After several years of showing documentaries at the Rivers of Justice Film Festival, Kirsten Vander Giessen-Reitsma noticed people weren’t getting motivated to solve the world’s problems--they were getting depressed.
“What we experienced a couple years ago, we selected feature films that were incredible films about really important topics, but left our audience feeling somewhat deflated and defeated," she says.
"And so we’ve been really intentional last year and this year to make sure that we are framing the conversation in a way that people will leave the theater with a sense of agency and ownership.”
This year non-profit organizations and activists groups will not only discuss the problems presented in the films, but also have information about how they’re working to solve them.
“So that people have an opportunity when they learn about something to connect with a community organization that might be doing something about that issue,” says Vander Giessen-Reitsma.
Vander Giessen-Reitsma says there is one film about a global issue, called Banana Land, about how the popularity of bananas in the United States has led to violence and degradation in Central and South America.
Festival organizers also picked two films that relate more closely to what’s happening in Michigan.
The film The House I Live In talks about how the war on drugs in the U.S. actually creates more drug dealers.
“Imagine that you are released from prison, you are having a hard time finding a job," says Vander Giessen-Reitsma. "You can’t sign up for food stamps or public housing because you are an ex-offender. So what do you do to survive?”
Vander Giessen-Reitsma says recently the State of Michigan has changed sentencing laws for lifers who were convicted as children.But the state still has pretty harsh sentences for non-violent crimes. One of the prisoners interviewed in the documentary was serving life without parole for possessing three ounces of methamphetamine.
The other film, called If You Build It, is a little more upbeat. It’s about a group of grade school kids in North Carolina whose designing and building course eventually leads to a farmer’s market for their rural town.
Vander Giessen-Reitsma says many schools are being forced to cut programs like art and music, so educators have to find other ways to give kids that hands-on experience.
“There’s something transformative about being able to get your hands on something and then have a product in the end that you can experience with your five senses,” she says. “They have ways of changing us that can’t really be talked about in a text book or spoken about in a lecture.”
Vander Giessen-Reitsma says part of the goal of the festival is to show people that their choices affect their community and the globe.
“We have a situation today where people in a small number of countries have made decisions that have dramatic effects for people all around the world. And so the film festival in part is getting people to be conscious about those decisions and how the small choices that we make in our everyday lives can be choices that are live giving for others or choices that are destructive for others. Because there are always ripple effects with everything we do.”