Written by Kevin Merwin VFP Chicago associate member
It seemed like a good idea to try to treat the 2017 Peace On Earth film festival as if it were happening in an exotic locale, and as if I were a film reviewer for a glossy magazine. If such reviewers or magazines still exist. My inner Walter Mitty was trying to escape the bounds of work-a-day reality again….
I Spent most of the weekend of 3/10/17 at the event, going for parts of all three days. The material ranged pretty widely in terms of geography, tone, subject matter, and language. The festival organizers did a good job of providing a real smorgasbord of themes around the subject of peace. Some were dark, some were very positive and inspiring. I get emotional at these sorts of stories, and found myself wiping my eyes more than once during the weekend.
All the films made me think, and questions bounced around in my head afterward. I loved the film about the Onondaga tribe of upstate New York, trying against all odds to restore devastatedly-polluted Lake Onondaga. They are a tribe who have never relinquished their sovereignty, and by law should be entitled to two and a half million acres. Instead, they are restricted to 7500 acres, and the lake is used as a toilet by every chemical producing industry on its shores. A lawyer doggedly fights on in their behalf. One of the most inspiring moments of this film—priceless—is when an Onondaga passport is honored by a Swiss ticket agent, who happens to be indigenous himself, from another part of the world. Yes, the Onondaga are proud to have their own passports. I learned that the Onondaga are the middle tribe of five in what were collectively called the “Iroquois Confederation” by the French, but whose real name is Haudenosaunee (Ho-dee-sho-nee).
Another film followed a young cellist going to Sarajevo and Gorazde to create a piece of music based on the experience of that city. The surprise here was the astounding musicality of the people she encountered. There were various individuals and groups, and the energy of their music was just incredible.
One of my favorites was footage taken in Bahrain during its 2011 participation in the Arab Spring. The demonstrations were put down, and protesters are now languishing in jails. The film, taken by a young woman who made friends with a Bahraini human rights activist, showed how the government was able to divide people along sectarian lines. It was in the government’s interest to frame the narrative as a contest between Sunni and Shia… and they did. For those who oppose the government, this is not true. I have a place in my heart for films that take us to places that we do not know, and that try to explain them. The director came and spoke to us after the screening, and we asked questions, a real opportunity for us to learn and share experience.
Another documentary followed two young college-age students as they took time out of their careers to care for AIDS sufferers in a Washington, D.C. hospice home. This was very moving and thought-provoking—how much time do we all have left, anyway, and what are we doing with it?—but also raised deeper questions of race that were not mentioned in the film. Why were all the hospice patients black, and the carers seemingly all white? Why has there been an explosion of AIDS among the poor of Washington, D.C., the capital of the richest nation in the world? Difficult and heartbreaking to watch, but certainly not as difficult as the task faced by those in the film, “The Messengers”.
When you can shake hands with history twice in the same weekend you know you’ve experienced something remarkable. Sam Harris is an engaging octogenarian and Holocaust survivor who came to the screening of his life story, and stayed to participate in a panel afterward. He has difficult dreams and other PTSD symptoms when he recalls his childhood, but feels an obligation to let us know what happened. The doc included powerful footage from the time period. Not pleasant, but necessary. Sam is the founder, or one of the founders, of the Holocaust Museum in Skokie.
Another figure from history: Jack Ryan, the FBI agent who refused to continue to investigate the four hunger strikers (VFP member Brian Willson, David Duncombe, and Duncan Murphy among them) who protested the Reagan Administration’s funding of the Contras. He was a happy, tall, healthy-looking citizen, who lost his job as a result, just 10 months shy of a pension. He had no regrets. He could be from anywhere, but he’s from Peoria. Something about that seems right.
The fest allowed viewers to hobnob with the directors and actors and ask them questions. There was a community energy that bubbled through the event. We talked to Louie Diaz, the one-man peace and rescue movement at the center of the doc “Beyond The Wall”, and the director, Jenny Phillips, for over an hour in the lobby. . After the showing of the documentary about Costa Rica and its decision to abandon its military (pushed by Oscar Arias), and its subsequent difficulties in a neo-liberal capitalist world, I ran into one of the directors in the lobby. I asked him, “Wasn’t Arias in favor of CAFTA?” Yes, he answered, and it ruined his reputation among a large sector of Costa Ricans. He played dirty, too, and CAFTA passed by a narrow margin in a referendum. Now there are WalMarts and all kinds of global hegemons that are squeezing the middle class in that country. This wasn’t covered in the doc—I’m guessing perhaps because Arias himself was shown being interviewed about his leadership in eliminating the military. It’s hard to step on the toes of people you have in your piece, after all.
It was also good to see ChicagoVFP member Nick Angotti (founder of the festival) in his element. He knew everyone, and seemed to be enjoying his marathon work session immensely. Don’t know how he does it. He introduced me to Wayne Besen, the radio guy, who happened to be coming through the door at the time, and to Colin, a local media person. I found myself instantly wondering if we could get our main Chapter initiative, Education Not Militarization on a radio program.
For me, the entire affair was good and energizing. There were VFP members from all over the country, many peace activists, and community-minded people. It was a powerful motivating kick in the butt.
I did a full-on, total immersion film festival experience, and pretended that I was Sean Suave at the Cannes Film Festival. What a magnificent experience . . . and it was right here in Chicago. Join me next year!