Announcing The Winner of the 37th Annual John Michaels Award

John Michaels was a cinema student at SIU Carbondale in the 1980s, who dedicated his work to peace and justice. While a student, he traveled to Cuba with Professor Emeritus and Big Muddy Film Festival founder Mike Covell and Edgar Barens, recent Academy Award nominee who will kick off this year’s BMFF with Prison Terminal, to document the daily life of people immersed in that living revolution. Closer to home, Michaels worked on a film about a St Louis church that gave sanctuary to refugees from El Salvador.

After leaving Carbondale, Michaels was diagnosed with brain cancer, from which he did not survive. To memorialize his work, the Big Muddy Film Festival added an award category to encourage filmmakers who focus on creating inspiring stories about struggles for social justice, locally and in the world. Each year a jury of local activists and engaged residents spends a day watching documentaries in order to select the ones that offered the most relevant, impassioned and engaged perspectives to the many troubles of our time. This year’s jury included Courtney Smith, Jessica Allee, Shay Chess, Sharifa Stewart, Georgia de la Garza, Tod Kington, Paul Matelonis, Marilyn Smerken and Cathy Talbott. We’d like to thank them and our John Michaels chair, Sarah Lewison, and our host, Angela Aguaya,. This year, they viewed films covering a range of subjects, environmental racism, police brutality, institutional racism, industrial toxins and dangerous petrol-infrastructures, and struggles for true democratic representation.

Many of these films intelligently, sometimes humorously, uncovered the systemic roots of injustice in laws that do not provide protection for the most vulnerable in our society. The most inspiring films revealed a vision of the possible- ways that people are reorienting themselves within the society by creating new communities, by conducting their own research and by forging new possibilities for the cultivation of non-violence, mutual care, and justice as a public form of love.

The winner of the 2015 John Michaels Film Award is Karina Epperlein’s Finding the Gold Within.

This is an inspiring documentary about the storytelling pedagogies of a youth program in Akron Ohio called the Alchemy Project. This beautifully shot film leaves viewers with a feeling of concrete hope and awe for the young men who are its subjects, as we see them become articulate spokespersons for their developing values of community and integrity. The Jungian based Alchemy Project nurtures young men within a circle of love and compassion, where together, participants support each other on the project of cultivating the inner capacities one needs to face life’s journey.

In second place for the award, we have Arresting Power – Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon, directed by Jodi Darby & Julie Perini. This film is an acute and compassionate look at the realities of police brutality in Portland, Oregon. Produced through a collective study process by resident participants, the film is crucially relevant for keeping the problem of police indemnity in the public eye.
This sensitively and creatively made film honors the lives of hundreds of people who have been victims of police brutality, and highlights solutions, offering a model of citizen organizing and redress.

The jury noted several others films as important for facilitating discussion about how status quo conditions often reflect institutional racism and other forms of injustice. These documentaries offer a window to ways that people organize among themselves and seek change. Never tidy- these films show how messy organizing for change can be, and how it is necessarily integrated into the fabric of daily life.

The Uprising (Directed by Peter Snowden) | An exhilarating experimentally edited montage of the pan-arabic rebellions in 2011, this film was compiled with the footage shot by hundreds of people across the Arabic world in that year.

In an Ideal World (Directed by Noel Schwerin) | A film about a non-violent pedagogy program at Soledad prison- incredibly interesting story, inspiring and vitally important for inviting people to think about the institution of incarceration and its many failures.

Crying Earth Rise Up (Directed by Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden) | This film about uranium mining brought so many issues together- especially explicitly linking industrial uses of land and the poisoning of land and water with rural issues and social inequities, particularly having to do with the sovereignty of indigenous people.

Out of Deepwood (Directed by Craig Weflen} | This film tells the story of how the City of Dallas allowed a toxic dump to fester in a middle-class African American suburban neighborhood until activists insisted it is cleaned up. This film offers a succinct understanding of how urban and suburban zoning laws operated to enforce environmental injustices throughout the last decades.

These films, along with many others, will be showing at the 37th Annual Big Muddy Film Festival launching on February 24, 2015 – March 1, 2015.