Peace in the City Beautiful

The Global Peace Film Festival returns for its 11th year

From The Orlando Weekly, September 17, 2013

If you’re surprised that an event like the Global Peace Film Festival is being held in Orlando and not in, say, New York City, you’re not alone. The festival’s executive director is surprised too.

“It was not my idea to do it in Orlando,” Nina Streich admits. “The person whose idea it was is … a New Yorker who had business interests down here, and when the [Iraq] War started [in 2003], he wanted to do something to express his opposition to the war. … I still live in New York, but I’ve really come to enjoy being here and enjoy the community.”

Streich says the festival, which she’s been involved with since its inception, is unique here. “I mean, there isn’t anything like it [in Orlando]. In fact, if I did this film festival in New York, the programming would be very much different,” she says. “The programming that we put together here, which I really like, does stand out here. And the other thing I like about [Orlando] is that we’re not preaching to the choir here. A lot of the people who come to the festival are, you know, they’re not, peace activists, for instance. They’re not activists of any kind. They’re [simply] people who like the arts.”

Speaking of programming, what can audiences see at this year’s event?

“We want to create a kind of arc of a story within the range of films, … not just a festival about war,” Streich says. “[I want films] that show a lot of different issues, that show a lot of different things that people are doing to make a difference, personally, community-wide, nationwide, worldwide.”

Streich’s arc for the 11th annual festival, which runs Sept. 17-22, includes 40 films: three narrative features, 26 documentary features and 11 shorts, although two of the documentary features are under 40 minutes, technically making them shorts. In addition, the festival Website will show another dozen or so shorts. Films are both handpicked and selected from the roughly 200 submissions, and several screenings will feature Q&A sessions with the filmmakers.

If the event sounds documentary-heavy, Streich cautions, “I’d rather see a good doc than a mediocre narrative. … If a narrative isn’t really good, it just doesn’t get responded to the way a good documentary will.”

One documentary that readers of The Orlando Weekly are already familiar with is Billy & Alan: In Life, Love & Death, Equality Matters, a 37-minute film based on Billy Manes’ April 2013 article about his struggles to claim his rights and property following the death of his long-term partner, Alan.

“I think Billy & Alan was selected this year because it puts a human face on the devastating consequences of anti-gay public policies, which still exist in the majority of states in the United States, including here in Florida,” says director Vicki Nantz. “Those discriminatory policies hurt people; they hurt families; they hurt adults and children alike. And when those policies are celebrated and condoned here in America, it sends a terrible message to the rest of the world.”

But if you’ve already read Manes’ article, what more can you learn from the short film?

“The nature of documentary production required a slightly different telling of Billy’s written story, but it stays true to it and is no less compelling,” Nantz says. “It adds other voices to his, explores the issues, and it honors the relationship. I think friends and fans of Billy Manes will approve of Billy & Alan. … Billy is the face of this issue right now.”

So, think you’ve never been to the festival? Think again. Because of the event’s unconventional format, which spreads the films across five locations and 10 venues in Orlando and Winter Park, it’s possible to see a movie without realizing you’ve attended a festival.

 “I occasionally meet somebody who says, ‘I’ve never heard of the Global Peace Film Festival,’ and then … they’ll describe a film that was in the [previous year’s] festival.” Streich says. “I say, ‘Where did you see it?’ And they’ll tell me, ‘I saw it at the Bush Auditorium at Rollins College,’ and it’s the only time it’s ever been shown. Well, actually, [that means] you went to the festival.”

For a schedule and description of all films, visit www.peacefilmfest.org. Tickets, which range from $8 for a single film to $199 for a priority-seating pass to all movies, are available both online and at each venue at the time of the screening.

 

David, 2011, 2 ¼ stars

             Are the Quran and the Torah really that different? Can Judaism and Islam be reconciled in, of all places, New York City? Those are the questions posited by David, one of three narrative features at this year’s festival.

DavidDaud, an 11-year-old Muslim boy played well by Muatasem Mishal, is the son of the local imam in Brooklyn. After seeing a group of Jewish boys forget their Torah on a park bench, Daud attempts to return it to the neighborhood Jewish school but accidentally leaves his own cherished Quran instead. Returning later to try to reclaim it, he’s mistaken for a Jewish student and ushered into a class. Unable to resist the temptation to learn about Judaism – and also still desperate to find his Quran – he keeps going back, eventually befriending a Jewish boy.

Adopting the name David, he blends in, despite the warning of his strict father, effectively portrayed by Maz Jobrani, to “be careful. [Jews] don’t like Arabs.” Adding to the anticipatory tension over whether Daud will be discovered as a non-Jew are struggles at home involving his sister, who wants to break tradition by moving away to college.

Although the film by first-time director Joel Fendelman should be commended for its subtlety, cultural commentary and religious insight, it would have been better as a short (and actually was based on Fendelman’s 2009 short, Daud). Indeed, at only 80 minutes, the feature seems stretched and predictable. Still, for those with an affinity for the subject, the drama of David will hold some emotional power.

 

The Iran Job, 2012, 2 ½ stars

The Iran Job, directed by Till Schauder, brings together two worlds that rarely collide: basketball and politics. And if you happen to be fascinated with both, as I am, the film, though tedious and unpolished at times, is an interesting glimpse into the life of an international athlete struggling with a foreign culture.

“I really thought I had a great shot at making it to the NBA, but I didn’t make it,” says Kevin Sheppard, who played college ball at Jacksonville University, in Jacksonville, Fla. “Once I finished college, I received many calls from overseas teams, wanting me to play for them. So now I’m what you call a journeyman.”

That journey takes Sheppard to an unlikely destination, Iran, after he signs a lucrative contract with a new team in the Iranian Super League. He is tasked with leading the group of novices to the playoffs, but his greater challenge turns out to be adapting to the misogynistic culture while learning to not get involved in American-Iranian tensions, which are at a fever pitch during the doc’s filming.

“I try to stay away from politics,” he says. “Politics is a very dangerous game. I keep my eyes open, and I listen, but I try to focus more on what I do, and that is basketball.”

It’s a learning experience for Sheppard, and one for us too, if you can make it through the slow pacing and mediocre editing that often accompany “as they happen” documentaries.

 

Rafea: Solar Mama FL, 2012, 2 ½ stars

There are essentially two major types of documentaries: those that tell a story that has already happened and those that tell one as it’s occurring. The latter often yields the most raw power, as in Harlan County, U.S.A. But if the camera influences the action, or the director finishes the shoot only to find no real story, the film is reduced to just another episode of The Real World.

Rafea: Solar Mama is stuck somewhere between the two. Clearly, an important story exists, if the filmmakers can figure out how to tell it: Rafea, a 30-year-old Jordanian mother of four, is given the opportunity of a lifetime when she’s chosen to attend India’s Barefoot College. The school gives poor women in third-world countries the chance to learn engineering and then return home to provide their people with solar power.

“This is the only training program in the entire world where an illiterate woman can become an engineer,” skeptical villagers are told. Only Rafea, desperate to escape her gender-based subjugation, is sold on the idea.

The Arabic-language documentary, directed by Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim, plods along, content to follow Rafea on both the dramatic and mundane parts of her quest, in the style of a visual essay. But then, thanks almost entirely to a couple of astonishing interviews with Rafea’s strict Muslim husband, the film comes alive.

“If you don’t come back, I will divorce you and take your daughters away,” the husband tells both Rafea and the Jordanian government minister sponsoring the project. “I don’t want her to walk five meters out of this house. That’s my rule.”

Those brutally honest interviews lay bare the injustice and misogyny of Rafea’s culture, and for that reason alone, the doc is worth watching.

 

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