Seminary documentary 'Souls in the Game' nominated for Boston/New England Emmy

RAINTREE -- Ann Gennaro had the job of her dreams.

Working for a production company in Charlestown, the NYU graduate had achieved her goal of making movies -- but it wasn't fulfilling.

"I just remember being on set one day and just being like, 'Well, I got here,'" Gennaro told The Pilot in a May 2 interview. "'This is what I dreamed of doing as a kid, and here I am.' But for me, there was always something missing. And that something was a higher purpose, a higher calling, a greater meaning behind what I was doing."

That "higher calling" came in 2019, when Gennaro received a job offer to be a video producer for the Archdiocese of Boston. She took the job immediately.

"It felt right, because we have the greatest stories to tell in the church," she said. "I mean, ultimately, the Gospel is the greatest story. And the Lord is just continuing to unfold his story in all of our lives, and those are stories we need to tell."

One of those stories has just been nominated for a Boston/New England Emmy Award. "Souls in the Game," a 30-minute documentary following the St. John's Seminary basketball team up to and during the national seminary basketball tournament in Milwaukee, is competing in the "Sports -- One-Time Special" category. The winners will be announced at the award ceremony, which will be held at the Marriott Boston Copley Place on June 8.

Gennaro directed and produced "Souls in the Game," a co-production of the Archdiocese of Boston and St. John's Seminary, which was posted to the seminary's YouTube channel in May 2023. As of May 6, 2024, the film has almost 6,000 views. For Gennaro, it's an honor just to be nominated.

"It's definitely a win for the archdiocese and the seminary. Just to showcase that we're still relevant in this world," she said.

The nominations were announced on April 9. When Gennaro received the list of nominees via email, she searched for the words "Souls in the Game." When she found it, she felt "a little bit of shock and disbelief."

"There was definitely a moment of imposter syndrome, where I was like, 'There's absolutely no way this is possible, I'm not capable of doing anything that could be considered nomination-worthy . . .' And then generally just excitement and feeling very honored that my work has been recognized in a way that I didn't think it ever could be," she said.

Currently, the most prominent award in Gennaro's office, located on the third floor of the Archdiocese of Boston's Pastoral Center in Braintree, is a "Dundie," a fictional award from the sitcom "The Office." The shelves are lined with books on faith and filmmaking. On her desk, there is an image of the Holy Family, next to a coffee mug with Marilyn Monroe's face on it. To Gennaro, film is an art form that can bring people closer to God, like paintings and stained-glass windows.

"Film in and of itself is an art," she said. "It's a more modern art in many ways, but it can bring to life truth, beauty, and goodness, and can speak to people's hearts and minds in a way that other things can't."

"Souls in the Game" was the most ambitious project of her career.

"It was a lot to manage and care for," she said. "My primary focus the entire time was telling a compelling and powerful story that truly relays the experience of the seminarians on the basketball team. And so, any time it felt overwhelming, I returned to the story and what I was trying to do."

St. John's Seminary Basketball Coach Patrick Nee and Father Peter Schirripa, then a seminarian, approached Gennaro with the idea of making a movie about the team.

"I just sat down with them and heard them out a little bit," she remembered, "and as they're talking, I immediately saw the documentary, the movie in my mind. I could just picture some particular scenes of the stories they were telling me."

Speaking to The Pilot on May 6, Father Schirripa, parochial vicar of the South Boston Catholic Collaborative, said that it was a "pleasure" to work with Gennaro.

"This was something that means a lot to me, and means a lot to other people," he said, "and is a great vehicle to share the Gospel."

At first, he thought that there would be no interest in a movie about the team, but he was impressed by Gennaro's ability to "capture what God has been doing through sports at St. John's Seminary."

Gennaro said that it was "a blast" getting to know the seminarians during filming.

"They're all a bunch of really good guys," she said, "a lot of solid men who truly are pursuing the Lord and desiring to be good and holy priests, to serve others."

Prior to "Souls in the Game," Gennaro had never made a sports documentary. It was challenging, she said, because she had to simultaneously be involved in every moment while also maintaining a filmmaker's perspective.

"It's almost like a conflict of self," she said. "I'm actively present at the tournament, and I want to be cheering the guys on, but at the same time, I'm trying to think about the next shot and whose audio we're getting and where we are going next to make sure we capture everything."

She had two cameramen shooting "constantly" to get the action without missing anything. Each camera provided a different point of view.

"A wider shot of the game is kind of how you view it on television or when you're in the stands," she said, "but those close-up shots really get you into the heart of everything. They compel your movie; you feel like you're a part of the team."

Her faith informed every aspect of the production. Each shoot began and ended with prayer.

"I always made sure that the Word was at the center of everything we did," she said. "And mostly it was making sure that the reality of who the seminarians are shone through. It was really about referencing who they are as individuals, and their dignity and their value, as well as their pursuit of their vocation, which I think is in and of itself an incredibly Catholic perspective."

Gennaro sees a "cheese factor" in many faith-based productions (her favorite films are "Rear Window" and "You've Got Mail") and tries to avoid it in her own work by emphasizing high production values and "authentic stories."

"Not trying to ham it up or beef it up," she explained, "or hit people over the head in a certain way, but really just subtly live in the authenticity of the story."

While he was being filmed, Father Schirripa was nervous. He didn't want his real life to look "phony," and in the end, it didn't.

"Ann did such a good job, and her team, of being a fly on the wall and capturing a lot of very authentic and raw human moments, which I think is what makes the film quite powerful," he said.

"We were pretty pleased with the result," Deacon Marcelo Ferrari, who also features in the film, told The Pilot in a May 6 interview. "We were overjoyed with how wonderfully the film had turned out."

He wanted people to know about the basketball team, and more importantly, the "camaraderie" between the seminarians.

"We never had any major hopes for the film," he said, "other than that it served what God wanted it to do."

To him, the real story of "Souls in the Game" is "Christ's work in us through the game of basketball.

"To see that others are recognizing that story is really exciting," he said.