The 39th annual Big Muddy Film Festival will kick off Tuesday, bringing a diverse selection of films from all over the world to the screens of Southern Illinois.

One of the country’s largest student-run international film festivals, Big Muddy will showcase 80 independent films this year, culled from a pool of over 170 submissions.

The festival features both competition and noncompetition screenings, with juried films in the four categories of animation, documentary, experimental and narrative.

“In general, we’ve always had a history of documentary films, but we don’t actually solicit based on theme or topic,” said Big Muddy Film Festival executive director Hassan Pitts, who serves as technology coordinator for Southern Illinois University's College of Mass Communications and Media Arts.

Despite the lack of thematic criteria, several of this year’s submissions dealt with different perspectives on the concept of peace, Pitts said.

“They tackle the topic in their own individual ways,” Pitts said.

“The Peace Agency” is a story about a disabled woman in war-torn Indonesia who starts a school for women in the hopes of introducing them to the political process and who attempts to ease tensions between Muslim and Christian factions in the area.

“These women aim to nullify (those tensions), so that whatever is driving the animosity, whatever is driving the conflict can essentially be dissipated through their efforts,” Pitts said.

A documentary called “Disturbing the Peace” explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, profiling people on both sides of the issue who try to diffuse tensions.

“A common theme, again, is the idea that … these animosities and tensions are really conflated by something else, and how to get past that and have people be able to talk and relate to each other,” Pitts said.

Another film, “Peace Has No Borders,” deals with American war resistors who have gone to Canada to seek asylum.

Those three films are among the 11 nominees for the John Michaels Film Award, an honor given to a film that is “intentionally courting issues of social change, social justice, environmentalism or issues that surround a community,” Pitts said.

This year’s panel of judges for the juried films consists of filmmakers Tomas Pichardo-Espaillat, Alrick Brown and Ines Sommer.

Established in 1979, Big Muddy stands as one of the oldest film festivals in the nation associated with a university. In an effort to widen the festival’s reach, the crew recruited a special events group affiliated with Carbondale Tourism to assist with marketing this year.

“We’re trying to make it so that the festival grows, but in the way that is logical and right, and so we’re trying to take some pointers from people who are willing to help — and also just make the festival more well known in the area in terms of draw, and putting butts in the seats, as it were,” Pitts said.

The festival begins in the SIU Student Center and runs through Feb. 26, with additional screening locations at Longbranch Cafe & Bakery, Artspace 304, the African-American Museum in University Mall, Guyon Auditorium and the University Museum Auditorium.

A full schedule of events will be available at bigmuddyfilm.com. Admission is free for SIU students; for everyone else, day passes are $5 and festival passes are $20.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Hassan Pitts' title. He is the technology coordinator for SIU Carbondale's College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. An earlier version described him as a professor in SIU's Department of Cinema and Photography.

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