Houston priest turned filmmaker shines light on ‘heroes’ via social justice-themed projects

January 25, 2011

HOUSTON — Like many Catholics, during his college days at the University of Texas, award-winning documentarian and poet Armando Ibáñez was what he described as a "secular Catholic." 

"I was a very religious kid when I was very young," he said, mentioning having been in minor seminary in ninth grade. "You grow up and go through a period of questioning." 

After working as a writer on a children's TV program in Austin from 1978 to 1979, the former journalism student moved back home to Alice, Texas. There he took time to regroup, landing a reporting job at the Alice Echo-News Journal (formerly the Alice Daily Echo). This homecoming also prompted another type of coming home — to the Church. 

Eventually, the young reporter began helping out with religious education classes and lent his talents to the parish, writing a Christmas play and other materials before leaving Alice to take a job at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times newspaper from 1981 to 1988. In a poetic twist many would deem characteristic of the Holy Spirit, it was at this newspaper with a name that translates to "The Body of Christ," that the journalist would realize his calling not only as a writer, but also as a Dominican priest. 

Father Ibáñez was ordained in San Diego, Texas in 1993 in the Southern Province of the Dominican Order. He earned a Masters of Theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. 

"I love gardening and one day this brother was shooting some video for people at home," Father Ibáñez said, adding that the brother handed the camera off to him for a moment. "At the time, I hated technology. I saw through the viewfinder my garden. It was a moment of epiphany. In my heart, I'm a poet. I wondered, ‘How can you capture a poetic image?' I saw [the video footage] and fell in love with the camera."

Father Ibáñez was assigned to the Tulane Catholic Center in New Orleans, La. and also served as campus minister at Stanford Catholic Center at Stanford, at the Monastery of Angels in California and as an instructor at Tribeca-Flashpoint Academy of Media in Chicago.

"I started doing poetry readings and exploring the poetic image and how to connect it with the written word," he said. "I started entering my work into festivals."

Father Ibáñez said his provincial, recognizing his gift, gave him $400 to put toward his work, which he stretched as far as possible using it for equipment and materials. 

"I asked for more funds, but was turned down," he said. "I was so dejected." 

One day, Father Ibáñez said the provincial came to him to ask if he knew why they turned down his request. 

"He said, ‘We want to send you to film school,'" recalled Father Ibáñez, who was at the time in his 40s. "I didn't want to go to school with a bunch of 20-year-olds." 

Despite his initial hesitance, the priest continued to surrender to the will of his provincial and of God, obtaining a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television Producing from the prestigious American Film Institute in "the City of Angels," Los Angeles, Calif. 

In 2001, along with his order, he founded Pluma Pictures Inc., a non-profit film production company. The company's mission is to make movies "about heroes and heroines."

The production company's documentary "Not Broken," which explores the real-life heroes working to rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding areas in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, has won numerous awards. In 2008, it received the Platinum Remi Award from WorldFest-Houston and the Magnificat Award from the International Catholic Film Festival, held in Minsk, Belarus. The film was also runner up in the Top Documentary category at the AFIA International Film Festival 2008, held in Aarhus, Denmark. It won second place for Best Humanitarian Award at the Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival 2008 and was featured at the Teaneck International Film Festival, New York, and Earth Day 2008, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, New Orleans (The documentary is available on DVD and for download at www.createspace.com. It will also soon be available at Amazon.com. View the trailer at www.plumapictures.com.)

Now in Houston, Father Ibáñez will soon move to Pearland to serve at St. Helen's Church. Currently he is co-writing a screenplay about capital punishment and finishing production on a film about Dr. Hector P. Garcia, who is known for his work serving the poor and for mobilizing the Latino community in Corpus Christi. 

"I think it has a universal application not only to Latinos, but to everyone," Father Ibáñez said. "He had a lot of personal tragedy in his life, and yet he continued."

It is Father Ibáñez's hope that through his ministry as a filmmaker and through Pluma Pictures, he can produce movies that show people overcoming insurmountable odds and also promote the arts by giving aspiring filmmakers an opportunity. 
"The fundamental thing is, I'm a poet and I'm telling you a story through poetry, through film, through preaching," Father Ibáñez said. "When you follow your calling … it inevitably brings you closer to God. As the Dominicans say, ‘Share the fruits of your contemplation.'" †