When I write that most of the movies I previewed from the Peace on Earth Film Festival play like educational films, I don't mean that pejoratively. This free four-day event aims to educate viewers on the subjects of nonviolence, tolerance, and social justice, with many selections spotlighting issues and communities one rarely encounters on mainstream TV news, let alone movie screens. Even the titles I didn't like taught me something new, and most made me think seriously about how people might change the world for the better. I can hardly say that about most movies I watch.
Unfortunately more than a few of the selections I previewed introduce provocative ideas only to devolve into propaganda. The documentary Inside Peace (Sun 3/22, 3:45 PM), for instance, addresses the psychological rehabilitation of Texas prisoners who have lived amid drugs and/or violence since childhood. Director Cynthia Fitzpatrick acknowledges how difficult it can be for prisoners to change their lives; several subjects are repeat offenders more comfortable in prison than outside. Each ex-convict addressing the camera claims to have started on a positive path after attending prison courses on finding inner peace, and Fitzpatrick shows them in the outside world, poignantly struggling to put their lessons into practice. But about halfway in, Fitzpatrick shifts her focus to Prem Rawat, the Indian-American guru who devised the class; clips of him lecturing suggest an infomercial for one of his seminars, and reducing his ideas to sound bytes makes them sound innocuous if not vapid.
Gillian Leahy's documentary The Chikukwa Project (Thu 3/19, 9:40 PM) is also uncomplicated in its optimism, though it's much more compelling as cinema. Leahy reports on a blighted village in Zimbabwe that was transformed into a thriving community after it implemented permaculture farming techniques in the early 1990s. The movie vividly illustrates just how this community works, showing us, step-by-step, how villagers collaborate on farming, crisis mediation, and spreading information about HIV and AIDS.
Even better is Joan's Boys (Sun 3/22, 6:40 PM), Catherine van Campen's documentary about a white psychotherapist in the Netherlands and her relationship with 14-year-old twins of Moroccan descent who have a history of compulsive violent behavior. The therapist is middle-class, the boys are working-poor; van Campen often draws attention to how different their lives are and how this puts Joan at a disadvantage in communicating with her clients. By illustrating the constant challenges one encounters while trying to do good—even on a small scale—the movie inspires admiration for those who succeed.