New graduates' film of Costa Rican 'State of Peace' debuts at Brandeis

Jonah Cohen and Ned Crowley in a mock interview to learn lighting, sound and the best angles.

By Bryan McAllister-Grande

One hot, summer day in June, Brandeis alumni Jonah Cohen ’10, Ned Crowley ’10 and Alex Epps ’10 found themselves at a Costa Rican government office in downtown San Jose. In just a few minutes, they were scheduled to interview the vice minister of peace for their documentary film on Costa Rica’s peace movement, which will be screened for the first time at Brandeis on Sept. 21. The receptionist came out to greet them.

“Are you here for the Ministry of Grace or the Ministry of Peace?” she asked. When the team responded “Peace,” she explained, kindly, that this was the Ministry of Grace, and the Peace Ministry was actually located across the city.

What followed was a wild goose chase in a taxi across town, as Cohen, Crowley, and Epps – with filmmaking equipment in tow – tried to find the new Ministry of Peace in a city where postal addresses are nonexistent and directions are given using landmarks (“It’s about 300 meters from the McDonalds.”) Their search led them to a residential neighborhood that looked like the last place to find a government office. Only by frantically knocking on doors and asking friendly neighbors did they finally find the Ministry – in a renovated apartment building, with a tiny identifying sign at the doorway.

For the Brandeis alumni team, this was the perfect example of the chaotic euphoria  of shooting a documentary film about peace in a country that has been called The Happiest Place on Earth. It was, as the Costa Rican saying has it, "pura vida," roughly translated as “pure life.”

Cohen, Crowley and Epps are the team behind “State of Peace,” a new documentary film about Costa Rica’s peace movement. The project was funded with a competitive $10,000 grant from the Kathryn W. Davis Projects for Peace, an award that several Brandeis students have won over the past few years. These Brandeis alums spent all summer in Costa Rica shooting and then editing the film, and created a website, and a Facebook site to document their efforts.

On Sept. 21 – the International Day of Peace – they will unveil “State of Peace” to the Brandeis campus as their first North American screening, sponsored by the Brandeis chapter of the national Student Peace Alliance. The screening will take place at 8 p.m. in Golding 110 and will include a question and answer session with Cohen, Crowley and Epps.

Costa Rica was a natural choice for a film about peace movements. The country has had no standing army since 1948. It was the third country in the world to create a Ministry of Peace, and the first non-conflict nation to establish it. The government has recently used this record to attract foreign investors and increase tourism.

But as Cohen, Crowley and Epps discovered, there is a lot more to this story.

“We thought that Costa Rica was something of a ‘peace paradise,’" said Cohen. “But it’s not that. Like everyone, it’s a society struggling with violence.”

But instead of fighting violence with more violence, said Cohen, regular, everyday Costa Ricans are doing something different. They are facing it squarely and head-on, most notably by creating peace education and inter-communal conflict education programs for young people. “It’s unique in terms of how a society confronts violence,” said Cohen.

“Civil society has an integral role to play” in this movement, added Crowley. The heart of the film is about everyday citizens who embrace the pura vida and work to confront issues directly. “Costa Ricans are really proud of their identity,” said Crowley. “Peaceful transition and resolution are part of their cultural mythology, in a similar way that the Fourth of July – an independence celebrating a military victory -- is part of our cultural mythology here.”

The film was a number of years in the making. Crowley hashed out the idea for the film with another Brandeis alumnus, Aaron Voldman ’09. Voldman was then the leader of the Brandeis chapter of the Student Peace Alliance and is now Executive Director of the national organization in Washington, D.C. He is working with grassroots organizations to support federal- and state-level peace legislation.

Cohen came on board because of his interest in psychology. He wanted to do a comparative study of how a society treats issues of peace and happiness. Crowley, a Latin American studies major, had studied abroad in Bolivia and Chile previously. Epps joined because of his technical and media expertise, although all three alums admit that they learned filmmaking on the fly. After the experience traipsing across San Jose, they learned to leave at least one hour of cushion time before interviews.

“We’re really excited to be part of the distribution of the film,” said Voldman. “We have 70 campus chapters of the Student Peace Alliance around the U.S. and they’ll be getting a free copy of the film.” Voldman hopes to help distribute it at film festivals, and the Brandeis alums will be giving copies to Costa Rican organizations and groups as well.

“We’re hoping to put it up on YouTube, and make it available. The idea is not to make money. We want to make it freely available. The ultimate goal is to teach people, and to show by example how people work to confront a culture of violence,” said Cohen.

The Sept. 21 screening is also a call to action. Students can join their local chapter of the Student Peace Alliance; and they can also text the word “promise” to 738674. Texters will receive a packet of information on the Youth Promise Act, a piece of legislation devoted to community and anti-violence programming. Texters will also be given the number for Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) and will be encouraged to write to Senator Brown to support the Act.

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