“A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps”
Alana DeJoseph Raising the Bar From Quaint to Crucial
BY JOAN MEAD-MATSUI
NOVEMBER 4, 2020
Being a returned Peace Corps volunteer herself, Alana DeJoseph, producer, director, videographer, and editor, couldn’t help but think that an in-depth, comprehensive Peace Corps documentary was needed. “Peace Corps Film Director Reflects” ignites future discussions about the significant role the Peace Corps has played in the world with an eye on the future.
Alana’s “A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps,” a film she directed, follows the agency’s beginnings, first volunteers, and evolution in a style that will capture your heart and remind you how we can make a positive difference in our world.
Alana’s heart has always been in documentaries. She has worked in video and film production for more than 30 years and while reflecting on her experiences in the Peace Corps, she said,
“At a time when the American public either has a very antiquated notion of the Peace Corps, informed by an almost mythological awe of the 60s or is not even aware that the agency still exists, while global problems such as climate change and a pandemic are ravaging the globe, it is high time to bring this unique organization back into the public discourse, to raise the level of the discussion from quaint to crucial.” — Alana DeJoseph, producer, director, and editor
From 2003 and 2006, before tackling A Towering Task, Alana was the associate producer of the PBS award-winning documentary, The Greatest Good, a film about the U.S. Forest Service that appeared at 15 film festivals with screenings in 35 states. The film won numerous awards including the CINE Golden Eagle Award and a finalist designation for the Annual Telly Awards.
Green Fire, a reflection on conservationist, Aldo Leopold, is yet another feather in her cap. Green Fire, a film she worked on from 2007 to 2012, appeared in 29 festivals from Colorado to India and New Zealand. Still airing on public television, it was awarded an EMMY, Telly Awards Bronze and a CINE Golden Eagle Award, among others. The documentary still airs on public television.
To set the stage for my interview with Alana, take a moment to visualize what you might encounter as a Peace Corps volunteer. What’s your perception?
As you continue to read our interview, Alana offers a first-hand look into her time with the agency. But for starters, she described her experience as “the poster experience.”
“My house was a mud hut with a straw roof. I carried my water in a bucket on my head. I read and wrote letters by candlelight, and I learned to speak to the people in Folona, Mali, in Bambara, one of the more than a dozen languages spoken there.”
Joan: Tell me about your upbringing and life before joining the Peace Corps, i.e., Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Munich, Germany to an American father and a German mother. I went to college in Pennsylvania and Virginia and upon graduation from Washington & Lee University, I joined the Peace Corps in 1992. I was 22 years old. George H. W. Bush was president. We had just come out of the Gulf War the year before and I had begun thinking more deeply about how and why the U.S. engages with the rest of the world. I wanted to be part of the solution, part of what brings us together. And while having grown up bi-culturally, I realized that there were large parts of the world I knew little about, particularly the many countries on the African continent. When I received my invitation (after a 1-year application process) from the Peace Corps to serve in Mali, I had to turn to a map to find Mali in the heart of West Africa.
For my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived the poster experience. My house was a mud hut with a straw roof. I carried my water in a bucket on my head. I read and wrote letters by candlelight, and I learned to speak to the people in Folona, Mali, in Bambara, one of the more than a dozen languages spoken there. But more importantly, I learned to listen. I learned humility in the face of a culture that was warm and welcoming and took me in as one of their own when what I had to offer was limited.
What led you to join the Peace Corps? What did you hope to achieve by representing the United States in foreign lands?
At Washington & Lee University I took a class called Food, Population, and Poverty. It was eye-opening and inspired me to want to learn more about the rest of the world. As a teenager in the 80s, I had seen the images on TV of the Ethiopian famine. I had recorded the Live Aid concert on VHS. However, here was an opportunity to get to know people from a drastically different culture, not as victims, but as equals, even as teachers to my naive understanding of the world. I was never much one for nationalism. So, I respected the Peace Corps’ philosophy of political independence from American foreign policy. There was no company line, no talking points, just a people-to-people connection that would hopefully benefit everyone involved. In John F. Kennedy’s words “…what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Or as aboriginal activist Lilla Watson said it: “If you have come to help, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Since those early ’90s, it has become clearer and clearer to me how interconnected this world is, through climate, commerce, and health, and how incredibly urgent it is that we all maintain a global outlook.
How does the Peace Corps satisfy a hunger to travel the world?
Before I joined the Peace Corps, I did a fair amount of traveling in Europe and the U.S.. Mostly, I experienced other countries as a typical tourist: stayed at hotels, ate at restaurants, visited the usual sights. After my two years in the Peace Corps, my husband and I traveled extensively around the world. We worked hard to get off the beaten track. We visited with families, ate street food, took local transport. However, we found that we never were able to get as close to another culture the way we had during our time in the Peace Corps. Two years within the same village, living with the same family, broke down walls that you can’t overcome in a week’s visit. If your hunger to travel comes from wanting to see places, the Peace Corps experience will certainly allow some of that, but it will take grit and determination to stay in one place. If your hunger to travel comes from a desire to truly immerse yourself in other cultures, though, there is no other way than to put down roots and become part of a community. The Peace Corps allows you to do that more than any other organization I know.
What are a few of the travel experiences you remember (while a volunteer) and how did they impact your life?
While I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, I had the chance to travel to Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Any stereotypes I might have held on to about “Africans” evaporated on that trip. The diversity of cultures and the unique personalities we encountered were inspiring and so joyful. In Ghana, we stayed at Queen Mother Mary’s house in Busua Beach. The building was not finished and had rebar sticking out at all corners, but it was right on the beach, and Queen Mother Mary was a hoot.
Back in Mali, in a village close to Folona, there was a woman, Bintu, who would always take me in like a lost puppy whenever I came through. She would take me by the hand and lead me through the village, introducing me to all the elders, translating for me when my Bambara faltered (and it faltered often!). She was my rock when I got homesick or when culture shock seemed overwhelming. One day, I went to visit Bintu and I found her in her hut surrounded by several other women. The mood was somber. With my limited language skills it took a while before I understood what was happening. Bintu had just gotten word that her eldest son who had traveled to Cote d’Ivoire for work and had married there had contracted AIDS and had died. His wife had died, as well. With only one year of Bambara language learning, I had no words. And in a way, that was good. I sat in silence with Bintu and her friends.
What are the five benefits you derived from your time with the agency?
Humility, perspective, empathy, grit, and hope. And a sixth one would be to better listen.
Looking back at the role models of that time in your life, who are a few of the individuals who influenced your decision to serve?
My economics professor at Washington and Lee University first suggested that I join the Peace Corps. My mother who was the most empathetic person I knew, and my father who gave me the love of travel were supportive and involved in their youngest daughters desire for a larger world. My sisters who followed their dreams and shared my experience in letters and a visit kept me grounded.
When contemplating your next film, how did A Towering Task evolve?
Every film I have thus far been involved with has naturally grown out of a previous project. In recent years, that was The Greatest Good, a documentary about the history of the U. S. Forest Service, which led to Green Fire, a documentary about conservationist Aldo Leopold, which then led to A Towering Task – from a history about a government agency to a documentary that involved several returned Peace Corps Volunteers, to a history about another government agency. I know that any future project will evolve out of this natural progression.
How did you make the connection with the writer, Shana Kelly, producer, Dave Steinke, and narrator, Annette Benning? How did your relationship with each of these individuals develop?
Shana and I became friends on the playground of our children’s elementary school. Her thoughtful humor and insightful empathy made it clear to me right away that she would be a brilliant screenwriter for A Towering Task. So as we stood on the playground watching our kids on the swings or the slide or on four-square, we’d talk about what a documentary about the Peace Corps would look like. And it took off from there.
Dave Steinke and I have worked together for many years. He was director/producer on The Greatest Good and Green Fire. Long before either of those documentaries, though, he gave me one of the best gigs I ever had in video production. While he was working on a documentary about the National Grasslands for the Forest Service, he handed me the camera package and sent me out for a week to gather “grassland footage.” For a week I got to record sunrises and sunsets, animals and grasses, and all while staying in motels that advertised “color TV.”
Annette Benning to me is a goddess. We were connected to her through Hollywood director Taylor Hackford who served in the Peace Corps in Bolivia in the late ’60s and who appears in the documentary. Annette was so wonderful to work with. She was kind and accommodating and generous with her time. We feel very privileged to have her powerful voice guiding our viewers.
Where did you shoot the film and ultimately produce the documentary?
We shot in three countries outside of the U.S.: Liberia, Ukraine, and the Dominican Republic. Within the U.S. we recorded interviews in numerous cities all across the continent. We finished the movie in Colorado, where Shana Kelly, Dave Steinke, and I live.
Who were your primary Peace Corps contacts while you were filming?
While we stayed in touch with the Peace Corps and its leadership, we knew that we needed to keep our journalistic distance, so that we could tell the full story, warts and all. The National Peace Corps Association, the non-profit, which in part serves as the alumni organization for Peace Corps Volunteers, was a great resource for contacts to the early voices of the agency, as well as to many Returned Volunteers. Also, John Coyne who with Marian Beil runs PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org was extremely supportive in helping us track down interviewees and archival materials, and check the historical accuracy of many of the myths that exist in the Peace Corps world. And, of course, there were so many Returned Volunteers who helped with their ideas, their archival materials, their contacts, and their time. There is a reason why our credit roll is so long!
How did your work on this film further educate you about the Peace Corps? What are the three most interesting facts you learned?
When you join the Peace Corps, you are given some paperwork that includes some bullet points of Peace Corps history. I remembered some of them, but not many, and that’s where my understanding of the agency ended for a long time. I viewed the Peace Corps through the small lens of my personal experience.
It wasn’t until I started working on this documentary that I realized how little of the Peace Corps’ history was widely known. The founding years under John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver have been documented to a degree, but scholarship beyond that is limited. There are not a lot of books that have been written about the agency as a whole, and there are no official Peace Corps historians. So in working on the documentary we had a huge responsibility.
We knew that whatever we would put in the documentary would be seen as de facto history. We chased down several myths that did not end up to be true. We checked, double-checked, and triple-checked anything that was presented as “fact” to us. And we unearthed a treasure trove of archival materials that are scattered across the country and the globe from the National Archives to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers’ basements.
I did not know how involved the Peace Corps had been with the U.S.’ response to Ethiopia’s famine in the ’80s. I did not know that one of the most effective directors of the Peace Corps served under the Reagan Administration. I had not thought about how host country nationals took care of Peace Corps Volunteers in the wake of September 11th. While the aura of the ’60s has left an indelible mark on the agency, it is the transformations of the Peace Corps since then that fascinated me.
What are you working on now and/or what future projects are on your agenda?
We are working on the distribution of A Towering Task. In this new pandemic world, distributing a documentary is challenging and different, but there are also many new opportunities to include audiences worldwide. A Towering Task has been accepted into five film festivals so far and we have had virtual events with audiences around the globe. I am hoping that we will be able to continue to tell stories about the Peace Corps, its 142 countries of service, its over 220,000 Returned Volunteers, and its future, which has so much uncertainty right now. Being an American citizen means that the Peace Corps belongs to you. It is important that the American public knows about the Peace Corps and understands its work in creating global citizens.
How have the current political climate and the Pandemic affected the film?
When we started producing the film we knew we wanted to take the history all the way to current day. That meant that we would face a lot of pressure in how to handle current events. At the same time it encouraged us to end the documentary on an outlook for the future.
America is forgetting that there is a Peace Corps just at a time when global problems like climate change and pandemics are forcing nations to work together. The urgency of this story about American outreach to the world has only intensified over the last years. And now that for the first time in the Peace Corps’ history all volunteers worldwide are evacuated back to the U.S. because of Covid, the future of the Peace Corps is an even more important topic. When it builds back, what should the Peace Corps look like?
“It most certainly will be a towering task to recreate and create for the 21st century what has been one of the most unique government agencies in U.S. history.” — Alana DeJoseph
Through the many virtual screenings we are now hosting at universities, libraries, museums, conferences, etc. across the country and also across the globe, we are using the story of the Peace Corps as a lens to discuss how to go forward from here. From the economic development perspective, from the global health perspective, from the perspective of sustainability, cross-cultural connection, and global citizenship, the story of the Peace Corps provides a springboard into all the important discussions we need to be having now.
Have you had additional screenings and won additional praise for the film?
We have moved from in-person events (Kennedy Center, National Archives, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, et al) to online events. Universities, libraries, non-profits, government offices, embassies, and corporate offices are having events where they (virtually) bring together their community to view the film and then discuss how this story of global engagement and cross-cultural bridging relates to the group’s interests and concerns. With our virtual theatrical release, we have been able to connect to wider audiences and have gotten some attention from the media. This is still the first step and we are looking forward to reaching all of America through broadcast and wide media coverage.
Where can my readers watch A Towering Task?
Currently, the easiest way to see the film is through our virtual theatrical release:
(Since this is all online, you do not need to be in the same city, state, or even country as the theater where you buy your ticket.)
We are also in communication with PBS and are hoping that A Towering Task will be available for PBS viewers sometime next year. In the meantime, we appreciate any and all suggestions and ideas where we should show the film to inspire a discourse about American and global citizenship. Send us a message through our website.