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Thursday, 27 February 2014 07:13

Suffer the Children: Voices of Pain and Peace

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ROBERT C. KOEHLER FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

ChildFear(Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt)No matter how bad it gets, we can look inside ourselves and find hope, possibility . . . the future. And when we find that, we know what it means to build peace.

"It's like I'm in a never-ending battle with my brain," Kayla said. "They called me Crazy Kayla. I have anger problems. Someone messes with me, I lose it. I was molested, raped, physically and mentally abused. I was in 127 different homes. I have a 3-month-old baby . . ."

Peace isn't the avoidance of difficult topics but their thorough, unstinting examination, not with cynicism and despair but with the certainty that salvation is mixed into the pain. All we have to do is find it.

This is precisely what a good documentary film does for us, and there are so many of them out there these days. Thirty-one such films will be showcased next week at Chicago's sixth annual Peace on Earth Film Festival, an event I've been associated with since its beginning. The four-day festival, which will be held March 6-9 — free of charge, as always — at the Chicago Cultural Center, takes on a mélange of provocative subjects: Fukushima, agribusiness, gun violence, forgiveness in the wake of violence, hospice care for prisoners, childhood mental illness, and much more.

The festival's mission, which it accomplishes every year, is to "raise awareness of peace, nonviolence, social justice and an eco-balanced world."

This is no small feat. To do so, its films need to push against the cynicism and inertia of the world we live in, and challenge the special interests that profit from the inertia. We can only raise our awareness by looking squarely at what we'd prefer to avoid, or rather, what the 24-7 media that surrounds us and shapes our world would prefer to avoid. The films at this festival take risks.

So, welcome to Kayla's world, Jasmine's world, Lexie's world, Shawn's world . . .

These and other young people are part of "Hear Our Voices: Transforming the Children's Mental Health System," one of the festival's documentaries, directed by David and Patricia Earnhardt. The film takes us into the darkness of childhood mental illness and the system that deals with it. It gives us real-time tears and anguish as the kids, and their parents, cope with suicidal impulses, anger, despair and frustration. It gives us raw honesty and vulnerability — and hope.

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While mental illness remains a condition permeated with stigma and stereotype, not to mention institutional foolishness, the young people in "Hear Our Voices" have a lot going for them, and the professionals who weigh in with their perspective, framing the young people's candid stories, bring insight and wisdom to bear on the state of being emotionally lost.

The driving force of the film seems to be the importance of focusing on the young people's strengths, not their misbehavior: helping them discover what they can do to help themselves. For instance, in one attention-grabbing interview, Karl Dennis, founder of a Chicago-based child welfare agency called Kaleidoscope, told the story of a troubled 13-year-old boy who kept running away — once actually stealing a semi and driving it for several miles until he crashed it into a ditch.

Speaking with an almost impish wonder, Dennis explained that the authorities "didn't see it as a positive! How many kids can drive a semi?" The boy may have been acting with breath-taking foolishness, but what skill, what potential, he displayed. The boy had absolutely no use for school, but, Dennis asked him, "What if it was close to a truck stop?" Maybe a real trucker would be his mentor. "If he let you spend a couple of hours handing him tools, would you go to school?" The boy said yes.

The film doesn't present quick fixes, but it conveys a sense of awe about what's possible. Part of the strength that young people have, as they struggle with their lives and the demons of their pasts, is one another. Much of the documentary takes place inside conversation circles, as the teens share their life stories amid tears and hugs and solidarity.

"You black out, you're not yourself," Shawn says at one point, explaining what it's like to be bipolar.

Another young man tells him, "I'm bipolar too." He knows, he knows. And so do we, as we watch their lives unfold in real time.

Part of the film's dramatic narrative, for instance, is about Kayla's attempt to attain "emancipation" from her current foster-care situation and be able to live as an adult, making life decisions for herself and her young son, Eli. We see her addressing the juvenile court judge and, ultimately, holding her disappointment in check when the request is denied until she turns 18.

Despite the setback, the vibrancy of her personality animates the film. Kayla's voice throughout the film is reassuring and supportive to the other vulnerable young people. At one point, near the end, she explains herself: "My God-given talent," she says, "is to go through things, experience the worst — and help other people."

And this is a voice worth hearing.

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit his website at commonwonders.com.