Film fest documentaries have Athens connections

By Damon Krane
April 18, 2013
Athens News (Athens, Ohio)

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College courses and games of beer pong are a dime a dozen in this town. But if you haven’t made it out to this year’s film fest yet, you’ve really missed out.

For 40 years now the Athens International Film and Video Festival has been one of Athens and Ohio University’s premier cultural attractions – bringing independent cinema from all around the world to the shores of the Hocking. But it only happens one week each year.

Luckily, you still have one chance left to experience the festival – and that one chance is today!

A lot of great films are on tap (go to www.athensfest.org or printed programs all over town for a full listing of today’s films), but I strongly suggest the 7:30 p.m. double feature of “Old Radicals” and “Flying Paper” at the Athena Cinema uptown. These two films – at once homegrown and international – exemplify the festival’s achievements in linking Athens to the rest of the world.

Both films are documentaries, but neither is clinical, boring or overtly political. They tackle their subject matter with the kind of humor and humanity to which most of us can easily relate.

“We don’t make films about issues. We make films about people,” explained Elisa Stone, who co-directed “Old Radicals” with her husband, Matthew Leahy.

However, the subjects of Stone and Leahy’s film – five elderly American activists – care (or cared, in the case of one who has passed away) a whole lot about the peace and justice issues to which they dedicated so much of their lives. And as Stone told me, that’s what makes these unconventionally obstinate seniors such fascinating subjects for a film.

Chief among the film’s old radicals are Athens’ own Peggy and (the late) Art Gish. For decades the Gishes were the gentle giants of the local progressive community. Deeply involved with the Appalachian Peace and Justice Network, UCM Center for Spiritual Growth and Social Justice and numerous other local groups, the Gishes also worked overseas with Christian Peacemaker Teams, attempting to peacefully reduce violence in armed conflict zones. Peggy continues that work today.

Art was voted “Best Leading Citizen” in the annual Athens NEWS Best of Athens Readers’ Choice Awards so many years that The NEWS jokingly threatened to discontinue the category. A photograph taken by the Associated Press in 2003 shows Art, then in his 60s, defiantly standing face-to-face with the cannon of an Israeli tank, as the Israeli military attempted to destroy a Palestinian vegetable market in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

During those years, Peggy, also in her 60s, was in war-torn Iraq with CPT. She experienced the “Shock and Awe” U.S. bombing campaign firsthand and published accounts of Iraqi detainees horrifically abused by U.S. soldiers more than six months before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.

The first version of “Old Radicals” was an eight-minute short devoted exclusively to the Gishes. According to Stone, she and Leahy had planned to expand it into a feature-length film documenting one of the Gishes’ excursions to Palestine. However, Art’s tragic death in a tractor accident in July 2010 forced Stone and Leahy back to the drawing board. The filmmakers eventually extended the original story into Peggy’s ongoing peace work since 2010 and included profiles of three of the Gishes’ remarkable contemporaries: Staughton and Alice Lynd, and Friar Louie Vitale – all now in their 80s.

Asked what Stone hopes viewers will take away from “Old Radicals,” she replied, “These are our personal heroes. If they, in the face of everything – and what it means to be at the end of their lives – can continue to do this work and see that there’s more to life than just sitting in a rocking chair, then so can we.”

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Like “Old Radicals,” “Flying Paper” has an Athens connection. Roger Hill, who co-directed the film with Nitin Sawhney, is an OU graduate.

“Flying Paper” also touches on Middle East issues from an unpretentious human perspective. However, the film’s subjects occupy the opposite end of the age spectrum, and they live under military occupation year-round. In “Flying Paper,” a group of Palestinian children and adolescents attempts to set a new Guinness World Record for the most kites flown simultaneously.

“‘Flying Paper’ is unique in that it is an uplifting story from the Gaza Strip, a place most often represented through the lens of war and suffering,” explained Hill.

“But ‘Flying Paper,’ while it does cover serious topics, is something parents can bring their kids to see,” he added. “It’s a film with beauty and universal themes of participation and striving toward a shared goal amidst a challenging, tattered and, at times, surprisingly gorgeous background.”

Hill’s involvement in “Flying Paper” has, in a way, brought the filmmaker full circle. An undergraduate at OU during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks who traveled to New York to support rescue workers, Hill soon became skeptical of the U.S. government and major media’s depictions of the Middle East as the Bush administration rushed to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hill began traveling from Athens to the Middle East in search of a better understanding, and he took a video camera with him. Now, a decade later, Hill has returned to Athens with a film that not only chronicles the lives of ordinary young people caught up in a geopolitical conflict, but which also allows those young people to speak for themselves.

“Nitin and I felt strongly that this was the kids’ story, and we made every effort to have this story told in the voice of Palestinian youth,” said Hill.

Hill told me that’s why he and Sawhney collaborated with several young Palestinians who helped produce the film through the hands-on youth media program Voices Beyond Walls.

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“Flying Paper” co-director Roger Hill, right, and another trainer work with a student in the Voices Beyond Walls media program.

More information on these two films can be found at www.flyingpaper.org and the Facebook page of Stone and Leahy’s Noonday Films.

“Old Radicals” and “Flying Paper” are testaments to the film festival’s achievements and sure to make for an evening that’s uniquely informative, inspiring and entertaining. Do you really have something better to do tonight?

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Editor’s (Athens News) note: Damon Krane is a freelance journalist and grassroots organizer. He lived in Athens from 1999 through 2009, during which time he worked as a weekly columnist for The Post, a freelance reporter for The Athens NEWS and editor of The InterActivist magazine. More of his writing can be found at www.damonkrane.com

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One Response to Film fest documentaries have Athens connections

  1. brucekrane says:

    That image is so damn iconic . . . . . . should be on the cover of Time or Newsweek. Between the image and your crisp endorsement I am sure that expectations are high!

    Rock oN!

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