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SXSW Review: ‘World Peace…and Other 4th-grade achievements’

March 31, 2010
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Chris Farina’s World Peace…and Other 4th Grade Achievements is one of the more fascinating documentaries you will ever see. Over the course of eight weeks, students in 4th-grade teacher John Hunter’s Charlottesville, Virginia class take on the roles of nation leaders, UN representatives, the World Bank, tribal chieftans who negotiate the trade rights to their resource-rich lands, arms dealers, and even a weather goddess in a comprehensive game designed to promote discussion, foster negotiation skills, and, of course, ultimately achieve world peace.

With each child’s duty defined, Hunter then introduces a number of crises ranging from economic hardships to global warming to mercenary attacks to even a saboteur whom the students must unmask, put on trial, and prove guilty.

It may sound like too much to cover in the span of a one-hour running time, but Hunter explains the game with concision and clarity, and Farina maintains pace by breaking up the game’s progress into eight installments—one for each week it’s played. The structure is similar to that of a television series: Hunter summarizes his goals for each step and provides a narrative arc for the whole, while Farina follows the children around as they deal with each week’s crisis.

It’s startling how quick the children are to adopt their roles and the seriousness with which they play them. Perhaps less surprisingly, this often leads to violent arguments, such as the dispute between a tribal chieftan who grants land rights to one of the world leaders and is furious upon discovering that his friend has farmed the rights out to others.

Other moments stand out as well: one child has to deal with a team of mercenaries threatening his capital—not only must he defend himself, but he also has to figure out who’s behind the attack (why couldn’t he just bribe them?); another gleefully invades his classmate’s unprotected oil fields. My favorite, however, is the trial of the suspected saboteur.

As the scene is set up, the audience, but not the children, knows the child on trial is in fact guilty, but the prosecutor, despite a distinct lack of evidence, just has it in for the other kid, and it’s only when one of the kid’s friends usefully argues, “I don’t think he’s the saboteur, because why would he attack his own capital?” that the kid’s exonerated.

It’s clear that Hunter’s 4th-graders are the stars of the show, and Farina wisely takes a relaxed approach in just letting the camera focus on the children as they plot, connive, and eventually collude toward something greater than the glory of their own appointed nation. The actual playing of the game makes up the bulk of the documentary, with occasional interviews of the children discussing what they’ve learned, what they expect to learn, and in general offer their own thoughts on achieving world peace outside the context of the game (at times their words and actions are in serious contention).

Filling in the rest are scenes of Hunter discussing his early life growing up in segregated schools, his world travels and admiration for the non-violent activism of Mohandas Gandhi, and particularly his mother, an inspiration and 4th-grade teacher herself.

However, while these scenes are compelling, oftentimes they feel unnecessary and abrupt, and are, perhaps, World Peace’s most notable flaw. The shift in focus from the game to Hunter’s early life and family history disrupts the pace and leaves the viewer feeling that Farina’s trying to tell too many stories when he’d do better (again, given his hour running time) sticking just to the game.

The ending is also somewhat confusing. In the final weeks, Hunter throws the students a curveball and introduces the threat of global warming. The solution is for each country to form a coalition and dedicate a vast amount of their resources to combat the problem—the catch is that all of them must go in—no country can sit it out or else they all suffer.

It’s an interesting twist, but not much screentime is dedicated to it—Hunter simply lays out the problem, then a few scenes and a week later we see the children have agreed to work together and Hunter simply declares that they’ve achieved world peace. It’s rushed, and suggests that farina was more dedicated to his hour-long running time than his material—which could easily provide the basis for a network television series. Fortunately, it’s still an hour worth watching.

NOTE: World Peace…and Other 4th Grade Achievements premiere also included Jon Goldman’s nine-minute short Diplomacy, of which all I can say is it’s fantastic—extraordinarily well shot, deftly acted, and written with the precision, humor, and drama of poetry—I’ve described it to friends as, “Tarantino does foreign policy negotiations.” See it.

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