Are you happy?

This simple question underlies “Inquiring Nuns,” a charming time capsule returning to the public eye this week, a 66-minute black-and-white documentary of two young nuns going around Chicago in 1967, asking about happiness.

The film is from Kartemquin Films, a “collaborative community” that has produced 65 movies since it began in 1966, including 1994 “Hoop Dreams.”

OPINION

The film stars are a pair of Adrian Dominican nuns, Sister Mary Campion and Sister Marie Arné, who are given a microphone and thrown into filmmaking.

“I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to do today.” Arne says, in the opening scene. “What do you think works best?”

For me, the film works on three levels. There is the universal question and its variants: What makes you happy? What makes you unhappy?

There are the unnamed Chicagoans of half a century ago: how they dress, how they speak (“You mean Fadder Buckley?” asks a man from Berwyn). The streets behind them. The Art Institute, a supermarket, the crowd letting out after church at St. Columbanus Church on East 71st Street.

And third, the movie’s stars, the nuns.

Father and son interviewed at The Art Institute in "Inquiring Nuns," a 1967 documentary

A father and son are interviewed at The Art Institute in “Inquiring Nuns,” a 1967 documentary asking Chicagoans “Are you happy?” The movie is being showcased at the Siskel Film Center to mark its 50th anniversary. | Provided

Our cliched notions of the ’60s are almost entirely absent: hair is merely longish, no beads or hippie garb. Though the first person approached, a round young woman greets the question with, “Groovy. Yeah, I’m happy. I really am.” Most of the men wear coats, ties and fedoras, while many of the women view happiness through a very conventional lens.

“My husband and his success…” replies one. “That’s what makes me happy.”

I admired the brio of a woman in sunglasses who looks at the nuns and replies:

“There are three big things that make a person happy,” ticking them off on her fingers. “Sex, social life and … what’s the other? … your work.”

Some replies are joyfully incongruous.

“We like raspberries,” says a man with his wife in a supermarket. “We pick raspberries, wild.”

The most common topic — at least six people mention it — is what one calls “the present conflict we are having right now, the Vietnam situation.”

For a modest documentary, “Inquiring Nuns” has surprising star-power. First there is the score, composed by minimalist icon Philip Glass (who had met one of the filmmakers at the University of Chicago).

And second, the nuns talk to Lincoln Perry, who used the stage name, Stepin Fetchit, a vaudevillian who became the first black movie star to get a screen credit. Perry reaches into his pocket and pulls out a thick stack of photographs, which he starts handing to the nuns, one by one.

“There’s me and Shirley Temple,” he says. “There’s me and Will Rogers.”

Nuns talking to church-goers in 1967 documentary "Inquiring Nuns"

Church-goers are interviewed in “Inquiring Nuns,” documentary asking Chicagoans “Are you happy?” being showcased next week at the Siskel
Film Center to mark the movie’s 50th anniversary. | Provided

Both nuns soon left the order and started families. Kathleen Reinmuth — the former Sister Marie Arné — now lives in New Buffalo, Michigan. Cathy Rock lives in Florida. When I caught up with Reinmuth, she looked back on the film with mixed feelings.

“This is the movie that will never go away,” she said. “I was 23. When I look back, personally, I often get embarrassed. I look so young and naive about things. But when I watch it with other people … I can step out of myself.”

How did the pair of nuns wind up in the movie?

“I was involved with a film group through the parish of St. Denis,” Reinmuth said. “We were already showing movies like ‘Night and Fog.’ The archdiocese decided to do an adult education program using film, and hired Gordon Quinn and Gerry Temaner to do three films. I think they came up with the idea of doing one on happiness, using nuns.”

While it is natural to focus on the people talking, Reinmuth said it is also important not to miss the nuns listening.

“Listening is such a gift to people,” she said. “To ask a question, then really listen and let them talk. I kept thinking, ‘Wow, they really wanted to talk.'”

“Inquiring Nuns” will be screened at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, Friday Nov. 30 through Thursday, Dec. 6.  Filmmaker Gordon Quinn will attend three showings for an audience discussion. For details, see the Siskel Film Center web site. 

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