A few days ago I mentioned the Peace on Earth Film Festival to someone whose eyes glazed over so fast I might as well have said I was planning to stare at the wall for the next hour.
Who doesn't like peace? Honestly, now.
And yet there's something about that well-meaning, sad trombone of a name. The Amnesty International Film Fest and the Human Rights Watch Film Fest also come to mind, although neither has the dubious distinction of sounding like a canned Miss America statement.
You want to excite audiences about socially conscious films? Free screenings are great. Quality movies are the prime draw.
But how about leveraging the services of someone in advertising who can craft a witty, sophisticated brand — anything more appealing than the status quo, which feels like someone telling you to make your bed and clean your room and calling it entertainment.
How about putting a bit of creative juice in how these fests are actually packaged? Right now, they're too earnest, promising a collection of guilt-inducing public service announcements. Which isn't the case oftentimes. Some incredible films first come through town precisely because of these festivals, including the Oscar-nominated "The Act of Killing," which originally played in Chicago last year thanks to Human Rights Watch.
I'm wondering if organizers should start rethinking how they brand these festivals so they don't sound quite so medicinal.
It's doable. The documentary-focused True/False film fest (which just wrapped it's 10th year in Columbia, Mo., last weekend) could have gone with something dry or generic. But True/False? There's something to that, a clever, snappy two-word name with real energy. It sounds smart, hip and, you know, not snore-inducing.
Ultimately, the films are what matter.
Unfortunately the lineup for this year's Peace on Earth fest (which runs through Sunday) doesn't do much to alter preconceptions. Worthy subject matter aside, of the movies I screened there's a noticeable lack of good filmmaking here.
"Tokyo's Belly" (2:55 p.m. Sunday)
German filmmaker Reinhild Dettmer-Finke explores the business challenges Tokyo has faced in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in a documentary that is more informational than informative.
More than two years after the crisis, Dettmer-Finke goes the Tsukiji fish market (the largest of its kind in the world) and talks to a fishmonger who tells her that customers remain concerned about radioactive residue and contamination: "I always say that morale is declining," he tells her. Revenue is down 20 to 30 percent.
He says both his professional and personal lives have changed after the disaster, but Dettmer-Finke doesn't follow up. She simply turns her camera elsewhere to gather more sound bites instead of spending time with this man from the fish market, observing him at work and home and capturing the texture of his life. But Dettmer-Finke doesn't have a storyteller's instincts, and the extent of Tokyo's post-Fukushima reality never fully registers.
"The Other One" (7 P.M. Friday)
Documentaries predominate at the fest, but there are a couple of feature-length narratives on the docket as well, including this locally made meditation on the aftereffects of violence.
A high school teacher (Grace McPhillips) returns to her childhood home in Galena, Ill., to care for her ailing mother (Nancy Sellers) and uncovers long-buried family secrets. Tucked away in a dusty box, old photos and a birth certificate suggest there was once an older brother in the family who died as a child. Dad, it seems, wasn't around either.
Something else, though, is eating away at this listless young woman. It is a traumatic event that writer-director Josef Steiff doesn't reveal until close to the film's end. That's a mistake, I think; the scene itself (just three people standing quietly, nervously in a high school hallway) is legitimately unnerving and worth contemplating during the earlier, non-eventful portions of the story.
The film works best as a mood piece. We spend an inordinate amount of time cooped up in that farmhouse, out in the middle of nowhere, watching this mother-daughter pair in quiet, claustrophobic tableaux: reading, eating, bathing. Something about these sections feels lived-in and true despite the narrative's hairpin curves. (A Q&A with director Josef Steiff, producer Elizabeth Theiss and executive producer/actress Grace McPhillips follows the screening.)
"GMO OMG" (8:20 p.m. Saturday)
Nonfiction films don't have to be journalistic to work. But polarizing subject matter — in this case, genetically modified food— demands an intellectual curiosity missing in filmmaker Jeremy Seifert's scattered approach.
The problems arise within the first few minutes with a montage of people starring quizzically into the camera asking: "GMO? What's that?" This is the documentary filmmaking equivalent of the best man standing up at a wedding and starting his speech with the words, "Webster's Dictionary defines 'love' as … ." Originality is not Seifert's bag.
But even taking into account his bias — and I'm fine with bias if it's well-argued — the film is squishy as hell as a critique of GMOs. (The New Yorker's Michael Specter calls it "aggressively uninformed.") Seifert never explains in any depth what GMOs are (how they're modified and why — information I'd like to know) or even who corporate farming giant Monsanto is before jumping straight to footage shot in Haiti.
After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, many farmers rejected Monsanto's offer of seeds; Seifert talks to one man who decided to plant them. The crop results were not good.
"We pulled them up and threw them away," he says, "because they came up withered, turned red." Wait, what kind of plants are we even talking about? We're never told. "They made us pay. So now we lost both money and seed." Sounds like a bad deal.
Moments later Seifert splices in a quote from someone else, explaining why farmers rejected the Monsanto seeds out of hand: "For Haiti, accepting Monsanto's gift would mean losing their own seeds." Hang on. Were the seeds sold to these farmers or donated as part of aid package? The film is so eager to incriminate Monsanto it doesn't bother to sort out the facts.
"Ghosts of Jeju" (noon Saturday)
Jeju Island, which sits just off the south coast of South Korea, is a top honeymoon spot for Koreans. It's also the controversial site of a partially built U.S. naval base. Jeju residents don't want it there.
Director Regis Tremblay isn't too happy about the base, either, and his intentions appear genuine. But the film lacks organization and passion.
The American military has an ugly history on Jeju, which the documentary explains in fits and starts. Tremblay's narration tends to sound like he's reading a Wikipedia page, but there is a complicated back story here that the documentary struggles to make clear. A bit of chronological discipline would have gone a long way. (Bruce Cumings, a historian at the University of Chicago, is one of the experts featured.)
Interviews with Jeju residents who survived a 1948 South Korean government massacre are included, but it's not clear if Tremblay did the legwork himself and spoke to these people, or if he has simply aggregated news footage from other sources and is passing it off as his own. That's a problem of transparency.
"Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall" (9:10 p.m. Friday)
By far the strongest film in the lineup. A quiet, thoughtful look at an aging inmate living out his final days in a prison hospice program, the film was nominated for an Oscar this year in the documentary short category. (I wrote about the film last month when it played at the Music Box along with its fellow Oscar nominees). Director Edgar Barens is a local guy (he teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago) and lived on the prison grounds while shooting the film. It also airs on HBO March 31.
The Peace on Earth Film Festival continues through Sunday at the Chicago Cultural Center; admission is free. Go to peaceonearthfilmfestival.org.
Fund a film
The Chicago-made documentary "Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All" (which should come out this year) is looking to raise $12,000 by April 5 for post-production costs. "This stylishly produced film embeds us in the 1950s Cold War world when Algren worked," per the doc's pitch on Indiegogo. Go to indiegogo.com and search "Nelson Algren."
Or fund this film
Three homeless teenagers in Chicago are the subject of the character-driven documentary "The Homestretch," the latest work from Kartemquin Films. The project, which is nearly completed, needs to raise $26,250 by March 29. "Most homeless youth are hidden in plain sight," per co-directors Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly. "For the past four years we've been working to capture and convey this unseen experience in a powerful cinematic language." Go to kickstarter.com and search "Homestretch."
John Garfield stars as a young Jewish boxer asked to fix a fight in the 1947 noir "Body and Soul," which screens at 2 p.m. Saturday at Block Cinema. Film critic J. Hoberman, who calls the film "not only the reddest movie Hollywood ever produced but the most Jewish one since the original 'Jazz Singer,'" will be on hand for a post-show discussion. Go to blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun