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A Festival of Peace

“I ran away from my foster mother, became homeless, lived on the street for three years. Because I was handicapped I couldn’t get into an apartment building to get out of the snow. Your skin feels like it’s on fire when you’re that cold. I’d stand in the doorway, where bright lights shine on the manikins, and psych myself into believing I could feel the heat coming off the light bulb.”

We get, in all, twelve minutes of Daisy. The above words are a condensation of one of those minutes. The other eleven are just as intense, just as shocking — but spiritually soaring, as this wheelchair-bound woman — she contracted polio after swimming in a polluted lake — talks matter-of-factly about a life that seems like it should be broken beyond repair. She talks about her abusive father, the beatings, the flowers on the bedspread (her only toys), her “bright light” spiritual vision in an iron lung. Her words made me cry, not because of the horror, but because she was so happy, so full of a transcendent gratitude for nothing less than life itself.

This short film, by Jack Major, is called “Daisy.” It’s one of 34 films that make up the second annual Peace on Earth Film Festival, which will be held on the last three days of February at Chicago’s Cultural Center. A schedule for the event will be posted soon at peaceonearthfilmfestival.org.

The festival is (amazingly) free of charge, and features a joyful diversity of documentaries, student films and animated shorts from all over the world, united thematically under the rubric of “peace.”

All of which begs a fascinating question: What is peace? A film festival that celebrates it has to come up with a working definition. Nick Angotti, who founded the festival in 2008, kept coming back to the word “story” when we talked about it. The review committee looked at 194 submissions; the ones they selected all told a slice of the human story, compellingly if not always slickly.

“We do have films that pictorially are not the best, but the stories are amazing,” Nick said.

After looking at a number of the films myself, in whole or in part, I would add the word “truth” to this working definition. I started to realize, as I reviewed movies on topics as diverse as dumpster diving, Holocaust remembrance, Iranian teen rappers, a Muslim man’s alienation in post-9/11 America, and two preschool boys’ innocent discovery of race, that there was a certain sensitive consciousness at work or at play in each one, stirring the raw truth. The result could be joyous, searing, darkly comedic, or all of the above.

This is a film festival with a mission.

“Peace on Earth Film Festival,” the mission statement reads, “is a not-for-profit film festival whose primary objective is to raise an awareness of peace, nonviolence, social justice and an eco-balanced world as possibilities, by bringing attention to independent films from around the world. Through the power of motion pictures, POEFF endeavors to enlighten and empower individuals, families and communities to step out of the ignorance of conflict, violence and divisiveness into the light of communication, compassion and understanding.”

Part of the festival’s mission is to bring peace awareness to young people — to let them hear the stories of their contemporaries and wake them up to the power and significance of their own stories. Thus, before the festival officially opens, some 600 Chicago schoolchildren, in several groups, will get a chance to screen a number of the student films, vote for the best one and engage in dialogue about what they saw.

The spirit of this is summed up in the words of Margaret Wheatley, who is quoted on the festival’s website: “You can’t hate the one whose story you know.”

As well as the 34 films, which range from feature-length to several minutes long, the festival will include several panel discussions. In one of them, some of the filmmakers whose work is featured will talk about their craft and the potential of the medium of film to promote — create — peace. A second panel (which I have the honor of moderating) will be composed of Chicago-area peacemakers, who will talk about the work they’re doing in their communities.

“Peace, as we have seen, is not an order natural to mankind: it is artificial, intricate and highly volatile. All kinds of preconditions are necessary,” writes military historian Michael Howard in The Invention of Peace.

He means this, I think, as a statement of hope, stripped of illusion. Peace is possible, but we have to work at it. Indeed, we have to invent it. And crucial to the process is the work of filmmakers, whose job is to tell the stories of those who already have.

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