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Reflections on The New Frontier: Judy Irola Documents Her Peace Corps Experience

By Bob Fisher

Niger '66: A Peace Corps Diary takes audiences some 45 years back in time on a journey with 65 idealistic youngsters who made a valiant attempt to make a small part of the world a better place to live. They were Peace Corps volunteers on a mission to the land-locked, poverty-stricken African nation of Niger--some 80 percent of which is in the Sahara desert. The 75-minute documentary was co-produced and directed by Judy Irola, ASC (American Society of Cinematographers), who was one of the early volunteers. She served in Niger for two years, beginning in June 1966. 

"My experience in the Peace Corps influenced the rest of my life," Irola says. "Realizing that poor people can have extraordinary love for their families and not wallow in self-pity, but instead are proud of their contribution to their communities, was a big awakening. 

"In the United States we were told that we were going to save the downtrodden of the world," Irola continues. "Instead, living with these beautiful people side-by-side in their villages helped us to see the dignity in all people, and forced us to fall in love with a beautiful country, no matter how poor it was. None of us ever saw the world in the same way again."


Peace Corps volunteers in Niger in the mid-'60s. From Judy Irola's Niger '66: A Peace Corps Diary (Co-Prod.: Robert Potter).


Irola was born and raised in central California, where her grandfather and father were sheepherders of Basque decent. She attended a state college for about two months.  "It was like repeating my junior year in Catholic high school," she recalls. "I phoned my family and said, ‘I want to come home.' My parents weren't too happy. My father said, ‘Girl, I'm not supporting you; find something to do.' So, I enrolled at Central California Commercial College, where I learned how to type, take shorthand and other secretarial skills."

After completing that course of study, Irola moved to London, where she got a temporary job as a secretary, and subsequently worked as a librarian at an air force base in Seville for a couple of months before beginning her journey back home in 1965. "Some friends told me about the Peace Corps, which was relatively new," Irola recalls. "I called their office in DC. They said they were looking for secretaries who could work in their main office in the various nations' capitals."

Irola was given a choice of serving in Africa, Asia or Latin America. She chose Africa. "I was assigned to a training center on the coast of Northern California with other new volunteers going to Niger. After I arrived and was interviewed, they told me that I wasn't going to be a secretary. I was going to train in public health. When I asked why, they said it was because they could tell that I was tough enough to survive!"

After three months of training, she and the other volunteers arrived in Niamey, the capital of  Niger, during the summer of  1966. They spent a week in the capital city, where a doctor made sure they were healthy, since a few of them were already showing symptoms of malaria.

The volunteers travelled on rugged dirt roads in 4-wheel-drive vehicles, on horses and camels to villages across the country. They learned the local languages, including French, since Niger was a French colony. The volunteers established a rapport with the villagers while digging wells for drinkable water, working on agricultural projects that helped educate the farmers, and aiding in health clinics where newborn babies and children got the care they needed.


Peace Corps volunteers in Niger in the mid-'60s. From Judy Irola's Niger '66: A Peace Corps Diary (Co-Prod.: Robert Poter).


After completing her mission in Niger, Irola got a job as a secretary at KQED-TV, the PBS affiliate, in San Francisco, and she moonlighted with the station's news crews on weekends and learned how to use a 16mm film camera.  Within a year, Irola was a full-time news and documentary cinematographer for the station.

In 1972, Irola joined Cine Manifest, a San Francisco-based Marxist-oriented collective of six young, idealistic filmmakers, in San Francisco. They produced independent narrative films and documentaries that reflected their political and social philosophies. In 1979, Northern Lights, which Irola shot for Cine Manifest, won the Camera d'Or Award at the Cannes Festival. The collective had disbanded prior to that premiere, but Irola was inspired enough by that experience to make it the subject of her first documentary, Cine Manifest, which premiered in 2006.

After a decade in New York City, Irola moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and joined the USC film school faculty in 1992. She was tenured and named head of the cinematography program at USC in 1999.

Over the past 40 years, Irola has stayed in touch with fellow Peace Corps volunteers. "Our Peace Corps experience bonded us for life," she maintains. "We have had four reunions since the mid-1970s. In 2005, I asked Robert Potter, who served with me in Niger, if he was interested in collaborating on a documentary about our Peace Corps experience and how it changed our lives."

Potter had experience producing films for the National Park Service. He came onboard as co-producer, editor and cineamtographer. They filmed interviews with some 50 Peace Corps veterans at the 2005 reunion, who shared memories of how the experience affected their lives. Nineteen of those interviews made the cut of the documentary. Irola and Potter also collected 2,500 still photographs--color slides and black-and-white film-- that the volunteers had shot in Niger, and used excerpts from a 16mm recruiting film that the United States Information Agency (USIA) had produced while Irola was serving in Niger. 

"We came home to a different world in 1968," Irola reflects. "There were anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, Gloria Steinem had launched the Women's Liberation Movement, and the Black Panthers were actively engaged in civil rights issues. My friend Josh Morton was part of a group of Yale students who shot a 24-minute film documenting a May Day demonstration in New Haven, Connecticut in 1970.  We used parts of that 16mm black-and-white film to show what was happening in the United States when we came home."

Irola and four of her fellow Peace Corps volunteers returned to Niger in 2008. "It was absolutely thrilling to go back and see the legacy that we left," Irola says. "Niger is still one of the poorest countries in the world. It's over-populated and the capital city is polluted, but the people are extraordinary. There has never been a war in Niger. There are seven tribes who have always lived in harmony.


Judy Irola (left) and co-producer/cinematographer Robert Potter filming in Niger in 2008.



"I was so happy when we went out into the bush to visit a women's health clinic, where they are still doing everything we trained them to do, including taking care of  their babies and children and feeding them the right foods that are available to them," Irola explains. "That is part of what we taught them 40 years ago. I can't say enough about Doctors Without Borders, who have trained many nurses to help in the clinics.

"When we lived in Niger, only boys went to school," she continues. "Now, girls attending school is mandated by the government. We saw students wearing uniforms and reading books. Two of the news anchors on television are women. I also saw a woman bus driver and a female camerawoman who works at the television station. There are eight women in parliament.

"It's a much more modern country today, yet the people are still poor," Irola notes. "They like Americans. One man who I met 40 years ago said, ‘You Americans are wacky. Fifty years ago, a Black man couldn't vote in your country. Now, you elected one president.'"

Those observations are woven into the context of Niger '66: A Peace Corps Diary, which premiered at the Mill Valley International Film Festival in October 2010. Approximately 120 Peace Corps veterans were in the audience, including 25 who had served in Niger with Irola. They were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, which President John F. Kennedy initiated in March 1961.

Niger '66: A  Peace Corps Diary has been chosen for the 2011 American Documentary Showcase. It is making the rounds of festivals and is being distributed by The Cinema Guild.


Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.