World peace on the grassroots level

Film salutes a 1982 Palo Alto campaign to support a nuclear freeze

About 300 determined people packed the Palo Alto City Council chambers on the night of April 19, 1982. The issue at hand wasn't one of parking or development. It was the small matter of world peace.

Councilwoman Ellen Fletcher had introduced a resolution endorsing a bilateral nuclear freeze, but the measure wasn't going over well with her colleagues. Most said they felt the issue was well outside a local governmental body's jurisdiction.

But then came the 40 public speakers, there to make the case that a global issue can be local and that one person's decision can resonate far and wide. Some were young, like Palo Alto High School student Robbyn Kenyon, who presented a petition with 1,000 Paly signatures and said, "We feel that without this reduction (in nuclear arsenals), our future is in jeopardy."

On the other end of the spectrum was Frank Spencer, about to turn 89, who told the council, "I'm afraid I'm going to live as long as you do, because we'll all be wiped out at the same time."

Also in the crowd was Dorothy Fadiman. Today she's a respected filmmaker; that night she was using a camera for the first time. When the council made a dramatic reversal and approved the nuclear-freeze motion to a cheering crowd, the camera was rolling.

Now that drama is the center of a newly edited Fadiman documentary called "World Peace Is a Local Issue." The film, about 15 minutes long, depicts the Palo Alto events of April 19 and highlights other nuclear-freeze efforts: from grassroots meetings all the way up to legislation authored by U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

The documentary premieres Oct. 25 at a Palo Alto event that also salutes other local political enterprises on the Midpeninsula. At the event, called "Democracy in Action," other presenters will include East Palo Alto activist Isaiah Phillips, who will show videos on citizen efforts including "The Weeks Neighborhood Plan"; and Erika Escalante, who will speak on the work to keep residents of Palo Alto's Buena Vista Mobile Home Park from losing their homes.

The evening will be part of the United Nations Association Film Festival. It will also serve as a memorial tribute to Fletcher and to Gary Fazzino, who was on the City Council that night in 1982 and said the speakers inspired him to support the nuclear-freeze resolution. (Councilman Mike Cobb also changed his vote.) Fletcher and Fazzino died in 2012.

The instant when Fazzino changed his vote, the emotion in Kenyon's voice, the steadfastness in Spencer's: They're all why Fadiman makes films. Her art, she says, is one of moments. Points in time that are rich with meaning.

"When I do an interview, there's almost always a moment when I'm moved to tears or am excited or angry, and I track that moment and build the film around it," she told the Weekly.

Over the years, the Menlo Park filmmaker has found inspiration in a world of topics. As she says on her website, "Our films document stories of individuals and communities working toward social justice, human rights and personal growth." The 20-plus movies include a series of four films on reproductive rights (one, "When Abortion Was Illegal," was nominated for an Academy Award for best short film); and a five-film series on HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia.

When Fadiman went to the council chambers in 1982, she had already made the 1978 inspirational film "Radiance: The Experience of Light," about the symbolism of light across cultures. "World Peace Is a Local Issue" would be her first documentary. Camera in hand, she witnessed the meeting and the peace rally that came before. It truly felt like witnessing history, she said.

One aspect of the day that Fadiman still remarks on is the respectful level of debate. "Nobody who spoke to the council attacked them. They were eloquent; they were poignant; they were well-informed," she said.

At the time, reporter Don Kazak wrote in the Weekly: "The politics of persuasion won out."

After the meeting, Fadiman made an early version of the film. Though it lacked today's technology, it played at the Varsity Theatre and won first prize in a local film festival of the day. What thrilled her the most was that Markey, together with U.S. senators Ted Kennedy and Mark Hatfield, showed "a very rough version" in Congress, she said.

Years later, Fadiman decided to make a new version, inspired in part by the ongoing efforts of Markey, now a U.S. senator. He recently introduced a bill intended to cut lingering nuclear expenditures that he saw as relics of the Cold War.

The heart of the new film is still the Palo Alto grassroots effort, only now the documentary has a new soundtrack by Larry Rosenthal and narration by actor Peter Coyote, who has been busy in recent years narrating documentaries. This is his third project with Fadiman.

"He's just wonderful," Fadiman said with a broad smile. "He has a very warm resonance. ... He makes it safe to listen to something you don't necessarily believe in."

Fadiman is quick to credit the other members of her filmmaking team, which for this project also included Owen Tomlins, the film's main editor. Teamwork is important to her, as is sharing the lessons she's learned over three decades of making movies.

To that end, in 2008 she published a book, "Producing With Passion: Making Films that Change the World." She describes it as a guide designed to help even fledgling artists see a project all the way through, undaunted by funding worries or lengthy edits.

"My book is about how to keep your vision intact at every step along the way," she said. "There are many books that tackle one topic, like grant-writing. This is a coaching book."

The project itself is an example of teamwork. When Fadiman noticed that one of her interns, Tony Levelle, was taking extremely detailed notes on everything she said, she asked him to write the book with her. He got co-author credit, too.

The hope that the book will help people "brings me so much joy," Fadiman said. "That's what keeps me keeping on."

What: "Democracy in Action," an event highlighting local grassroots efforts, features the premiere of "World Peace Is a Local Issue" and presentations by East Palo Alto activist filmmaker Isaiah Phillips; Erika Escalante, president of the Buena Vista Residents Association; Mountain View community advocate John Rinaldi, who will speak on the Day Worker Center; and James Lee, secretary of Save Pete's Harbor.

Where: Lucie Stern Community Center ballroom, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Friday, Oct. 25, 7 to 10 p.m.

Cost: The event is free.

Info: For more information, go to concentric.org. The event is expected to fill up, so attendees are asked to RSVP to info@concentric.org. (Fadiman says that free DVDs of the film will be given to anyone who comes to the event and can't get in, and to people who RSVP after the event is full.)

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