As a child, Cimela Kidonakis ’09 spent her summers visiting family in Greece,and it was there she first fell in love with storytelling.
“My father never went back to his hometown, but he would send me and my siblings back to learn more about the Greek culture and to visit my grandmother,” Kidonakis said. “So, growing up, I always had a camera, and that was my life — just documenting whatever we were doing for him.”
While in philosophy class at University of St. Thomas, thinking about her life’s purpose, Kidonakis knew she always loved recording and video production. Studying in the radio/TV production track of UST’s Communication Department, with courses led by Adjunct Professor John Butler, she had the chance to pursue her passion as a profession.
Upon graduating in 2009, Kidonakis ran her own video production company, Optix Studios, making films for wedding clients, ExxonMobil, Rice University and UST.
“I had really good clients, but it came to a point where I wanted to do a passion project about something that just really moved me,” Kidonakis said. “And I wanted so badly to collaborate with people.”
Kidonakis Follows Her Passion to Medjugorje
Like fate, the perfect opportunity arrived when Kidonakis learned about Medjugorje, the popular pilgrimage site in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which became famous after children reported witnessing an apparition of the Blessed Virgin there in 1981.
A friend who knew of her interest in Medjugorje encouraged her to enter a video contest for a chance to win a free pilgrimage as part of a documentary project. Kidonakis based her submission on her own pilgrimage experiences. Taught by her Mexican grandmother, Kidonakis learned at an early age about pilgrimages and the Blessed Mother, so she edited clips of spiritual journeys from throughout her life into one video.
“I was so embarrassed to send the video in, because I don’t like being in front of the camera, so my sister actually submitted it,” Kidonakis said.
Sean Bloomfield, a Catholic director from Florida, recognized her talent right away, and instead of being selected as a pilgrim, she became co-editor of the film.
A Catholic Filmmaking Partnership Develops
Kidonakis and Bloomfield founded Stella Mar Productions in 2015. Their first production, “Apparition Hill,” chronicles the Medjugorje pilgrimage of seven strangers from around the world. One of the women suffered from stage IV cancer, so the film followed her until the end of her life. As a result, the film, for Kidonakis, became about life and death.
“It was really meaningful how much that movie healed people who had lost someone,” Kidonakis said. “What I love about these stories is that people who watch feel so connected to the characters. Our main focus in Stella Mar films is to not preach to the choir. We’re Catholic filmmakers, but we really want to have a subtle message.”
The subtle Catholic undertones of films from Stella Mar was inspired by the fact that many religious films, Kidonakis and Bloomfield feel, are often hackneyed or “cheesy.”
“I don’t think my faith is cheesy,” Kidonakis said. “And so our main focus always is to make things that appeal to anybody. Our faith is strong, and we love film because it helps you get an idea or a message out there to more people.”
Second Film Inspired by a Murdered Priest Who Reaches Beyond the Grave
The idea for their most recent documentary film, “Where There Is Darkness,” was ripped from the headlines and inspired by a story Kidonakis heard on NPR. In 2016 Fr. Rene Robert, a beloved priest in the community of St. Augustine, Florida, was shot and killed by a man he knew, Steven Murray. Years before his murder, Fr. Robert signed a “Declaration of Life” in which he stated that, should he ever be killed, he did not want his murderer to receive the death penalty.
“We thought it was an amazing thing that he had left this letter for the person who might murder him,” Kidonakis said. “And so as filmmakers, we wanted to help his voice be heard.”
Because of the priest’s forgiveness from beyond the grave and because of the support of all those who loved the priest and wanted to honor the wishes of his “Declaration of Life,” Murray received life in prison.
“Fr. Rene is hope, and so there is this beautiful message of love and mercy, and that’s what we love about it,” Kidonakis said.
One of her favorite moments in her career so far happened during the Houston screening of “Where There Is Darkness” in January. Many of her former classmates came to view the film, in addition to her former professors: Father Ted Baezinger, CSB, Father Joseph Pilsner, CSB, and Dr. Randy Smith. All these people, Kidonakis said, helped her form the spirituality that subtly weaves itself into her films.
“Bringing the movie that we worked on for two years to Houston and to have them come out was the most amazing thing,” she said.
A third upcoming film from Stella Mar Productions, “Cross Mountain,” will return to Medjugorje following the stories of college-age pilgrims.
Kidonakis said she loved what she learned at St. Thomas and how it helps her tell stories that are not easily forgotten.
“I continued to want to grow in my faith and to grow in learning more about how to tell a good story,” she said. “And I loved St. Thomas because it had so many stories. So many people who I met here inspired me.”