'Tree' faced climb to children's sidebar at DIFF

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- A Dubai International Film Festival screening of the Children's Cinema entry "The Peace Tree" from director Mitra Sen almost didn't make it into the popular sidebar.

"I had to fight for this film," programmer Myrna Maakron said. "Since the film is actually a short, at 48 minutes, it didn't really meet the criteria since the children's sidebar is supposed to be devoted to features."

Maakron said she was so moved by the film's message of hope and tolerance that she requested permission to depart from the feature format, and she obviously made a persuasive argument. To hear her tell it, however, the film spoke for itself.

"This is the story of two Canadian girls -- one Muslim, the other Canadian -- who want to celebrate one another's holidays -- Eid and Christmas," she said. "But when their parents forbid it, they decided to create a 'peace tree,' which is decorated with symbols from cultures and faiths from around the world. So the film is a perfect example of what the Dubai festival is trying to accomplish."

The film's message was reinforced further following a scheduled afternoon screening in which local children decorate a real peace tree at Cinestar Cinema in the Mall of the Emirates.

"We felt this would be a wonderful thing for children," Sen said. "It just made sense. Children don't have the filters that adults gradually develop as they get older. They are very tolerant, almost instinctively. And when they participate in activities like this, it stays with them, hopefully for their entire lives. Children like to be engaged, and they don't forget enjoyable experiences easily."

Sen, who works as a schoolteacher in Canada, was inspired to make the film when some of her students were forbidden from participating in holiday festivities by their parents. "These children didn't understand why they couldn't do certain things, they just knew they couldn't," she said. "I wanted to do something that all the children could participate in and the children really responded in a very positive way."

The favorable response didn't end there. Last year, June 1 was proclaimed Peace Tree Day in Toronto by Mayor David Miller, with more cities worldwide following suit. But don't expect to see a peace tree in Hollywood any time soon.

"A young girl saw the film and actually wrote a letter to the mayor of Los Angeles to suggest he create a Peace Day there," Sen said. "Unfortunately, while she did receive a response, for whatever reason, it didn't happen."

Still, Sen is pleased that the DIFF has responded so favorably to the film.

"It's wonderful," Sen said. "Increasingly in Canada, people of different cultures and ethnicities are not interacting, and that affects children, unfortunately. The peace tree is a way, hopefully, to get them to understand there are similarities between people and cultures."
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