Hot Docs Review: Peacemaker [James Demo, 2016]


Human beings relish the idea of “sides”. We are small group, social animals at heart. We are born into sides; we take sides and switch sides throughout our lifetimes. Different sides, with frivolous names like religion, ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, etc, impart a sense of grandiosity, color one’s conscience, and impel people to make sacrifices beyond reason. It’s also weird that most “sides” strive unavoidably to expand in numbers and in power, at the expense of another. The irony is that this is a self-sustaining reaction – homogenous lump of humans beget splinter groups (because, we like having “sides”). Given that it will likely never end, how do you practically erase these boundaries, some cemented by millenia of bloodied memories, and have meaningful, working co-existence? What do you do in the mean time, if the penultimate scene before our mutually-agreed extinction is pandemonium?

You drink. Drink yourself silly. There is a reason why only minutes into Peacemaker, Padraig O’Malley was already walking to an Alcohol Anonymous meeting in Cambridge. The other: The John Joseph Moakley Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at UMass Boston is an alcoholic. And a pub owner, a Fulbright Scholar, and author of a dozen books on peace deals between mortal enemies like Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland, various warlords and religious groups in Africa and Iraq, Jerusalem Jews and Palestinians. A discussion on the quality of one’s sobriety is normally a peripheral subject in an AA meeting, if not a premature, fanciful hypothetical. But for O’Malley, that carries serious connotations. Peacemaking around the world became an addiction separate from alcoholism – but one that could take its place. He uses personal funds to arrange the logistics of co-localizing the right people, curating the concept of “Cities in Transition”, where peoples who have suffered inconsolable losses from indigestibly intricate conflicts can share practical experiences in reconciliation.

Despite an obvious material potential, Peacemaker isn’t an emotional or dramatic documentary. Watching negotiators dance the complex tango of give-and-take through words, not swords, is not particularly engaging – until one realizes the price of that hangs in the balance. One Irish politician summarized it bluntly – “We can try to work it out now, or try in 20 years. The only difference would be that a lot of people will have died”. The film doesn’t try to clarify or resolve any issue. It doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t even promote Cities in Transition or nominate other forums for resolving geopolitical conflicts. Its focus is squarely on O’Malley the person, his legacy, and his motivations. The fact that he tirelessly works to resolve conflicts through negotiations and brokered peace accords, often at a high cost to himself, makes him no less interesting than any other bewilderingly driven, insatiable personalities.

Peacemaker doesn’t portray O’Malley’s alcoholism as an escape from the his experiences. Rather, it is woven into the portrayal as both a flaw and a potent weapon. Throughout, it is narrated, if at all, by recordings of O’Malley and conversations, revealing the facets of a tired and worn man who is afraid of the consequences of quitting, on himself and the world around him. As one particularly great scene occurred at a UHaul warehouse, when a steel gate comes down and O’Malley is caught right underneath. “It’s timed”, his companion said, “It’s timed. It comes down automatically.” If that’s not apropos, then I don’t know the meaning of the word.

Peacemaker will screen again on May 7th, 1:15PM.

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs

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