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Montreal World Film Festival












The 2011 edition of the Montreal World Film Festival, one of the largest film events in North America, is set for August 18 28, 2011. With close to 300 films from all over the world, including premieres of films from the province of Quebec, the Festival is a major cultural event.


Montreal Film In Focus: UNITY CAMP


Premiering here at the Montreal World Film Festival in the same week that saw U.S. President Barack Obama deliver a television address announcing the end of combat operations by the U.S. military in Iraq, the timing could not be better for the new American documentary film CAMP UNITY.


After more than seven years of bloody combat, the American role in Iraq has shifted to one of helping build a solid democracy from the ruins of a devastated nation. What role the 50,000 U.S. troops remaining in the country will take on, and whether they will be drawn into an equally bloody aftermath, remains to be seen. But the healing of the country is also on the agenda, and the subject of CAMP UNITY is the ability of the arts to help in this long process of reconciliation.


Ryan White, a California-based freelance director with some short documentaries to his credit, makes an impressive feature debut here in the story of a group of American music, theater and dance artists who offer a unique immersion program in arts development for Iraqi young people. American Voices is a not-for-profit organization that organizes a group of music and dance instructors to come to the Kurdistan province in northern Iraq to meet with and train young Iraqi hopefuls.


The film captures this diverse group of young Iraqi performing arts students whose cultural and religious mix (Kurdish, Arab, Moslem, Christian) reflects the diversity of the country itself. The first section of the film portrays the hopes and dreams of these young people, all scarred by their war experiences, to be the ones chosen to participate in an intensive dance and music workshop. “There were over six hundred young people who wanted to be involved”, director Ryan White explained in a post-screening question and answer. “However, there was an intense audition process and less than 20% of the applicants were chosen.”



To enter into the hopes and dreams of this diverse group, White focuses on a few of the students in greater depth, giving a hint of their family lives and what the program means to them. Although Iraqi Moslems made up more than half of the students in the program, almost all did not participate in the film, because it was too dangerous to do so. “In Iraq, just carrying a musical instrument or some sheet music can get you killed by extremist groups”, White explained. “If a student was viewed by outsiders as being too influenced by Western culture, they were a target, and in fact, a few people from earlier programs had actually been killed.”


As they prepare for a big concert and dance show to demonstrate the jazz and hip hop moves they have learned, there is an inevitable clash of cultures and egos. The American instructors share their frustrations on camera and express concern that the program could put individual students at risk while also bemoaning the breakdown of discipline and decorum that it sometimes demonstrated. However, in the grand tradition of “the show must go on”, students and teachers alike deal with crushing bureaucracies, intermittent electricity outages and friction between cultural groups that reflect the greater realities outside this “idealized bubble” and demonstrate what a radical program this is for all involved. The music and dance show itself comes off with great success, despite the technical and bureaucratic glitches (a plan to televise it nationally is scraped in a last-minute disagreement).




Despite the limitation of the talents on display, the importance of the workshops as life-changing events for both students and teachers is clearly emphasized. After spending time with these young people, so hungry for knowledge and with a clear passion to express themselves creatively, one cannot help but wonder what happens to them when they return to their home towns and the continued violence and deprivations that mark their existence…..and will their embrace of jazz, hip hop and classical music make them targets for the mullah extremists who still lurk behind every corner.


The experience was life changing for its director as well. “Although many Americans did not agree with the policies of our government of going into this war, we have a moral obligation to make things right”, White declared. “The arts and music are unifying forces that bring people together and that offer a chance that America can be a healing force in a country that has seen  so much devastation.” Amen to that…..

Sandy Mandelberger, Festival Dailies Editor

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About Montreal World Film Festival

Sandy Mandelberger
( International Media Resources)








Online Dailies Coverage of the 35th annual Montreal World Film Festival to be held from August 18 to September 28, 2011. 

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