“Jimi Sir is the best active movie about being a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

[ Until I saw Once in Afghanistan in 2009, I called Jimi Sir - which I saw in 2004 - the best. Now I am calling Jimi Sir the best active film about being a Peace Corps Volunteer. By active I mean showing a volunteer in service. I think Once in Afghanistan is the best reflective film about being a Peace Corps Volunteer I have ever seen. By reflective I mean where volunteers remember their service.]

A Movie Review I wrote in 2004 for PeaceMail, the newsletter of the Boston Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

“This is English class.

What is your name?

My name is Kumar.

What is my name?

Your name is Jimi Sir.”

So begins Jimi Sir, the best movie about being a Peace Corps Volunteer I have ever seen.

Filmmaker Claude von Roesgen accompanied Jimi Sir [James Parks] for six weeks while he lived and worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal in 1984.

James Parks was a Peace Corps Volunteer twenty years ago in Melung, Nepal, a day’s walk south of the trail from Kathmandu to Mt. Everest base camp. The film maker Claude von Roesgen was his best friend in college and decided to travel to Nepal to visit Jimi during the last month of Jimi’s two years of Peace Corps service.

Today Jimi is Lead Economist at the World Bank for Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. He heads up the Bank team working on economic management and poverty reduction issues in these four countries. Claude is a software application engineer at QuickBase in Waltham, Mass.

The film Jimi Sir is a pleasant revelation to watch. I call it the best movie about being a Peace Corps Volunteer because it describes the joys and difficulties of Peace Corps service and it conveys a complex and personal story about people in Nepal and a Peace Corps Volunteer with humor and empathy in just sixty minutes. We see a beautiful, heartwarming story about Nepal and about the challenges of being a successful Peace Corps Volunteer.

One joy in watching Jimi Sir is seeing and hearing how Jimi become a part of the community and worked with the Nepalis. He recalls first coming to Melung, how he found his own housing in a room above the just completed health post, how lonely he was and how good it felt to go back to Kathmandu sometimes,. He made his best friends in Nepal with people he worked with and with whom he spent most of his time. There is a big difference how he feels at the beginning and at the end of service.

An MIT graduate, he is a high school math teacher, whose teaching assignment includes bringing media into the class room and being a model teacher math/science teacher. His fellow teachers are all from Melung and received their university degrees in Kathmandu.

After being concerned not to disrupt the traditional culture with any other projects, toward the end of his service he began seeking more impact. Jimi successfully planned and completed construction of a school science lab funded by the Peace Corps Partnership Program - where the Peace Corps helps get funding from groups in the U.S. - and a community charpi or latrine funded by UNICEF. Jimi and a friend were able to pour the quarter-ton steel reinforced latrine squatting platform but he needed all his Melung friends to move it into position. As he left Melung, Jimi handed the keys to the science lab to his school headmaster.

One of the difficulties we see is in his recounting of the energy drain on him from being alone but surrounded by many people. Jimi contrasts the effort of having to relate to everybody as an ambassador in Nepal with the ease of intimacy home in America, with fewer friends and where he was shielded by American society’s civil privacy. He achieved a solution in Nepal by pairing the sanctuary of his room above the health post with the company of having meals with the family of a colleague named Tapa.

Another difficulty, the lack of “modern conveniences,” becomes a joy, as Claude shows Jimi’s cheerful, disciplined procedures for daily life. When a landslide blocks the bus during the ride from Kathmandu, Jimi says with a twinkle in his eye, “You just have to wait [and] have patience.” When the tailor cannot replace a button, Jimi says he will find one and come back. He boils his water on a kerosene stove but observes that many Nepalis don’t. If they cut enough wood to do so, Nepal would be deforested.

In light of the current “Maoist” movement, which is said to be caused by the government and Kathmandu elite’s lack of improvements in the countryside, it is interesting to appreciate and evaluate how well the traditional Hindu and Buddhist culture met peoples’ needs. Film maker Claude von Roesgen taught me something I didn’t know when I was in Nepal trekking and enjoying the Kathmandu valley in 1969 - that the 80% of the population of Hindu origin lived at lower elevations and grew rice requiring irrigation. The 20% of the population of Tibetan origin lived at higher elevations and grew corn and wheat which they milled with water power.

Jimi says Melung functioned pretty well and there are quite a few development projects going on in 1982-1984. A math lesson about how many brothers and sisters each pupil has becomes a discussion of changes coming from education and paying jobs for girls. Tapa has just enough land to feed his family and buys extra rice to feed Jimi. Among the castes, many Brahmins have more land and members of the lower caste supplement their income with work in trades.

The film concludes with two brief context sequels. One is an interview with a few young American boys on the Boston Common who while having never heard of Peace Corps, have heard of India and call Mt. Everest is a volcano. The other is a “reflexive” series of black and white still photographs that show the film making process, accompanied by a rendition of the Gilligan’s Island song by Peace Corps Volunteers on leave in Kathmandu.

The film maker just recently edited the film and began distribution. It premiered November 4, 2004 in Belmont, Massachusetts at the Belmont Studio Cinema. My wife and I were enthusiastically in the audience and thought the film’s quality and DVD format meant it was fairly contemporary until Claude and Jimi rose to answer questions.

During the weekend of Jan. 14–16, 2005 several returned Peace Corps volunteers from all over the country, who served in Nepal 20 years ago, reunited in St. Louis. The St. Louis Public Library provided a free screening of Claude von Roesgen’s film Jimi Sir: An American Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal on Saturday, Jan. 15. A discussion with both the filmmaker and the group of Peace Corps volunteers, including the “Jimi” of the film’s title (James Parks) followed.

In the movie, Jimi describes why he joined the Peace Corps. “I went to MIT and studied computer science and worked as an engineer. But something was missing. I wanted to learn about myself and to establish goals and set priorities. I wanted to see what was going on in the third world, to learn about development and to help out. Peace Corps seemed to be the best way to go about it.”

If you haven’t seen it yet, do so. And share it with others in schools and organizations who might consider Peace Corps service.