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Alumna’s Film on Marian Apparitions Seeks Oscar

It’s not every day a filmmaker has a chance to enter a movie into consideration for an Academy Award.

Cimela Kidonakis ’09, a filmmaker and storyteller who owns Optix Studios, recently embarked on a year-long project to document the experience of seven strangers in Medjugorje, a town known for its apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The film, “Apparition Hill,” has premiered in 49 cities worldwide since May and raised thousands for charities.

Apparition Hill film crew on locationThe movie got the attention of several members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, film industry leaders who vote for the Oscars. These members were so moved by the film, they recommended it be entered into the running. Read what they had to say here.

An Affection for Mary

It all started in early 2015 when a friend invited Kidonakis to watch a film about Medjugorje. The story of the small village in Bosnia-Herzegovina fascinated her: In 1981, six children claimed to see the Virgin Mary, and allegedly still see her today. A second friend gave her a book, and she bought more copies for friends and began telling everyone about the apparitions of Medjugorje.

When another friend told her about a video contest for the chance to travel there for a documentary, she entered with a heart-felt video describing her affection for the Blessed Mother.

“My grandmother introduced me to her and told me many stories of the Virgen de Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima, so I knew that kids were always seeing Mary,” Kidonakis said in her entry video. “At the end of my prayer [to her], I would always say, ‘You don’t need to appear to me,’ because I think I was scared of her appearing.”

She was nervous to submit the video entry, so her sister sent it in while she was out.

It’s like when Oprah read the book “The Color Purple,” gave copies to friends and strangers and told people she would be in the movie one day.

Except Kidonakis didn’t end up in the movie. She ended up filming and producing it.

Joining the Team

When the director Sean Bloomfield emailed her to remark on how well done the video was, she thought to herself, “My reply is important.” Long story short, she went from being a prospective pilgrim to joining the team as producer, director of photography and editor. She and Bloomfield co-founded Stella Mar Films.

“When I saw the caliber of Cimela’s video entry, I could tell right away that she was a gifted filmmaker,” Bloomfield said. “Her talent shines through in the movie.”

She spent the summer of 2015 filming in Bosnia. The film shares stories of seven pilgrims—Christians and two atheists—who investigate the supernatural of Medjugorje. There is a mother of four with terminal cancer, a drug addict looking for hope, a police officer wondering what is the true faith, and others.

On the night of one of the monthly apparitions to Mirjana, one of the grown-up child visionaries, Kidonakis and thousands of pilgrims camped on the base of the mountain named Apparition Hill.

“It was the most beautiful night,” she said. “Pilgrims prayed the whole night until 8 a.m., when Mirjana arrived. During the rosary with her, the thousands of people on the mountain got eerily silent. I felt this warm and intense feeling, and that was the moment I felt I was in the place I was supposed to be….There are many moments there I have felt Heaven on Earth.” 

Box Office Bid for an Oscar

“Apparition Hill” was screened in the Houston area twice—once in May at River Oaks Theater and once in August in The Woodlands. It will return to Houston at AMC Willowbrook 24 from Oct. 7-13, with four daily show times.

To qualify for the Academy Awards Best Documentary category, “Apparition Hill” has to meet several requirements, including: box office openings in both Los Angeles and New York City, 300 screener copies of the film sent to the Academy and a review in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times.  

To have funds to market 35 box office showings, publicists, advertising and more, the team is working to raise $96,000 on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, and is already a third of the way there with more than 175 backers.

“When David Pacheco, creative director at Disney, reached out to us encouraging to submit our film to the Academy Awards, he said how much the film moved him and how he had it on his mind for days before reaching out,” Kidonakis said. “Then he closed one of his emails with ‘After all, [Mary] did this with the film, “The Song of Bernadette.”’

She thought immediately of her late friend the Rev. James Keon, Basilian priest and UST professor, who said “The Song of Bernadette” led him to the priesthood.

“I was so emotional that day because I remembered back to all the movie nights we had with Fr. Keon and him always joking about me being a movie producer one day,” she said. “I love Fr. Keon and felt he was guiding us to share this story with more people.”

Kidonakis said lack of funds is the only thing that’s preventing “Apparition Hill” and its message of love from reaching the masses.

“If “Apparition Hill” even got nominated for an Academy Award, imagine how many people would come to know about Medjugorje,” Kidonakis said. “Imagine how many people would begin to think about their beliefs and speak about it with other people.

“We've seen how deeply this film touches people. It can change hearts.”

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