In February 2002, director Marjan Safinia was invited to a fundraiser for Seeds of Peace in New York. In the intermission, camp founder John Wallach called a few kids onto the stage to talk about their experience. Safinia was instantly hooked. With Joseph Boyle as co-director they drafted a proposal for a film and approached John Wallach. They didn't know that nine other filmmakers had also approached Seeds with similar plans. Luckily, the combination of their unique approach, experience and multi-ethnic backgrounds made merge:media the clear choice. Seeds of Peace gave merge:media permission to film in early May, and the race was on.
In just over 5 weeks, Marjan Safinia and Joseph Boyle, together with producer Hana Alireza were successful in raising over $70,000 for the production of the film, and on June 21st, their crew set off for Maine and the adventure ahead.
Shooting was frenetic. With 166 kids and 50 staff at camp, and only 3 weeks in which to tell the story, there was tremendous pressure to identify kids and storylines as quickly as possible. Over the next 3 weeks, the filmmakers shot everything they could. By week 2, they narrowed down main characters, and spent the next 14 days intensely documenting their every move.
Camp was tough that year. In the months immediately preceding the kids' arrival in Maine, the violence at home had escalated to intolerable levels. With this intense backdrop of violence, the atmosphere at camp was very strained. Despite all their hopes, the filmmakers found that the kids just weren't coming together as they expected. Tensions were high, arguments flared and divisions seemed more apparent than ever. Perhaps this wouldn't end up being the wonderful story of hope they had anticipated.
And then, in the last week, something extraordinary happened. John Wallach, the camp founder, lost his fight to cancer, and passed away with only 4 days left to go. The news shook the camp. In the silence of the shock, one young Ethiopian-Israeli girl decided to take charge. In a chilling verité scene, she rallies the campers to come together, put their differences aside and really make this work. One by one, kids from all sides gathered together, arms around each other, singing the Seeds of Peace song and urging each other to take this as a chance to make a difference.
Safinia and Boyle recall the moment clearly. "We couldn't believe what we were seeing unfold in front of our eyes. It was one of the most amazing scenes we had ever witnessed. After that, everything changed," recounts Safinia, "it was as though these kids woke up for the first time and realized what a precious opportunity they had. In that moment, the kids made a decision to take charge, to act like leaders. The transformation was incredible."
Through the online Documentary Community, D-Word.com, Safinia was able to track down editor Yana Gorskaya, whom they had heard about as editor of the yet-to-be-released Oscar® nominated documentary, Spellbound. "I had been wanting to do a film that dealt with the state of the world" says Gorskaya, "and when Marj and Joe started telling me about the incredible stories they had found, I was sold."
And so it was that an Iranian and Native-American/Irish directing team, a Saudi-American producer, a Lebanese composer and a Russian-Jewish editor set out to tell this universal story.
The film wrapped post production in June 2004, a few short days before its World Premiere as the Opening Night Film at SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival in DC. Since then, the film has played at over 30 festivals, and continues to move audiences profoundly.
"We have been overwhelmed by the audience responses, wherever we have played", says Safinia. "One woman came up after a screening and said that she had gone home that evening and cried, because we had brought these wonderful and inspiring young people into her life, and now they weren't there any more. She said she just couldn't get them out of her mind. It's the sort of response that makes all the struggles to make the film worthwhile."
"Another teenage audience member on Opening Night was so inspired by the stories in the film, that she got on her cellphone and called all her friends and told them to come to our second screening. When we showed up to the theater, there were over 70 teenagers waiting in line," adds Boyle.
At a screening in San Francisco, one young man told the filmmakers that he had decided to give his $3,000 Bar Mitzvah money to Seeds of Peace.
"To be able to motivate teenagers who see the film to get up and do something really says something. Young audiences are hungry for material that challenges and inspires them, not the same old stuff that underestimates their intelligence. It's great to see teenagers so motivated by stories of their peers from around the world."