An interview with Bonnie Sher Klein, Alison Campbell, Maxime Faille, Seth Klein and Desirée McGraw
Alison Carpenter, Maxime Faille, Seth Klein, and Desirée McGraw are four young Montréalers who took a year after high school touring Canada, discussing the arms race with students. At home, as "SAGE" (Students Against Global Extermination ) they had already become skilled peace educators.
Seth Klein's mother, Bonnie, is a film-maker with several outstanding documentaries to her credit - notably Not a Love Story, If You Love This Planet, and Speaking Our Peace. Watching plans jell for the student tour, she realized its potential as a documentary. The result is a stirring new film - Mile Zero: The SAGE Tour - that's every bit as wonderful as anything Bonnie Sherr Klein had previously directed. In November, Bonnie and the four young people answered questions after the premiere of the film in Toronto. The audience was overwhelmed, and greeted Bonnie with special appreciation, for her presence - even in a wheelchair - was a great triumph. While editing Mile Zero, she had been felled by several strokes resulting from a brain tumor. But she survived a rare operation, and is successfully meeting the arduous challenge of rehabilitation. Today Seth Klein and Alison Carpenter study at the University of Toronto, Desirée McGraw is at a Montréal CEGEP, and Max Faille works as an intern with Parliamentarians Global Action in New York. He and Seth write regular columns for PEACE. This interview took place on December 15, by phone.
PEACE: How did you get the idea of making this film?
Bonnie Sherr Klein: I'd wanted my next film to be about "what you can do." Then I heard Seth and Max at a conference in London, Ontario for secondary school seniors, who talked half the night at the dorm about their personal fears - and the fact that they couldn't talk to their parents about them. They each had thought that they were alone, crazy. I decided that my next film would be about youth and peace. Then at that same conference, the idea of the tour developed. I watched them organize it. When it was clear that they were going to do it, I asked them how they would feel about a film.
PEACE: Did they have any apprehensions about it?
Bonnie: They didn't doubt that adults would go for it, but they weren't sure that what works, kid-to-kid, would work in a film. They said it would have to be real to go over with kids.
PEACE: Have you tried it out yet on young audiences?
Bonnie: Certainly at the screenings, the young people have reacted. It's really moving to see little kids come up to the mike and speak.
PEACE: Yes, I was there at the premiere. One speaker looked about eight years old. It was moving, I agree.
Bonnie: The same thing happened in Montréal. That tells me that our goal succeeded, if even little kids felt empowered to speak in front of 500 adults, to take their turn at the mike.
PEACE: At the premiere, you drew parallels between your experience in recovering from your stroke and the challenge of coping with the nuclear issue.
Bonnie: Yes. The first parallel has to do with just confronting your fears. Initially I had the possibility of dying and then of being paralyzed. The film starts with kids who fear that they won't grow up. The first step is confronting that. It's necessary to get it out in order to deal with it at all.
Then, if you are to attempt change, you have to believe that it is possible. That's as true of healing physically as it is of healing the planet. As the kids said on the tour, people used to believe it was impossible to abolish slavery or to give women the vote. You have to have vision about the possibilities. In healing, there's a component of personal will and participation. Another parallel is the sense of urgency, the awareness of how precious and fragile life is. And that's what the tour was about.
I've learned in rehabilitation to go one step at a time, not to think about what I can't do, but what I can do now that I couldn't do a little while ago. Peace is the same. I know that I'm doing my part and that a whole team of healers and therapists are also helping. In the same way, the kids knew that they weren't carrying the whole thing.
PEACE: Who is going to be your main audience?
Bonnie: We had in mind a young audience and I hope someone does marketing to schools, but it's for everyone and we are absolutely dependent on the peace movement. If people call their school boards, their M.P.s, or their TV station and tell them about it, that will help. The most important thing is to use your magazine. Adults who see it are inspired. It renews people if they feel jaded. There's bad press about how youths are concerned about money and careers. But when you see this film, it is full of kids - not just the four of them. Lots of bright ideas, energy and concern! I hope it will become known internationally, commercially.
PEACE: So we have to make sure that it gets on CBC. Let's see if we can get a campaign going. Now, let me talk to Max and Seth. You guys had formed SAGE a year or so before you went on tour, hadn't you?
Seth Klein: We didn't form it alone. We were two of the four founding members in late 1983. Max was 14 and I was 15. The oldest was 17. We wanted to inform ourselves and offer young people a way to voice their opinions politically.
So right from the start, we developed "the Pledge for the Planet," a postcard that young people signed, saying that they would never vote for a politician who supported the arms race. It was designed for people of pre-voting age. Our first high school presentations were after school or at lunch, in small groups. We had been doing these for years before we even considered such an outrageous idea as the tour.
PEACE: Studies have shown that young people tend to act more blasé about this issue as they get older in their teens or their early twenties. Was that your experience?
Maxime ("Max") Faille: Yeah, I think we found that.
Seth: Yeah, the discussions that we had in the older grades were sometimes exciting for the opposition they brought up. But the younger ones showed more potential for change. Adults sometimes tell young people that they're still idealistic and naive, while older people think more realistically. But I can turn that around and say that it is the older people who have lost something - their ability to think in the long term. We have to think in the long term.
PEACE: Do you think that if you get to kids while they are still young, they'll be different at 19 from the other 19-year-olds? Did your lessons stick?
Max: That remains to be seen, but as an example, at one junior high school, the young people got involved in a peace club and the staff picked up on it and it transformed the school. I've seen how that school is operating now and it is absolutely wonderful. They have a whole global education program going there. When adults respond to young people's obvious enthusiasm and their thirst for information on these issues, then yes, it's definitely going to have a long-term impact. What I'm seeing in this school is not so much that they saw a presentation about disarmament that shook them for the rest of their lives, but that in the long term, these young people are going to have a lasting sense of empowerment which I am confident will help them deal with other issues too. It is giving people a sense of responsibility.
I think that that's what the four of us have in common. People ask, "Why did you four go on tour?" We have diverse backgrounds. The only thing that we can come up with is that we all had parents who believed in our ability to take on issues and try to make a difference.
PEACE: I often hear my university students say that they don't have any influence on the course of events. That belief seems to be the main thing stopping them. What do you say to such a young person?
Max: We give an analogy with bricklayers. You go to bricklayers and ask what they're doing. One may say, "I'm putting this brick on top of that brick." Another may say, "I'm building a wall." Another may say, "I'm building a cathedral." People really respond to the idea that everything big is the culmination of a lot of little things.
Seth: Young people's feeling of helplessness is discouraging but also understandable. We all felt on tour that our schools have failed us on two counts. Not only do they fail to offerinformation about how to effect change (which is what we tried to offer in our presentation) but they don't offer the experience of how to effect change. That's what the film does. It offers the example. Our schools are not democratic. You'll be told that you can influence politicians, but if you can't influence your principal, it doesn't mean anything.
PEACE: Right. Did you notice a difference between the responses to Desirée and Alison as compared to the boys? And did boys and girls in the audience respond differently?
Max: Margaret Thatcher once said, if you want someone to talk about it, get a man. But if you want someone to do about it, get a woman.
Desirée McGraw: Yes, girls would seem to agree with us more, but I don't think that is actually the case. Boys talked more, but many more girls actually got involved. Boys expressed more opposition.
Max: Well, boys expressed support as well as opposition. They just didn't follow up on it as much as girls did.
PEACE: Alison and Desirée, were you role models? Did your participation in this encourage girls more?
Alison Carpenter: When Desirée and I did a presentation together, there was a little more emotion, but not more among girls than boys. Mostly males would come up to the mike, and most of the work behind the scenes was done by females. It was important to a lot of young women to see other young women up there in front. The peace movement is 70 percent female, so it is not strange to see women there. Still, it was good to show ourselves as unafraid to be up front, speaking.
PEACE: You formed groups along the way. Are any of them still functioning?
Alison: Yes, we're still in contact with quite a few. We held a conference call with about 20 groups across Canada this summer. Ninety percent of the schools where we spoke formed groups after we left. Some of them have fizzled, but there are lots of kids in groups that we didn't even hear about. We want these groups to write to the Paper Crane.
Max: A two-hour presentation or a one-week visit to a city can get things started, but it isn't enough to sustain anything. What needs to happen now is follow-up by adults - particularly educators - because it's difficult. Most people who are serious about doing something for peace are also serious about their studies. But responsiveness to young people's enthusiasm can keep it sustainable.
PEACE: There's a funny scene in the movie where a teacher takes over the meeting and shovels his ideas out in your session. Did you often have trouble of this kind with adults who came to your meetings?
Desirée: No, this was a presentation in his classroom, where he tried to steal the show. That didn't happen often. Only with adults did we get that kind of condescending treatment. Young people, even though they would sometimes disagree with us, would always respect what we were doing. Adults would sometimes attack us personally.
Alison: That particular teacher was responding to our method, which was not to give a speech, but to engage the students. The way to get kids thinking and enthusiastic is to include them in the discussion at the very beginning. But teachers are used to standing in front of a class and "teaching" - talking to the kids without involving them. And even when Desirée explained our method to them, they got nervous.
Bonnie: There was a selection process, too. You only spoke to those classes and schools where they were willing to have you. You don't know about those closed classes and closed schools.
Seth: Well, but almost every school that was approached let us speak.
Bonnie: There were whole cities, Seth!
Seth: Some school boards and a couple of schools said no, but overall, the local sponsors had no problem getting us into a school. And even where teachers or principals were hesitant at first, those who watched what happened, even if they disagreed with what we said, saw apathy turn into participation. So they could appreciate what that offered.
PEACE: Has the experience affected your career plans or the way you try to work in other social change activities?
Alison: It was a one-issue tour, about nuclear disarmament. But through the tour and my experiences afterward, such as going to the United Nations, I see more clearly how issues are interconnected and I see the importance of global institutions - the United Nations. The peace movement needs to know more about the U.N. and how it works.
Max: Hear, hear!
Alison: My optimism is the same as at the end of the tour, but it's hard to keep energy level up when you're studying. Also, once you open yourself up to all these issues, no matter how empowered you are, you still make yourself vulnerable.
PEACE: Are you both more feminist than before?
Desirée: Oh, yes, definitely.
Alison: I went to my first women's demonstration a few weeks ago and it was very different from a peace walk. There was more solidarity and passion. I'm in a women's discussion group at U. of T. and I'm going to major in women's studies.
Max: It's shaped the whole way I think that change has to happen - and my own role. I hadn't considered the importance of education for society as a whole. On the tour I saw how much wasted opportunity there is.
PEACE: You're thinking of becoming a teacher?
Max: It's definitely a possibility. I think quite a bit about education and the changes that must happen in schools if we are going to create a better world.
Desirée: As we came to realize on tour, we can all make a difference by doing whatever we do best - whether it's journalism, film-making, teaching, or anything.
Seth: At university now, what I'm really studying is how I can best effect change with my own abilities. I'm leaning toward grassroots education or politics. The tour heightened my optimism that, whatever it is, we can be effective at it.
Desirée: I know a lot of people who become too depressed to do anything, but I always have the tour in my background. I'm glad I acted before I became depressed.
Bonnie: About the film distribution, I suggest that people use the film instead of the video, because when it's on a big screen in the dark without distractions, the impact is greater. People have a feeling when sharing that experience that's inspiring. The mass distribution will be on video, wonderful that it is. So cheap! I think it's $29.95! The film rental is just $4. I suggest that when people plan a screening, they invite a local peace kid so somebody can answer questions and channel the enthusiasm into the local groups.