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Photograph by Eric Kanalstein/ITVS
Madame Present : Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on the day of her inauguration, Jan. 16, 2006. 'Iron Ladies of Liberia' screens this Friday in Monterey as part of a joint military-civilian film symposium.

Movies in the Mess Hall

'Iron Ladies of Liberia' screens at an innovative military-civilian film symposium in Monterey.

By Traci Hukill

Retired Capt. Bill Shewchuk, assistant to the dean of the School of International Graduate Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, wants to be very clear about one thing: Windows to the World is not a film festival.

"That has the connotation of an artsy thing," he says. "That is what we're not trying to do. We're calling it a cultural education film symposium."

Whatever it's called, it sounds like more fun than an ordinary day at work. The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, working with the Monterey Institute for International Studies and the Defense Language Institute, is putting on a four-day program of foreign films this week for the benefit of students at all three local schools. As part of the hearts and minds effort, the nonfestival is also opening its doors to students from CSU Monterey Bay, the Monterey College of Law and Monterey Peninsula College. It's also hosting a free Friday-night community screening of the outstanding documentary Iron Ladies of Liberia at the Golden State Theatre in downtown Monterey.

Asked why the need for such a symposium, Shewchuk responds with music to a multilateralist's ears.

"Working with coalition partners is so critical to everything we do today," he says. "I don't know that that's ever not been the case, but we've come to appreciate that the U.S. can't do things alone. So building partnership capacity and having a better understanding of our allies and friends is an important aspect of military education."

Monterey is a hub of military education. The Defense Language Institute at the Presidio is the main language school for the Department of Defense--it's where military intelligence specialists learn Chinese, Korean and Pashto and where future military interrogators learn Arabic. The Naval Postgraduate School trains U.S. officers in policy and science as well as foreign officers of allied countries. An effort to improve America's image abroad could hardly be better placed.

The 15 films, narrowed from a field of 38 by an NPS-DLI committee, cover a variety of nations and subjects: an Arab Israeli female karate champion; exploited Ethiopian coffee farmers; an Afghan doctor working to stem infant and maternal mortality rates.

And there are detectable levels of pro-Americanism in the schedule. The film on Iran, for example, explores one of the miseries of life in an axis of evil, the human kidney trade, and the film on Russia focuses on a nutjob fomenting nationalism in the hinterlands.

"They're all just snapshots," says Shewchuk. "Not every film captures the whole of the country, of course. They're just little vignettes, if you will, of life in these countries, and I don't think you could capture in an hour and a half the whole of life in these countries."

Still, if the one film open to the public is any indication, this will be an excellent symposium. Iron Ladies of Liberia, co-directed by American filmmaker Daniel Junge and Liberian Siatta Scott-Johnson, is a fascinating look at Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female elected president of an African nation. Granted a mind-blowing level of access, the crew chronicles the president's first year in office, including a very tense moment when the country's former soldiers, decommissioned after a 14-year civil war that saw a number of vile atrocities, verge on rioting over their pensions. But the government is broke; the whole budget is $129 million and the debt load to the United States alone is $391 million. Running water and electricity are almost unheard of. At the negotiating table, "Old Ma," as she's affectionately known, scolds the army's leaders like naughty boys. What will she tell the people in the villages--"the true victims of the war"--if she gives the army that abused them more money? And yet at the same table she shows a human understanding, rare among heads of state, of why the veterans are choosing this moment to press their case.

"Christmas is coming," she says, nodding wisely. "That is the bottom line."

Movie Times IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA shows Friday, Oct. 17, at 7:30pm at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. Free and open to the public.

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