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Saturday Feature
Peace Tree Day in Canada
V Radhika

          V Radhika
It is baggage that adults acquire as part of growing up. Looking at people through the veil of "typical" identities: religious, cultural, and so on. As we inhabit a world that is being torn apart by such and other intensifying schisms, the call for peace is now more urgent than ever. And perhaps the only ones that can help adults shed their baggage and break the polarised world they inhabit are children.
This is the belief of Toronto-based filmmaker Mitra Sen, whose latest film 'Peace Tree', pitches for a celebration of cultural diversity and attempts to reach adults through the voices of children. The story revolves around two girls -- Shazia Jamal, 7, and her 8-year-old friend Jacoba -- who want to participate in each other's festivals -- Id and Christmas respectively. Their parents however are opposed to this idea.
Following the exasperation of trying to convince their parents that the girls don't understand such divisions, and that they only see the festivals as occasions of celebration and want to be a part of it, Shazia decides to celebrate her own secret Christmas.
Given that the images of war and its impact have made a strong impression on her young mind, she eventually decides to turn her Christmas tree into a Peace Tree, decorating it with symbols from all religious faiths.
The film ends on a positive note - the parents of both the girls participate in the celebration, and the idea of a Peace Tree gains popular acclaim. "Basically, it is trying to encourage parents to make them understand the value of raising their children with an open mind, and how much experiencing diversity together can enhance their own lives," says Sen.
And although the film ends here, the story of the Peace Tree carries on. Following up on an idea that struck her while making the film, Sen met with Toronto city officials to talk about celebrating a Peace Tree day on March 14 every year -- the response has been enthusiastic.
"The purpose of Peace Tree Day," says Sen, "is to create a common festival, during which families and friends from all faiths and races can learn about and celebrate each other's cultures, traditions and festivals together. Peace Tree Day is a time to educate, donate and celebrate."
Instead of celebrating the first Peace Tree Day in 2005, the plan is to begin in 2006. This is because Sen intends to take her film to children in various schools across Canada in 2005 so "that they know what the Peace Tree is all about and that they can make their own peace tree". Besides, she is working on a longer version of the film as its current 45-minute version was tailored for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Canada's public broadcaster) telecast. CBC aired Peace Tree as a Christmas special on December 25, 2004.
The idea of the film emerged from Sen's experience of teaching English to immigrant students in Toronto's schools. As the school system in Ontario encourages and promotes diversity, various activities are organised on Id, Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah and Christmas. Although most families, irrespective of their religious background, celebrate Christmas in Canada, Sen noticed that some of her students were not allowed (by their parents) to participate in activities like writing letters to Santa Claus or singing Christmas carols in the school choir.
The children, says Sen, wanted to participate in all the activities but they were too scared to ask their parents. "What worries me," she says, "is the barriers created by parents and the imposition of these on their children."
“This concern prompted her to make a film that would address not just children but their parents too. "When you are raising your children in a foreign land you have to have an open mind. You need to understand the experiences they go through in their day-to-day lives and what is really good for them," she says.
Sen, who has a film production degree from York University, hopes her film will make people think, and that the peace tree "can be a symbol in every city, and every school in the world".
The Peace Tree Day is being envisioned as a day on which families have food that is from a culture other than their own; they share stories from that culture, and learn more about it. It would also be a day when kids dig into their closets or buy something for those less fortunate. "So it's kids-helping-kids," Sen elucidates. The Toronto city administration has already given its "go ahead", so March 14, 2006 will mark the inauguration of the Peace Tree Day.
This is not the first time Sen has followed up on the ideas projected in her film with an action plan. She did that with her award winning, first film, 'Just a Little Red Dot', which was based on a true incident of racial discrimination in her school. Later, Sen founded "the little red dot club" involving a few of the film's young actors. The club went on to promote understanding and respect for diversity across North America.
"I like to make films that impact on people's real lives, and inspire them to contribute to society in a positive way," says Sen.
— News Network


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