BACK IN 1965-67, the Peace Corps had the idea of letting two RPCVs make a film about being in the Peace Corps. I’m not quite sure how it all came about, but I’m guessing the idea had the encouragement of Harris Wofford, then an Associate Director of the agency, and the film was made by two Nigeria One RPCVs: Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961–63) and David Schickele (Nigeria 1961–63). The film was called Give Me a Riddle. The Peace Corps was planning to use it for recruitment. Well, when RPCVs make a movie of their experiences, let me tell you, the agency is never going to use it for recruitment. Give Me a Riddle was too honest a representation of Peace Corps Volunteers life overseas; the agency couldn’t handle it.
I was thinking about Give Me a Riddle last night as I watched Niger’66: A Peace Corps Diary. It was done by two Niger Volunteers, Judy Irola and Robert Potter, both of whom served from 1966 to 1968 with 66 other PCVs, working in agriculture, digging wells and starting health clinics.
For the movie, a dozen or so people were interviewed by Irola and Potter here in the States and in Niger. Five of the training group returned in 2008 to Niger for three weeks, returning to their former villages, meeting up with former students, friends, and HCNs, as well as current PCVs serving today in Niger.
Watching the video, my first reaction was: this would be great to show at Staging for Niger. Next I thought, well, maybe it could be used as a recruitment film, then next I thought, no, the Peace Corps will never show this film to anyone, and finally I realized that this is a video everyone should see, whether they were in the Peace Corps or not.
Some background on the two who made Niger ’66: A Peace Corps Diary.
Judy Irola, who produced and directed the film, came home from Niger in 1968 and returned to San Francisco where she went to work for KQED-TV in their documentary film unit. In 1995 she was the third woman to be invited to become a member of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). In 1997 she was the recipient of Kodak’s Vision Award. Judy is a Full Professor and holds the Conrad Hall Chair in Cinematography (endowed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts (SCA). She is also the Head of Cinematography, and Chair of the Full Faculty at SCA.
Co-Producer and Cinematographer was Bob Potter who also spent two years (1966-68) in Niger where he worked in audio-visual and textbook production for an adult literacy effort. He returned to complete his undergraduate degree in Design at the University of Washington (Seattle). When he graduation he joined VISTA and was sent to New York City and worked in a counseling program with the NYC Department of Corrections (1969-70).
In 1977, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and took a position in regional planning and community outreach with the Health Systems Agency. In ’83, he joined the U.S. National Park Service to supervise media production and manage conservation projects; in all, he worked there for 23 years. During that time he created Media-Media Video Productions where he generated more than two-dozen short and feature length documentaries about leadership issues within the environmental movement, conservation, and cultural heritage. Today he lives in Chester, PA, and produces short subject and promotional documentaries in high-definition video for various clients.
Because these two professionals knew what they are doing, they have produced a professional documentary on the life, then and now, of Peace Corps Volunteers, RPCVs, and the villagers they lived with in Niger. Setting their film against the spirit of the times — from the anti-war movement and flower children, to women’s liberation, the film details the lives of this group of PCVs who are incredibly honest and direct about their experiences and feelings. Their honesty and forthrightness is breathtaking.
All of us of a certain age remember those days of the late ’50s and early ’60s and the pressures of family, friends, and societies, our own, and the host countries. The Peace Corps ranks were fueled in those early years with men avoiding Vietnam, and women avoiding the limited opportunities and horizons of adulthood role — teacher, nurse, secretary, mother. One of the interviewed women sums it up this way: “the Peace Corps was another option.”
Like all of us, these 66 PCVs went to Niger to change the lives of others and were changed themselves by the experience. Looking back now from the safety of time and distance, they remember their journeys to maturity, and Irola and Potter brilliantly make it all alive again, for them and for us. If there were an Academy Award for Peace Corps films, here’s a sure winner. Thank you, Niger’66.