2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I, but for a group of local middle school students, the European battles and battlefields of "the war to end all wars" are much more than a quickly-fading history lesson.
Using the symbolic playing field and pieces of a chess game, the students created "Chess Peace," a 15-minute movie describing the initial animosity between French and German soldiers, and their ideal evolution to a more peaceful outcome.
The project was the result of collaboration between the San Diego French-American School (SDFAS) in La Jolla and the German Pacific School of San Diego (GPSSD) in North Clairemont .
According to Benedicte Brouder, middle school director for SDFAS, the impetus for the project was the annual history contest sponsored by EUSTORY, a network of non-governmental organizations founded in 2001 to encourage young people to understand history. Recent competitions have focused on World War I and Franco-German relationships. This year's theme is "Peace in War Time."
"I thought the project was purposeful, profound, inspiring and necessary to convey key messages to the young generations we schools have in our care," explained Brouder. The EUSTORY contest has clear goals: 1) Keep memories of events alive, 2) Promote cross-cultural understanding, 3) Promote peace, and 4) Give French and German students an opportunity to work together to build bridges and friendships.
"SDFAS has a recent partnership with the German Pacific School, so I reached out to Wiebke Elbe, the director, and she immediately said yes," added Brouder.
Once the decision to enter the contest was made, the project took on a life of its own, with a series of fortunate coincidences, "with the stars aligning," as Brouder described it. "It was a dream team."
About 40 students (half from each school) signed up for the project, as well as parents and teachers. The first step was selecting a medium. The contest allows research papers, exhibitions, blogs, websites and audio or visual projects. The students decided to make a movie, but first they needed lessons in movie-making.
Help from the pros
Brouder turned to her next-door neighbor in La Jolla, Diane Alpaio. A screenwriter, Alpaio was happy to jump in and teach the students a basic "Screenwriting 101" class. She also helped them focus on the message they wanted to convey and a way to depict it.
"A movie is a message in a story," Alpaio explained. Exploring the SDFAS campus, Alpaio was struck by a large chessboard with plastic pieces on the blacktop and suggested the idea of somehow using a game of chess. From there, the storyline evolved, as the students suggested more ideas, such as using human actors as chess pieces and laying out a chessboard on the playing field.
Alpaio stayed on as director. The students met on Saturdays as well as once a week as part of a class.
They were encouraged to contribute based on their interests and abilities, said Brouder, and this included writing, researching, directing, acting, selecting music and art, and designing sets and costumes. In addition to conveying a meaningful message, the group worked to make sure all aspects of the film were authentic — from music and art to costumes, flags and chess moves.
The whole process took approximately six months. It was a lot of hard work, with the students sometimes standing for hours, explained Brouder. Also contributing their talents were cinematographer/editor Alexandra Borbolla, and a drone camera operator for overhead shots, Julien Moncelet.
Although the students worked carefully, some scenes were serendipitously unscripted. One scene shot in the San Diego Museum of Art has the students reacting to a 1914 painting by a WWI soldier, Otto Dix. In another, they read the diary of one of their great-grandparents, a soldier who survived the war.
Alpaio, who is used to working alone, said she enjoyed collaborating with the students. "It's a happy school, with a respectful and happy environment," she said. "The students are open, but on track. It's refreshing to see their creativity."
The movie, she said, contains a powerful message "… that if you have the courage to separate from the group, others take notice and join."
For Brouder, "Chess Peace" is part of her overall vision for her students. Born in Paris, she speaks French, German and English, has three grown sons, and has been a bilingual educator for 20 years, including working for the United Nations.
"We are trying to raise good people," she said. "People and peace are the most important. We have to be brave and stand for our beliefs."
In addition to teaching students to work creatively and collaboratively, Brouder said the project was about the importance of history.
"Teaching history is key," she said. "Memories of the past are key to understanding human history, societies' and civilizations' stories, to understand the present and build a more peaceful future.
"Here in San Diego, our young students are far from Europe, even if we follow both history curriculum (French and American), and events from 100 years ago seem very foreign to them, though WWI radically changed our world and the impact is still very present in today's geopolitics."
On March 21, "Chess Peace" made its debut in front of the SDFAS student body. Two days later, Brouder entered it into the EUSTORY contest. It is competing against 133 other entries. Results will be announced on May 20.