'The Peacemaker': Hot Docs Review

The Peacemaker - still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Canadian International Documentary Festival
A deeply moving portrait of its truly admirable, complex subject.

James Demo's documentary profiles a celebrated peace negotiator who has had less success taming his inner demons.

There's a central irony attendant to The Peacemaker, James Demo's insightful documentary about Padraig O'Malley, the Dublin-born author and educator who has made it his life's mission to help broker peace in some of the most fractious societies and violent conflicts around the world. O'Malley has had great success in his chosen profession, having been responsible for advancing the peace process in areas including South Africa, Kosovo and Ireland. The only peace he can't seem to find is with himself.

The doc follows O'Malley over the course of five years as he traverses the globe offering his services to peace efforts in such conflict zones as Nigeria and Iraq. The 73-year-old man was clearly born to his profession, having convened a key Northern Ireland peace conference at the age of 33 despite having had no real credentials or experience other than degrees from such universities as Harvard and Yale; he even bankrolled it out of his own pocket. He does, however, possess one indisputable advantage: his Irishness.

"I always play the Irish code, no matter where I go," O'Malley asserts. He displays a remarkable ability to get warring figures to sit down and communicate with each other — often, as was the case with the Ireland peace conference held in Boston, over a few drinks.

"You can forge a relationship if you have a few jars in, you know," one participant explains.

These days, O'Malley, a recovering alcoholic, is a teetotaler. But for many years, including much of his career, he was a determined drunk, and the cost to his physical and emotional health and personal relationships was considerable. In another irony, he now owns the Cambridge pub in which he spent many of his drinking years.

"I did some of my best work because I was drunk," O'Malley affirms. He also shows the regular spot where he used to sit in the bar, chosen because it was the best place to get his drinks promptly refilled.

The Peacemaker is effectively divided between chronicling O'Malley's prodigious efforts on behalf of conflict negotiations — he practically lives out of a suitcase, and his Boston apartment is spartanly decorated — and depicting his fragile emotional and physical state. He describes his work as "an escape from utter despair," and he's worried that his years of drinking have begun to take their toll. He's most afraid that he may be entering the early stages of Alzheimer.  

O'Malley is a compelling camera subject, gaunt yet physically commanding, soft-spoken but charismatic, his soft Irish brogue as pleasant for us to listen to as it must be for the groups with whom he works. It's easy to see why this deeply thoughtful, self-made diplomat has succeeded where so many others have failed. It's thus all the more poignant that his own demons have proven far more difficult for him to tame than so many of the world's.

Venue: Hot Docs
Production: Central Square Films, Principle Pictures
Director-producer: James Demo
Executive producers: Stephen Nemeth, Beth Murphy
Editors: Erin Casper
Composer: Al Lethbridge

Not rated, 88 minutes