Don’t we all have pictures in our heads about Nobel Peace Prize winners — who they might be, where they might come from? (This year’s Peace Prize winner will be announced on Friday.) For me, the subjects of these three films — the winners Leymah Gbowee and Lech Walesa, and the nominee Bob Geldof — challenged all such preconceptions. All three came from surprising, unexpected places.
Leymah Gbowee wanted to be a doctor. Instead, she ended up as an unwed mother, a refugee from blood-soaked Liberia, and doing the impossible. Like a modern-day Joan of Arc, she answered a vision, a call, and changed the world. Her efforts in the 2000s helped force the dictator Charles G. Taylor out of power and into the International Criminal Court at The Hague. (As her country has recently been ravaged by Ebola, she has warned that the epidemic threatens to unravel a decade of peace and has asked for an enhanced response.)
Lech Walesa, a shipyard worker and electrician in Soviet-bloc Poland, earned a reputation as an agitator and rabble-rouser in the 1970s for speaking out against Communist control of labor unions. Mr. Walesa was subjected to frequent firings and intense police scrutiny. But he was undeterred, continuing his fight for fairer labor laws — in particular, the right to strike — until it grew into something even he could not have expected: an independent political movement that became one of the nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union.
Bob Geldof grew up listening to the radio on the outskirts of Dublin, where his loneliness and resentment of prescribed drudgery manifested itself in an all-consuming desire to escape. It was an almost quintessential rock-star story — rebellion, transgression, fame, drugs, escapades, fading glory. That is, until he turned on the news one late-October evening in 1984 and saw a short story about a famine that moved him and changed his life. The next year, Mr. Geldof was in the Sahel region of Africa, overseeing distribution of the $140 million he and his fellow musicians ultimately helped to raise in one of the largest charity efforts ever organized.
How did I happen to film these people? Earlier this year, I was asked by Visa to direct a campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Although I am fairly well known as a filmmaker, much of my income comes from advertising. In the last 20 years or so, I have directed approximately 1,000 television ads.
The campaign, which as conceived by BBDO, Visa’s advertising agency, would involve either Nobel Peace Prize laureates or people nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I was to encourage them to talk about their passion for soccer, and maybe even disparage the opponents they disliked the most. The idea: passion for sports can supersede everything else.
At that time I asked whether it would be possible also to interview each of the people about their activities on behalf of peace. This was about soccer, but I felt that as long as I had the opportunity to interview them, I should take full advantage. All were being paid by Visa for the advertising, but they also agreed to participate in these extended interviews.
I interviewed five of the world’s greatest peacemakers, and chose to feature the three who told the most compelling stories on camera. But it was a privilege to meet and to interview every one of them. David Trimble, whose participation in the Good Friday Agreement helped bring an end to Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and Oscar Arias Sanchez, who brokered the Esquipulas peace agreement that ended decades of internecine strife in Central America, were no less inspiring than the three included here.
It’s the easiest thing to say: that each of these stories is inspiring. They are. I was inspired by them. Can one person make a difference? In most cases, no. But every now and again something seemingly miraculous happens. And one person changes the world. Or as Bob Geldof puts it, tilts the world on its axis.
We have various received ideas about what makes a hero. Courage, determination and fearlessness. But here, often it is a persnickety refusal to accept that status quo — an orneriness, a persistent refusal to accept the world the way it is. Most often, it is anger. As Leymah Gbowee points out, she is a very, very angry person, but notwithstanding, a person who has tried to use her anger to make the world a better, more peaceful place.
I sometimes think of myself as being as cynical as one can be. The world is bad and can’t be better. But even so, I believe that one goal for humanity should be to extend sympathy where it has never been extended before. To stand up, even in some small way, against injustice. Maybe it all comes down to annoyance. Does the world really have to be this way? Why can’t it be just a little bit better?
These films are short, each roughly 15 minutes in length. They could have been much longer. But each tells a story. I hope they all have one or two memorable moments. Here’s one that I find particularly meaningful: I asked Leymah Gbowee whether the women’s movement in Liberia needed her. She said no. It was the opposite. She needed it. Through her activism, she was able to restore her own faith in humanity and in the power of each and every individual to effect positive change.
I was truly moved by her remark, perhaps because I feel the same way. I needed these people to remind me that there is still the possibility of doing good in this world and the possibility of helping other people. That one person can make a difference.
Errol Morris is a writer and filmmaker. His film “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” won the Academy Award for best documentary feature of 2003. He is the author of “Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography” (a book of essays, many of which appeared here) and “A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald.” His previous Op-Docs are “The Umbrella Man,” “El Wingador,” “11 Excellent Reasons Not to Vote?” and “November 22, 1963.”