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)