Sisters of the Valley,: Darcy Johnson and Christine “Kate” Meeusen (Photo: Priscilla Gonzalez Sainz)
Lyntoria Newton was in Atlanta last year, visiting her family for the holidays, when a news story about a pair of nuns came on TV. It profiled the Merced-based Sisters of the Valley — Christine “Kate” Meeusen and her apprentice Darcy Johnson — not for their religious servitude or generosity during the Christmas season, but their business: cannabis.
And yet the Sisters aren’t really nuns; they may wear the uniforms, and they’ve taken vows of obedience and chastity, but they are not married to God. Meeusen and Darcy came together in 2015 to launch an Etsy business, where they sell thousands of dollars worth of salves, tinctures, and something called “clary sage spray” every day. The handmade products utilize hemp extract and CBD, the non-psychoactive forms of cannabis that ease pain without getting the user high.
“I think when you see two women who wear nuns’ habits and you realize they aren’t working at the Catholic Church, you can easily write them off as kooks,” says Newton, who is one of the directors of Bad Habits, a short documentary about the Sisters. “At the end of the day, they are doing a lot for people.”
But now, due to concerns from the Sisters about their portrayal in the film, Bad Habits is seeing its final public screening this month.
How religion plays a role
Bad Habits is a product of the documentary program at Stanford, where Newton is currently in her second year. When she brought the idea up at a class roundtable, it attracted the attention of fellow student Priscilla Gonzalez Sainz.
“I was immediately interested in what the habit meant and how religion played a role in the business that they were doing,” Gonzalez Sainz says. Being two female filmmakers, both Newton and Gonzalez Sainz embraced the opportunity to make a film about two successful women in business.
Meeusen and Darcy had already made national headlines, especially after the Merced City Council banned marijuana cultivation in the city. (Newton wasn’t aware of the controversy when she saw the two women on TV.) So the directors decided to take an objective, observational approach to the production, which captured the Sisters' professional and personal lives.
“The purpose was to let them tell their own story, to let the viewer make their own decision about how they felt about them and what they were doing,” Gonzalez Sainz says.
Over the course of an eight-day shoot, the Sisters let the directors into the more intimate moments of their daily routines: their moon ceremony, relaxing in front of the television, and sitting around without their habits.
“I definitely expected them to be a bit quirky, honestly,” Newton says, but that wasn’t the case in reality. “Sister Kate did end up telling us that she did have a Catholic upbringing, and that was a large part of the reason for her wearing the habit.”
Clash of the tunics
Bad Habits was completed in March and premiered at Stanford as part of a student screening, which the Sisters attended. Afterward, they were mobbed by newfound fans and even sold a few products. Newton and Gonzalez Sainz started submitting the nine-minute short to film festivals, but when the nuns learned Bad Habits was accepted into this year's San Francisco DocFest, they didn’t respond well to the good news. Instead, they called in their media relations representative.
“They were saying that it wasn’t made clear to them that we could show that film wherever we wanted,” Gonzalez Sainz says. “They were not happy with that.”
And they weren’t happy with how they were portrayed either. “They didn’t really like the sequences that we showed with them without habits,” Newton says. To be fair, that was a desire the Sisters made clear during pre-production -- they didn’t want to be seen on screen without them. However, as filming went on and the nuns became more comfortable with Newton and Gonzalez Sainz, the directors say the Sisters eventually relented. The same was true for the moon ceremony, which initially the sisters wanted to keep private.
Prior to production, the Sisters signed appearance releases that give the filmmakers the complete rights to Bad Habits. Meeusen and Johnson now claim they signed their releases under duress, according to Newton and Gonzalez Sainz. (KQED reached out to the Sisters, who replied "No Comment.") This resulted in a lot of back and forth between the filmmakers, the Sisters, lawyers on both sides, and even the university. Gonzalez Sainz says the Sisters threatened to pull the short from DocFest, but they were eventually able to negotiate a settlement, and the film stayed in the program.
The nuns’ lawyers also agreed to two screenings at the Mill Valley Film Festival, which starts this week. But they will be Bad Habit’s last.
'We have the right to win'
“Although I don’t believe they have the legal right to stop us from showing the film, we are ceding to that because we don’t want to have further problems with them,” Gonzalez Sainz says. “We’re students. We’re working on our thesis films now. We have a lot going on in our own lives that we’re not going to keep fighting with them -- even if it’s a fight that we know we have the right to win.”
The first MVFF screening is part of "Smoke Screens,” a full day of cannabis-themed programming on Oct. 8. There will also be a showing on Oct. 13 as part of a block of short pot films. But the directors hope Bad Habits will have a wide appeal among its final public audience.
“We were not aiming to make a film for the cannabis community,” Gonzalez Sainz says. “We really wanted to make a film as an observational piece, as a character study, and we wanted to focus on these two women and their business and how their business helps people.”
'Bad Habits' screens Oct. 8 and Oct. 13 at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Details here.
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