Filmmaker Garry Beitel views Canada through a lens of peace

garry_beitel_congoWith the Cold War ever present, the distinguished CBC correspondent James M. Minifie posed a fundamental question in 1960 for Canadian foreign policy in his book, Peace Maker or Powder Monkey.

The question: Was Canada to be a minor player with the U.S. in combatting perceived threats or instead stake out its role in conflict resolution and peace building?

As Garry Beitel reminds us in his illuminating new film, À la poursuite de la paix/In Pursuit of Peace, Canada’s answer from the mid-1950s until the early 1990s has been peace building. The French version, with a lot of English dialogue, is being screened November 14 and 21 as part of the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (Montreal International Documentary Festival).

As the film points out, in 1958, Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Suez crisis and setting up the United Nations Emergency Force as a buffer between Egypt and Israel. Canadian troops went on to separate warring Turks and Greeks in Cyprus and stayed out of the Vietnam War, opting to monitor a non-existent peace with the International Control Commission.

All that has changed and Canada has a new posture on the world stage: With combat roles in Afghanistan and Iraq, Canada has dropped from being the most active participant in UN peacekeeping personnel to 68th.

As A. Walter Dorn, professor of Defence Studies at Royal Military College wrote in the Toronto Star: “First under the Liberals, and then dramatically extended by the Conservatives, Canada turned away from peacekeeping to war-fighting, spending billions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan… [where] more Canadian blood and treasure was spent in one decade than in six decades of peacekeeping in 40 countries.”

But many Canadians, including committed activists, have not abandoned the peace-building ideal, and Beitel set out to document four some of them in his film.

Beitel, who followed up his B.A. at McGill in 1970 with an M.A. in film and communication in 1976, has been teaching at McGill for 20 years. He made a first big splash with his award-winning 1991 film Bonjour, Shalom—a portrait of the growing Hasidic community of Outremont and Mile End, and relations with its francophone neighbours. He followed that with films on compelling social issues including Taxi Sans Détour about racism experienced by Haitian taxi drivers in Montreal; Asylum, on refugee claimants facing the Immigration and Refugee Board interrogation; and My Dear Clara, retelling the battle a Canadian Jewish woman waged against a sexist policy that allowed Canadian men to bring over foreign-born spouses, but denied that right to women.

garry beitel

Beitel is the first anglophone filmmaker to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec. With more than 20 films to his credit, Beitel was asked by the National Film Board to propose a movie on peace. “It felt very vague to me, very idealistic,” but Beitel’s research led him to a small group of Canadians working to reduce violence and advance the cause of peace.

He has made half a dozen field trips, filming some of them with veteran cinematographer Philippe Lavalette, to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and Nepal. Much of the $625,000 budget for the film was spent on costly travel, says the film’s producer, Barry Lazar.

The amount includes initial and development funding from the NFB, Radio-Canada, and Quebec’s SODEC (Société de développement des entreprises culturelles), production funding from Radio-Canada, SODEC and the feature documentary film fund, a partnership of Telefilm Canada and Rogers Documentary Fund, and reFrame Film, the Beitel-Lazar production partnership.

Beitel built his 86-minute film around the work of four committed Canadians.

Tiffany Easthom is country director in South Sudan for the US-based Non-Violent Peaceforce, where about 150 local and international peace workers protect civilians through unarmed strategies aimed at building peace. She has a B.A. in Justice Studies and an M.A. in human security and peace building from Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. In the film, we see her at work mediating in south Sudan, even dancing with women in celebration of the non-violent approach to conflict resolution.

Beitel observed that members of her group reflect a global approach. “They come from parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America, are divided into a dozen field groups, and their mandate is to intervene in a culture of violence that is deeply entrenched in the country.” Sometimes they do it on a small scale, involving a dispute over cattle grazing rights, or in seeking resolution over deeply rooted ethnic rivalry, he observed.

“They are trying to counter the recourse to violence whenever there is a conflict. It’s a huge job and they’re in it for the long haul.”

Ottawa-born Kai Brand-Jacobsen has the involved title of director in the department of peace operations for the Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania.

“He’s travelled to over 90 countries over the last 20 years, gives workshops all over the world for NGOs, UN workers, diplomats, government officials and community workers, and set up a peace institute in Kruge, Romania, where he lives with his family,” Beitel says.

Beitel followed him to Nepal where Brand-Jacobsen was seeking ways to integrate ex-Maoist youth combatants into society, but in the film we see him working in northern Iraq with internally displaced people who fled their homes in fear of murderous ISIS forces. “These are people who have lost everything, young professionals in big cities, who after a day or two of ISIS taking over, are without anything, just the clothes on their backs,” Beitel says. “Brand-Jacobsen’s trying to work with them to overcome the cynicism, the anger, the hatred and channel that into constructive work, rather than having them go back and starting a new cycle of violence when this is over. It doesn’t have to continue.”

In possibly the most engaging sequences in the film, we observe Senegalese-born Canadian resident Oumar Sylla in the Congo as head of its land mediation program.
“They are trying to mediate conflict between groups that have returned home in a dispute over their lands,” Beitel explains. It’s all about the boundary, a rock separating the grazing rights of the neighbouring villages, and which rock is the right rock to demarcate the “border.” It’s seen as a life and death struggle, but in fact, “it’s the basis of most conflicts around most of the world. It could be Israel-Palestine.” It’s ongoing, and as Beitel notes, it’s a microcosm and requires a continuing process.

“When you talk about peace, you don’t talk about something that will change in a realistic way in a year or two. It’s a whole mentality of resolution of conflicts that these people and many others like them are trying to develop.”

There are 50 peace and conflict studies programs in Canada, offering training for a new profession.

The film features Ottawa-born Andrew Marshall, who has spent most of his life in Geneva and now is in Paris. He is a world-renowned specialist in political mediation between armed groups and governments, and has worked in Darfur, Nepal and Yemen. “Marshall talks about conflict that he was involved in for five years, others that people focus on for 15, 20 years, and eventually realize that it is just not working. Violence begets violence,” Beitel observes.

Beitel concludes that Canadian and world leaders have to wake up to the new reality, that “wars in the world aren’t won by military victory any more, it’s an old model. All the wars in the world are between ethnic groups within countries, and just about every one of these conflicts is resolved by a mediator who steps in and convinces them to put down their arms.

“The world needs to be healed of violent trauma, and that’s what these people are doing, trying to intervene in that way.”

The film, to be shown on Radio Canada television, premieres in French Nov. 14, 7 p.m. and Nov. 21 at 5 p.m. at Cinéma Excentris-Cassavetes, 3536 St. Laurent.

1 Comment on "Filmmaker Garry Beitel views Canada through a lens of peace"

  1. Gisèle Turcot | February 22, 2020 at 7:07 pm | Reply

    En ce moment de lutte entre le Gouvernement du Canada et les communautés autochtones, nous avons besoin de Garry Beitel et des médiateurs de paix qu’il a su nous présenter dans son flilm A la poursuite de la paix / The pursuit of Peace.
    Gisèle Turcot
    Antennes de paix à Montréa;

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