World peace is child's play at the Projecting Change Film Festival

In his latest documentary, filmmaker Chris Farina introduces us to a public-school teacher who’s making a difference.

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      With his long and proven record of achieving world peace, John Hunter should have been getting way more attention.

      “I was amazed at how little about this was known,” filmmaker Chris Farina recalls of his early days observing Hunter, in a call to the Georgia Straight from his office in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We live in a university town that has an education school, and even with that, there was very little interest in John. Basically, the people who knew John were his students and the parents of his students, and they, of course, loved him.”

      Hunter is a public-school teacher who’s also based in Charlottesville. Farina—whose film World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements opens this year’s Projecting Change Film Festival—first scouted Hunter’s class seven years ago on the recommendation of a friend. “We originally thought it was just going to be some little local film, you know, for the Virginia PBS,” he says with a laugh, explaining that he went in figuring he’d just capture a “masterful teacher” at work. Instead, Farina realized that he had a far more momentous story to tell once he got a load of Hunter’s World Peace Game.

      Eating up a huge bunch of space in the middle of his classroom, the World Peace Game looks like a cross between Risk and a giant version of the three-dimensional chessboard from Star Trek. It’s something that Hunter dreamt up after receiving his degree in experimental education in the late ’70s, and the point is to get a bunch of kids to achieve the seemingly impossible.

      The game begins (after a brisk reading from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War) with Hunter separating his class into four nations of varying wealth and resources, each with its own cabinet. There’s also a World Bank, a United Nations, and a slew of random elements in the shape of a “weather goddess”, a volatile stock market, and a chaos agent whose job is to covertly sabotage everybody’s efforts.

      The game is further spiked with ethnic and minority tensions, arms proliferation, resource disputes, famine, coups, and environmental problems (in the film, Hunter’s class decides it also needs to tackle climate change). Entering into what he describes as “this complex matrix”, Hunter’s students spend the next two months in energetic pursuit of world peace—a task that should be well beyond a bunch of nine- and 10-year-olds, given our millenniums-long failing grade as grownups.

      But even against these seemingly impossible odds, the results of the kids’ busy diplomatic (and sometimes military) efforts are extraordinary to behold, not to mention profoundly moving—something that Farina captures to lovely effect in his film. “Set the bar high and kids will rise,” he exclaims. “Set the bar low and that’s where they’ll stay. Don’t underestimate kids!”

      The filmmaker continues: “John does it in such a humble way. He’s so respectful of his students, and what they gain from it—this life-changing experience that they have through his guidance—it still blows me away, and I still think I’m sort of serving a greater good by sharing his work.”

      Indeed, while the quietly sapient Hunter probably wasn’t looking for it, his days of relative anonymity are over. The World Peace Game began to excite interest when Farina sent a fundraising trailer for his film to the TED people and “they decided on the spot that they wanted John to speak”. A year later, Hunter found himself addressing a rapt audience at the 2011 TED conference.

      His charming presentation can be seen online, while his life experiences are, meanwhile, reflected in the benevolent demeanour captured by Farina’s camera. Hunter, one of the first African-Americans to enter Virginia’s newly integrated school system in 1967, went on to chase enlightenment as a young adult travelling through Asia in the ’70s. He sees his own pedagogic efforts as a “continuation” of the work his mother did as a teacher, quasi-mystically describing the “space” in her approach. “She allowed so much to be, and so much to happen,” he says in the film.

      “We don’t need to learn to regurgitate information,” Farina says. “Instead, we need to learn about the process of thinking. And that’s so much of what John and the World Peace Game is teaching. It’s about how to respond to things that change on the fly. It’s not about having right or wrong answers; it’s about how to cope with something you’ve been hit with because of something that affected something else.”

      Most importantly, Farina notes that Hunter always avoids giving concrete answers when his junior geopoliticos hit a wall. “He constantly turns them inward into thinking for themselves,” he says, adding that with Hunter’s subtle guidance, the game almost always ends with a victory. “He says he never knows how they’re going to figure it out, but they figure it out in different ways all the time.”

      As for the filmmaker, it’s hard to imagine a better person for the job of encapsulating Hunter and his work. Although Farina reckons he can only aspire to Hunter’s “Buddhist flow”, his own humanist values underscore and shape World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements. For one thing, even though Farina acknowledges that public education continues to decline, he also notes that “there isn’t much out there talking about what good happens on a day-to-day basis in schools.”

      Hunter, meanwhile, was immediately impressed with the sense of “quiet” imparted by Farina’s earlier work, an aesthetic quality that carries over into World Peace, leaving room for viewers to do their own thinking about the film’s deeper implications. The director’s open approach to constructing a story, meanwhile, suggests another type of correspondence with his subject. “What I like to do is find the film while I’m there, and then especially in the editing,” he says. “I haven’t thought about it until now, but it’s very much like John in terms of being comfortable with the unknown.”

      Most of all, one gets the sense that Farina and Hunter are both very decent guys—decency, of course, being a sort of basic unit if we’re ever going to have a shot at actual world peace. “In the same way that John just has a natural compassion for his children, I’ve never been interested in making a film where I didn’t feel a level of affection for the people in the film,” he says. “It isn’t worth making if I don’t have that feeling, because why would I want to look at somebody I don’t like for four years?”

      Chris Farina and John Hunter present World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements at the Projecting Change Film Festival at SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Tuesday (April 17). For the full schedule, go to

      Watch a preview of World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements.