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Peace should never be taken for granted. Even the smallest efforts should be fostered and cherished. What happens when we don’t heed the warning signs when peace is under threat? These were the questions posed by two powerful films shown on Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival.
The documentary, “For the Sake of Peace” is an uplifting account of two young people trying to promote unity and peace in their communities in South Sudan, a country torn apart by civil war.
Produced by American actor and director Forest Whitaker, it was directed by French duo Christophe Castagne and Thomas Sametin.
The audience is transported into the heart of the matter immediately, thanks to the endearing nature and openness of the two protagonists.
We fall in love with Nandege, a young mother who bravely acts as mediator between warring communities. Then there’s Gatjang, a football referee in a refugee camp outside Juba.
The project started out as a collection of portraits of young peacemakers, trained by Whitaker’s NGO Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative (WPDI) in places like Mexico, Uganda, South Africa. The organisation, which started 10 years ago is now present in 8 countries.
“We discovered such wonderful people, they had something, they were spokespeople for peace, which is very important today,” Castagne told the festival press conference in Cannes this week, adding that when Whitaker proposed to make a documentary based on the encounters in South Sudan, he jumped at the chance.
What they thought would take a couple of years ended up taking six.
There were moments when "For the Sake of Peace" was in danger. Regular gunfire just outside the villages made it impossible to move around freely at times.
“We had to have a lot of perseverance to make the film,” Thomas Sametin said. “We had to stop the filming at one point because the situation in the country was deteriorating. We were a very close team, we had to be to succeed. I think we can be really proud of this work”.
It is a serious film but with many moments of humour and humanity.
At one point Gatjang is listening to the crackly radio when the announcer says that ministers had begun gathering in London to discuss Brexit. So far away, an yet another form of political conflict, on a different scale.
But there are somber moments too, in the presence of Komol, a respected chief of the Logir tribe. He is known for overseeing cattle raids in the disputed Kidepo Valley. He openly admits he’s killed 1,000 people over the years.
But, he calms admits he is willing to sit down with his enemies and discuss a peace process, or as Nandege calls it “conflict transformation”.
We also meet Peter Lonha, from the rival Didinga tribe, on the other side of the valley. His sister is married to Komol, so that makes them brothers-in-law.
Why are they fighting Nandege asks? “Because it’s something our ancestors did,” Komol says, “and we need to survive”.
There is beautiful symmetry in this film, the directors are more focused on showing us what is going on rather than explaining it.
While Nandege travels across difficult terrain country in 4WDs to reach far flung villages, we also see Gatjang coaching girls and boys to play football in the UN camp.
Will she manage to get the tribal leaders to shake hands? Will the different communities be able to play for the Unity Cup and overcome their animosity?
Thanks to the initiatives on the ground with the NGO, the directors had unique access to these places, usually too difficult to film for a variety of reasons, mainly insecurity, but also lack of infrastructure, and provisions.
The filmmakers said they formed deep relationships with the people they interviewed and have kept in contact. To this day, the peace pact still holds.
“I want to feel like we’re contributing to a dialogue, and learning something,” Whitaker says of his projects, indicating that his NGO financial supports small businesses, allowing the locals to find a sustainable way of living.
Meanwhile, “Armageddon Time” directed by James Gray, is not set in today's world, but it might as well be, due to the themes that emerge. Anti-semitism, racism, exile, elitism, liberalism, all against a backdrop of haunting memories of war in Europe.
The coming-of-age film is set in Queens, New York in 1980 and focuses on Paul, a dreamy kid who just wants to be an artist, much to his parents’ chagrin. At the time, US presidential candidate Ronald Reagan is heard solemnly announcing that the US was facing a moral “Armageddon”.
Aaron, Paul’s cherished grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins, at one point recites some lines in Ukrainian as he tells his grandson the tragic story of how his mother fled her homeland to make a new life in America.
No justice tonight
There is also the “private Armageddon” emerging in the storyline, where world’s collide. Paul will face moral questions in respect of his friendship with a young black school friend.
It is a sad, poignant film, with chilling echoes of the present day.
We are uncomfortable at this point because we know the story. History has forever repeated itself regardless of the country. Will it continue to do so?
Throughout the film, we hear snatches of the title song, reggae cover of “Armageddon Time,” by British group The Clash, released in 1979.
Joe Strummer sings “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight,” and he is right. Paul’s dad tells his son the “the world is unfair”, and you just “have to find a way to survive”.
Ultimately, the film acts as a kind of warning. But who will hear it?