In its fifth year, the Global Peace Film Festival continues to impress. Less concerned with hammering home dogmatic messages of “peace-making,” the five-day cinematic tour presents an eclectic array of international movies to broaden horizons and open eyes, and it’s full of surprises this year. As usual, founder and guru Nina Streich selected a roster of films so substantial and worthwhile that we didn’t have enough space to discuss them all. Thus, after previewing the majority of the films, we’ve come up with a top-10 list that we consider essential viewing. The whole affair takes place Wednesday-Sunday, Sept. 26-30; screening venues are Rollins College (in Tiedtke Hall, the SunTrust Auditorium and the Bush Auditorium), the Orlando Science Center and CityArts Factory. For the full schedule of films, screening times, locations and ticket prices, go to peacefilmfest.org.
The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez Narrated by Tommy Lee Jones and directed by Kieran Fitzgerald, The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez starts as slow and meandering as the Rio Grande that divides Texas and Mexico. The film documents the 1997 murder on the banks of that river of a 17-year-old high-schooler, Esequiel Hernandez, who was shot by four undercover Marines while walking the family goats near his home in Redford, Texas. The details of the legal proceedings that followed reveal that investigations by the U.S. Border Patrol, the FBI and Presidio County officials all led to a charge of murder on the part of the soldier who errantly pulled the trigger. The military, however, under Bush senior’s administration, would not allow a precedent to be set for a soldier to be tried for murder while on the job. The last quarter of the film picks up speed and delivers a whopping surprise at the end that totally satisfies Bush-haters.
— Lindy T. Shepherd
Election Day The hotly contested presidential election of 2004 has been seen by many as a challenge to democracy itself; consider the hanging chads and Katherine Harris’ suspicious comedy of errors. Katy Chevigny’s enlightening documentary eschews the pretensions of voter-fraud overstatement in favor of a real-time portrait of actual poll-station shenanigans. The findings? Well, apparently in poorer areas the lines are longer and folks are liable to give up. Pollsters, poll-workers, political operatives and voters swirl around in a frustrated symphony (Orlando included), and the viewer is left to wonder how likely it is that the ends are really justified by the means.
— Billy Manes
The Great Match This is one of two soccer-themed films in this year’s festival. The other, Make Goals Not War, follows a hippie around the World Cup as he propagates his premise: “What if countries could settle their differences by playing soccer, rather than having wars?” The Great Match is more subtle in its approach. It’s about the attempts of three far-flung groups to watch the “big game,” the final match of the 2002 World Cup. We find a family of Mongolian nomads, some Tuareg travelers in Niger and a tribe of aboriginal Amazonians going through motions both comical and extreme in their struggle to see the game. Even though only one group (the one in Brazil) has a team in the final, it’s made apparent how important this game is to so many people around the world. The real trick of The Great Match is how writer/director Gerardo Olivares presents his one-world theme in a way that’s neither patronizing nor falsely uplifting.
— Jason Ferguson
Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence What starts out looking like yet another story of a black man wronged by the racist powers-that-be in the early 20th-century Florida Panhandle emerges in the hands of director Jeffrey Morgan as a documentary that is as shocking as it is emotionally engaging. When Alice Brewton Hurwitz begins looking into the 1908 death of her great-great aunt – a white woman of some stature who was said to have been raped and murdered by a black worker from the nearby turpentine mill – she uncovers a series of savage, vengeful acts that only began with the brutal lynching of the accused killer. Hurwitz is immediately cast as a nosy “Yankee interloper” by many in the town (including her own distant relatives), but her sharp focus on finding out the truth is unwavering. Morgan does marvelous work unraveling the various threads of mystery and dark secrets, using procedural drama that will please fans of Cold Case Files. Overall, the project imparts an overwhelming sense of Southern, closed-wagon paranoia that is all too familiar to those who understand the culture of the region.
New Urban Cowboy Michael Arth is a busy man. In 2001, he bought a single house in the worst neighborhood in DeLand and moved in with his pregnant wife to conduct an experiment in urban planning; specifically, he intended to test his design philosophy, New Pedestrianism. He bought up the ghetto at rock-bottom prices, and one by one rebuilt the historic houses, until he had shaped what he believes is a prototype for the neighborhood of the future. Fewer cars, big porches, friendly walkways shaded by trees and multi-use work/live buildings make up what is now known as the Garden District in DeLand. New Urban Cowboy documents his valiant efforts and big dreams and provides a model not just of new developments, but new developers. The Garden District grew from the ground up, emerging organically (and often on a shoestring) in contrast to Disney’s Celebration or the proposed “creative village” in downtown Orlando. While the movie itself is the dictionary definition of a vanity piece, Arth has a right to be proud, and the hyper-local flavor is welcome. The film could have used a more judicious cut, which would turn it into an award-contender. The transformation of the Garden District is fascinating, but asides with his grandmother about his youthful creativity and his remembrances of his first house in Hollywood Hills are more narcissism than necessity. Nevertheless, it’s well worth watching.
— Ian Monroe
Postcards From Tora Bora Like many of us, Wazhmah Osman has happy, golden recollections of the place she grew up. Unlike most of us, the place she was raised is synonymous with war, privation and extremism. Either Osman’s memories are off, or Kabul, Afghanistan, has really changed since the 1970s. Postcards From Tora Bora, the documentary of Osman’s return to Afghanistan after growing up as a refugee in the United States – upon fleeing the Soviet invasion of 1979 – shows that the truth is probably the latter. Kabul is a starkly different city than the flourishing, cosmopolitan center it once was; the fact that none of her female relatives wear head coverings in the few family photos still around speaks volumes. Osman’s film mixes childish cartoons with man-on-the-street footage to powerful effect. Her past is the city’s past, the loss of which is tragic.
— Bob Whitby
Prince of Peace – God of War Central to John Campea’s engaging documentary is the question of how it is that 87 percent of self-defined Christians are able to rally fists in support of war when one would assume that conflict is not what Jesus would do. The film is a heady affair, too, wherein the “Just War” crowd are intellectually pitted against the pacifists in a debate as to the directives implied in the Bible. While it may seem a distant, simple – even annoying – feast of hypothetical subject matter, the underlying question may be an open door into the religious right’s base politics. Have they skipped Jesus and leapt straight to the Crusades? And why? God knows.
Strange Culture Lynn Hershman Leeson deconstructs the documentary form in Strange Culture, the Kafka-esque saga of Steve Kurtz, an artist whose work concerns biotechnology and GMO foods. When Kurtz called 911 after his wife died suddenly of heart failure, EMTs took one look at the foil-covered windows, petri dishes and jars of white powder in his studio and called in a hazmat team; within days, Kurtz found himself accused of bioterrorism. Rather than producing a tidily wrapped-up morality tale or a lefty screed, Hershman Leeson has fashioned an open-ended meditation on authority, the nature of privacy and contradictory realities. Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool) re-enact the events, sometimes postmodernly breaking into discussions of the characters they’re portraying. What shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle is Kurtz’s work, an exploration of the ways American corporations, with governmental support, are commodifying nature while using the world’s population as unwitting guinea pigs. Score by the Residents.
— Jessica Bryce Young
View From a Grain of Sand View From a Grain of Sand is real and unapologetic. Weaving together the stories of three Afghan women (a doctor, a teacher and a social activist) who have sought refuge from war, political conflict and an oppressive regime, the film intermittently infuses the country’s history under three distinct leaders. In addition to the harrowing tales of harsh restrictions, especially as they pertain to poverty-stricken women residing or working in crumbling refugee villages, director and producer Meena Nanji illustrates how these women, gradually stripped of their rights over the last 25 years – in large part because of decisions made by the United States – have never lost hope. Despite the violence and the ailing state of the country, this particular trio of women prove that activism isn’t dead.
— Deanna Sheffield
War/Dance The winner of the 2007 Sundance award for documentary direction, War/Dance is a powerful and poignant film about the plight of children in war-ravaged northern Uganda, where hundreds of thousands of children have been kidnapped or orphaned in a vicious conflict. Our protagonists – Dominic, Rose and Nancy – are three children whose lives have been irreparably shattered by the raging violence. They’ve watched their parents slaughtered and their siblings vanish into the night, never to be seen again. It’s a heart-wrenching tale wrapped inside a glimmer of light, as their school prepares to go to the nation’s capital to compete in a music competition. As one 14-year-old puts it, “In everything we do, if there’s music, life becomes so good.” If that doesn’t put life in perspective for you, we don’t know what will.
— Jeffrey C. Billmanarts@orlandoweekly.com