After six years of filming, PeaceJam is finally making it to the big screen. The documentary, produced by the PeaceJam Foundation, was selected for next month's Taos Talking Picture Film Festival and the American Film Institute Fest later this year.
But the film's executive producer and PeaceJam president, Ivan Suvanjieff, is already eager to start on a new project: a twenty-minute short film tentatively titled Kung Fu Vampires From Outer Space. He plans to have Dennis Flippin, PeaceJam's director, play the evil kung fu master Silent-But-Deadly Dennis. "He's just too good-looking to be behind the camera," Suvanjieff says. "Plus, we can do some fart jokes."
Body humor is an odd choice for a program that exposes youth to the wisdom and guidance of leading Nobel Peace laureates, including Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who was in Denver two weeks ago for PeaceJam's youth conference at Regis University. But Suvanjieff knows that to be relevant, the group must be both thought-provoking and culturally hip.
"We do serious work, serious things to help the community out," Suvanjieff says. "But we also want to have some fun."
Suvanjieff and Dawn Engle started the Old Towne Arvada-based organization seven years ago in response to Denver's 1993 "Summer of Violence" and their own experiences growing up on the wrong side of Detroit's 8 Mile Road ("Peace Pipeline," November 12, 1998). After the spate of killings that summer, Suvanjieff talked to gang members in his north Denver neighborhood and discovered that they not only knew about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but they admired his principles. So he concocted a plan to put youth together with high-level role models. Engle got the two an audience with the Dalai Lama (she'd met him while lobbying for Tibet), who liked the idea and suggested they get other Nobel Peace Prize recipients involved.
Since then, they've exposed more than 40,000 young people to such dignitaries as the Dalai Lama, Oscar Arias, Jose Ramos-Horta, and Tutu (who married Suvanjieff and Engle), teaching them tolerance, activism and pro-active community involvement over hippie-skippy bongo-beating.
"When I found out apartheid was happening during my lifetime, and things that were going on as I was growing up that I never heard about, I got angry. I wanted to learn more," says Jes Ward, one of the five young adults PeaceJam follows through a transformation from troubled teen into community leader.
Her mother was an alcoholic, and for a period of her childhood, Ward lived on the streets. But her life changed in 1998, when she met Tutu at a PeaceJam Slam. "I was amazed how someone so kind and gentle-looking could make so much of a positive change," Ward says.
Rudy Balles had an equally difficult childhood. While he was growing up in Pueblo, his biker father admonished him to stay away from drugs, then ended up dying of a cocaine overdose. And Balles fell into the gang life. Influenced by Menchú Tum, Balles now works as a program director for the Gang Rescue and Support Project, helping others overcome the kind of depression and fear that he lived with. "People are definitely in trauma right now, and at the same time hypnotized by junk food, and Hollywood stars, and the American Idol dream, and this commercialization of people," he says. "Everyone is really hiding from what is happening in their lives."
Peacejam also documents Littleton twins Shannon and Shelby Myers, as well as Richard Castaldo, who was shot nine times at Columbine High School and is paralyzed from the waist down. Castaldo also appeared in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, flying out to Kmart corporate headquarters in Troy, Michigan, to convince the company to stop selling ammunition. Castaldo succeeded with the now-in-Chapter-11 retailer, and Moore is giving him props for his PeaceJam work, saying the show "should be seen by every American citizen."
The Taos and AFI festivals are just the first step toward making that happen. Suvanjieff plans to submit the documentary to the Denver Film Festival in the fall and then try to sell it on cable and international TV. The black-and-white film isn't quite must-see TV, but with the popular and critical success of Bowling for Columbine and HBO's LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, Suvanjieff thinks they have a good chance for a response. It doesn't hurt that PeaceJam is set to an original score with songs written by Grammy nominee Nawang Khechog, or that it is compelling to watch.
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"All the eye candy in the film is because of Dennis," Suvanjieff says of Flippin, who previously directed commercials for Nike, Nissan, and BET. "Nobody does it better than Dennis -- or, as we like to call him, International Booty Master Dennis."
In the meantime, the PeaceJammers continue developing Kung Fu Vampires From Outer Space. And Flippin isn't the only returning cast member: Balles and Ward play good-guy vampires hunted by Castaldo in his rocket-propelled wheelchair.
"Ivan's secret goal is to be the John Waters of Arvada," Engle says with a laugh.
One can only imagine who his Divine will be.