstaking research that took him to the Soviet Union for a month in 1982, to England, across Western Europe and throughout the United States.

He conceived the project as an undergraduate at Union College in Nebraska, where a visiting lecturer told of a religious underground in Russia. Shirley concluded in his documentary that the human spirit craves belief in the divine and will risk life in order to satisfy the soul.

He had official permission to film in the Soviet Union and brought back footage of the few church services sanctioned by the Soviet government.

Most of this served as background for other, more startling scenes that were gleaned from what Shirley called “a vast worldwide network” of people and organizations that shared with him their old and rare films.

“Candle in the Wind” offers the Western world its first view of motion pictures taken at Lenin’s funeral that Shirley said he obtained from the archives of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.


Secret Ceremonies

There are scenes of villages of Soviet Jews which were ravaged by Russian pogroms, home movies of the re-opening of churches during World War II and scenes of secret, underground ceremonies including a Christian baptism, a Jewish funeral and Muslim worship.

Dissidents speak, an outcast in Siberia tells of her determination to worship and Soviet Jews risk persecution by speaking for underground cameramen.

The program is divided into six parts that look into Christian, Jewish and Muslim underground rituals. It contends that Soviet-sanctioned churches serve government purposes and fall far short of meeting worshipers’ needs.

Shirley said he sold “Candle in the Wind,” his first documentary effort, to PBS, who assigned Emmy-winner Arthur Barron as its writer-director and actor John Carradine as narrator. The film’s $600,000 cost was financed by Shirley’s family, which formed Pacem Partnership Ltd., and by several foundations.

Shirley, a tall blond with few traces of his native Oklahoma in his speech, has a calm demeanor that belies some of the anxiety he endured as he pursued his goal.

Soviet officials first canceled his filming privileges when he arrived in 1982 with a crew of four and his parents, Eugene and Marilyn Shirley of Oklahoma City.


He said the Soviets then assigned a native film crew to the project, gave him permission to continue on a day-to-day basis and demanded daily conferences.

Tension heightened as he was leaving, Shirley said, when the Soviets ordered him to give them his film “so they could develop it and send it” to him.

“But our film happened to be a new product they couldn’t develop, so we got out with it by sheer luck,” he said.

“My worst moments were leaving the Soviet Union--the incredible anxiety I felt, and the tremendous relief when we finally left Soviet air space,” Shirley said.

Stressful Screening

Then came his stressful screening at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., which was part of his agreement when he was permitted to film in Russia.

“That was the most tense hour I ever spent,” he said. “But they just called it ‘anti-Soviet propaganda.’ ”


The film was premiered for Americans in the White House last December, where it was chosen for a special audience invited to celebrate International Human Rights Day.

Among others who have seen and lauded “Candle in the Wind” are Amnesty International, the Hoover Institution at Stanford, the British Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches and the U.S. State Department.

Shirley said he has 50 hours of film from which he gleaned the segments seen in “Candle in the Wind.” He said he is now working on a four-part documentary on religions and hopes to make a career of producing documentaries.

Although he attended class infrequently at Claremont Graduate School, he continued to register as a student during the six years he worked on the documentary. He said he chose the college in 1980 because of its reputation as an outstanding school for the study of religion.

Shirley said he was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist religion and has since become an Episcopalian.

His mother, in a telephone interview from the family’s home in Oklahoma City, said, “This is all Eugene’s project. He has always been a super-achiever and has always been extremely well liked and could do anything he wanted to do. But you realize this is his mother speaking.”