You imagine your life, your world, as it would be if you had been born thousands of miles away. In a small Liberian village, perhaps, where everything you take for granted is absent. Soap is a luxury; food a rare commodity.
From where do you draw your assumptions? How can you construct a vivid image of the obstacles, frustrations and pain of those less fortunate when you may have never lacked such accommodations yourself? The average reader will have no idea what to truly expect. And if he does have a presumption, it is likely misinformed by the representations of social media.
To Ashley Tindall, the solution is clear. An innovator who embarked upon an unprecedented collaborative film, Tindall is in the midst of documenting the 27-month voyage of three Peace Corps volunteers as they adopt the lifestyles of those living in Azerbaijan, Liberia and the Philippines. The documentary film, "27 Months," has yet to be released, but a trailer is available for viewing at www.filmarcher.com
Tindall, a 2004 UCLA Luskin School graduate in public policy, is the director/producer of "27 Months" which follows Andrew Brake (a 2010 North Carolina graduate) in Liberia, Catherine Clarke (a 2010 grad of North Carolina) in the Philippines and Marcia Morita (a USC and UC Irvine graduate) in Azerbaijan. All three are not due back in the United States until 2013.
For the volunteers such an experience carries a torrent of inadequacy, difficulty and burden that they now must bear. Tindall’s perspective seeks to address the most difficult issues at hand. She recognizes developments that may result as a "two way street;" she documents not only the Peace Corps' impact upon the village, but the natives influence on the volunteers. How would these Americans be transformed by such obstacles? Would their values change as a result of such a drastic adjustment in lifestyle?
Tindall possesses a proven background in the developmental issues of third world nations. While at UCLA, she had already begun to implement her passion to effect large-scale change, becoming an influential force fighting to expose the failure of a sugar mill community in the outskirts of Ecuador.
In this Amazonian village of Chinimpi, the villagers unexpectedly declared bankruptcy despite a $70,000 investment in the project by the World Bank. As an explanation, Ashley’s report revealed that the "failure of the mill project occurred at every level." Not only were there economic risks and nearby competition, but the World Bank failed to consider the importance of empowering the local community to become self-sufficient and reliable, further weakening the "ties between the community and indigenous organizations through mismanagement and distrust."
Ultimately, Tindall argues, if the funds had been effectively utilized to build chicken coops, this collapse could have been avoided. But as audiences connect particularly well with visual imagery, Tindall’s short video elicited a powerful response, inspiring her to continue exposing truth and pursue the Peace Corps project.
In "27 Months," the volunteers' compromises, as well as their adoption of local tradition, allow a more positive interaction with the community. When faced with difficult moral and ethical dilemmas, however, the question remains: What core beliefs should they refuse to abandon?
When students have sexual relations with teachers to earn better grades, should the volunteers speak up? What authority do the Americans possess in a village that has agreed to host them, provide for them and incorporate them into their culture as their own?
"Taking an active stance against corruption is not as simple as it may seem: red tape, bureaucracy, fragile relations—numerous factors cause the volunteers to question their course of action," Tindall said.
At times, she notes, an indirect diplomatic approach may be key. For instance, Andy, the volunteer in Liberia, may choose to ask students to speak up against mistreatment instead of directly inciting tension himself. At first he hears, "Well everything is screwed up because this is Africa."
However, with the passage of time and his persistence, students start slowly admitting that, "No, [these situations] really aren’t all right." Thus, signs of a transition may then begin to take hold.
In such a way, Peace Corps volunteers can often maintain vital neutrality and respect towards their adopted communities while maintaining a hope to inspire productive change. Instead of highlighting the Peace Corps as an institution, however, the primary focus of "27 Months" is to shine a spotlight on the volunteers' emotional and mental transformations.
Tindall is the first to announce that above all, the volunteers are confronted with the fact that "little bits of their identity," such as how they previously would eat, dress and compulsively rely on technology, take on vastly less importance as time progresses. Thrown into an environment that lacks essential ingredients for survival, they’re forced to wonder, "What are the important things that I can’t live without?"
For these volunteers, superfluous items soon become trivial and are disregarded as the sanctity of life and health abruptly gains a greater value.
In addition, although many volunteers embark upon their tour of service with grandiose expectations of redefining the world, within a few months their romantic "sense of adventure wears away."
When asked for her predictions regarding the volunteers in their second year, Tindall anticipates that all three will "find a way to be effective by scaling down [these] unrealistic expectations," effecting a difference in small, yet important, corners of the community.
How effective, though, will "27 Months" truly be in helping to dissolve ignorance in the world?
In a divided world wrought with misconceptions of other cultures, Tindall’s "27 Months" seeks to provide an untampered perspective in lieu of what our imagination gets wrong. What remains to be seen is how large of a splash it can make amidst a history of misunderstanding.
Want to add to the film's impact? Ashley Tindall is currently fundraising to support the continued filming of "27 Months" and welcomes any donations, publicity or tweets. Visit facebook.com/27Months or follow the team on Twitter @27MonthsFilm.
Additionally, make sure to attend Tindall's brown bag luncheon at the School of Public Health on Wednesday, November 28th from noon to 1 pm. She will be screening clips regarding development issues with Claire Dillabou, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, as well as a representative from the LA County Dept. of Public Health.