To engage with the Global Peace Film Festival in 2017, one runs the risk of feeling like a sitting duck, or maybe even an endangered species. It's a wholly logical reaction to an event that exists to promote nonviolent ways of living, and in a wider sense the protection of vulnerable peoples and resources. Vulnerability, you may have noticed, is suddenly something less than a national priority.
In the mood to watch a couple of documentaries that trumpet the beauty and salutary effects of Florida's natural wonders? Try doing so after having just survived one of the biggest climate-change-effected disasters in U.S. history, and while wondering how many more are coming down the pike. Feel like learning about indigenous cultures and their battle to survive within American society? Bet you can't manage it without thinking about the daily push from Washington to forcibly remove any but the whitest and the brightest – a push that persists even with Steve Bannon gone but not forgotten. (Or maybe it's forgotten but not gone.) Hey, you can always settle in for an encore screening of a tribute to one of Orlando's most beloved LGBT activist/journalists, waiting for the updated closing credits to remind you that the icon in question is now dead. As Derek Smalls once noted while surveying Elvis' grave, the experience isn't exactly lacking in perspective.
But if you're expecting festival founder and executive director Nina Streich to sound cowed, or even discouraged, think again. A New Yorker who spends several weeks here each year attending to festival planning, operations and promotion, Streich admits that she's "scared shitless about the fact that there are at least two crazy people who have access to the button to blow us all up to kingdom come." But she's counting on that atmosphere of heightened urgency to motivate her audience rather than turning them off.
"Where we've moved is trying to use the films we program to get people involved in whatever the issue happens to be," she says. "I'm hoping that it'll be far more engaging [this time]. I'm hoping there'll be far more 'What can I do?', far more 'How can I get involved?'"
So it's full fire-starting speed ahead in the festival's 15th anniversary edition, with screenings and educational events now through Sunday at Enzian, Rollins College, downtown's Cobb Plaza Cinema Café 12 and other area venues. Hurricane Irma forced the postponement of a few programs, like a four-film satellite event in Mount Dora that was scheduled for the same weekend the storm hit and is now awaiting a new date. (See what we meant about life getting in the way?) But what remains is still an extensive and thematically diverse offering that reflects the commitment of Streich and her artistic director, fellow New Yorker Kelly DeVine, to explore the conditions past and present that call upon us to devise new and healthier approaches to being.
For example, there's Hidden Secrets of Florida Springs, a picturesque travelogue that shows how much native gorgeousness we can preserve by curtailing human malfeasance. Water flows redirected due to pure shortsightedness can be put right again, we learn – a message sure to put a smile on the face of any erstwhile Weeki Wachee mermaid. The feature-length doc is preceded by the spiritually akin short Don't Drain the Swamp, in which local filmmaker Vicki Nantz proves that Florida's swamps are an asset to be treasured, not fodder for ill-considered sloganeering.
"It offended me that a political candidate and his followers were denigrating the swamp in a dumb chanted metaphor," Nantz explains via email, referring to the 2016 election. "To drain a swamp is a bad thing, not a good thing. It was not surprising that the candidate who didn't believe in science or climate change was the one spouting a nonsensical metaphor about swamps."
The call to do better isn't limited to this state, or even this continent. In the feature-length doc The Promised Band, we see an American filmmaker attempting to foster friendship between Israeli and Palestinian women by conscripting them into an ad hoc, not entirely legitimate pop-music group. (If you've ever tried to keep a real band together for more than six months, you know the undertaking is only slightly less difficult than bringing peace to the Middle East.) And since peace hinges upon racial equality, there's much to be learned from Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, which profiles the 17 African-American athletes who competed alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 games, and who had to weather discrimination from their own countrymen that was in many ways as noxious as the genetic-superiority narrative being furthered by their host Nazis.
And then there's The Good Mind, a documentary that follows the struggle of the Onondaga people to retain their sovereign status within New York state. Not many viewers will likely know that there's an independent indigenous nation with its own government located square in the middle of the Empire State, and that its citizens wage an ongoing battle to preserve their environment and way of life. That audiences will learn about all this from Global Peace is a testament to the emphasis Streich and DeVine place on staying ahead of the curve when it comes to subject matter. Just as peace itself is a proactive undertaking and not simply the absence of aggression, so is the festival's process an ongoing effort to ferret out issues that are only starting to resonate on the national and world stage.
"We want the festival to inspire people to do something because of what they've seen. And so that's what we look for: What's going on locally, in terms of what are organizations working on?" Streich says. "So when we see a film that matches that, that's going to be higher up our priority list. Between two films of equal creative and artistic merit, we'll pick the one that works with what's going on locally."
Last year's festival was heavily weighted toward LGBT issues in the wake of Pulse. This time, that's not as much of a focus, Streich says – although she is glad that the festival is able to pay tribute to the recently deceased Billy Manes by reshowing the 2013 Billy and Alan, filmmaker Nantz's recounting of the legal struggles Manes faced after his first husband, Alan Jordan, committed suicide. How bittersweet it is to watch the film again, with so much of the tale told by "family friend" Anthony Mauss – in real life, now the grieving widower and Manes himself the pined-for lost half. Those changes are encapsulated in a new postscript Nantz has added.
"[Billy] and I wanted to influence the debate about marriage equality, which was unsettled then," Nantz recalls. "It helps me feel more hopeful about change if I'm doing my own little part to help create that change."
Change thrives on discussion, so there will be panels every day during the run of the festival. Also on the schedule is a Desmond Tutu-themed photo exhibit at CityArts Factory. (A planned student photo show at Orlando City Hall and a benefit concert for Somos Orlando at the Timucua Arts White House are both awaiting reschedule dates.) Add in an online-only selection of extra films, and you have a multifaceted affair that indicates the direction Streich would like to see Global Peace chart in the future: "What I'd love to move towards is, like, a Global Peace Weekend Orlando, which incorporates a lot more than just the film festival. Wouldn't that be great? And this is a great place to do it, because the city's response to what happened at Pulse has been so beautiful, you know ... and that's a credit to everybody who lives here."
But whatever form the festival takes after this year's edition is over, it's clear that engagement is going to remain Streich's overriding goal. "What's exciting about the festival is at the end of a film when people are kind of leaning forward in their seats and going, 'What can we do about this?'"
The "this" she refers to could be armed aggression, environmental devastation or any other theme explored in a Global Peace film. At base level, though, what she's talking about is agency – a healthy and constructive state of being the event as a whole is designed to foster. Hence the slogan of this year's festival: "It starts here."
(For a full schedule of Global Peace Film Festival events, go to peacefilmfest.org)