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Local film offers new take on Afghanistan

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By JOHN FLOWERS

BRIDPORT — Jill Vickers’ recollections of Afghanistan had been of a proud, resourceful population working hard to get by in a foreboding yet majestic setting.

But Vickers’ vivid memories, culled from a stint as a Peace Corps worker in Afghanistan from 1969-1971, had become clouded this decade — not as much from the passage of time as by TV footage of bombings and some media portrayals of Afghans as terrorists.

“Afghanistan is a place where terrorists live and thrive? This was not our experience,” Vickers said of her and her colleagues’ recollections of Afghanistan, where they had scoured the countryside inoculating people in small towns against smallpox.

The Bridport resident and her 16 fellow Peace Corps associates are now sharing memories of their experiences in a new documentary film titled “Once in Afghanistan.” The recently completed 70-minute film was produced by Vickers and Jody Bergedick, the youth program coordinator for Middlebury Community Television (MCTV).

Set for its premier at Castleton State College’s Casella Theater on Thursday, Oct. 16, at 3:30 and 7 p.m., “Once in Afghanistan” features heartfelt and poignant interviews with the 17 Peace Corps volunteers who are now spread throughout the country.

The film, which Vickers expects to air on MCTV at a later date and will be available on DVD, includes still photos of the vaccinators and 1960s-era footage of Afghanistan supplied by Middlebury resident Foster McEdward.

Vickers unwittingly planted the seeds for “Once in Afghanistan” in 2004, during a reunion with her former Peace Corps colleagues. Wanting a keepsake of the gathering, Vickers interviewed the women. She brought the footage back to Addison County and eventually into the MCTV studios. There, with Bergedick’s help, she condensed the material into a seven-minute segment.

Bergedick was immediately struck by the quality of the commentary offered by the interviewees.

“All of them are extraordinary people,” she said. “They are interesting, articulate and have a very deep bond with each other that I had not seen before.”

Bergedick encouraged Vickers to turn the seven-minute segment into something bigger. Vickers sent it to her associates, and the response was emphatic.

“When people in the group saw this seven-minute teaser, they gave the money to make this movie,” Vickers said.

Thus began a more-than-two-year effort to make “Once in Afghanistan,” a labor of love for a group of women whose experiences have kept them in touch for four decades.

It’s a bond that began in 1968, when they began training for their Peace Corps mission: Working with the World Health Organization (WHO) in its global effort to eradicate smallpox from the planet. The women joined teams of male vaccinators and fanned out across the rugged country, inoculating as many people as they could against the deadly disease.

Vickers’ team was primarily responsible for reaching the women and girls, as Afghanistan’s traditional Muslim culture discouraged contact between them and men outside the family. The American women worked house by house, negotiating steep, almost impenetrable terrain to reach ordinary Afghans who quite often had to be vigorously persuaded to receive the life saving shots.

“There was superstition, and they had their own way of doing things,” Vickers recalled of the people she met. “It was a sales job; we had to do a lot of talking.”

Thankfully, most of the Afghans relented and agreed to roll up their sleeves for vaccinations.

Vickers recalled a lot of give-and-take exchanges that helped the vaccinators and their patients learn a lot about each other.

“We showed them how much we admired their culture, their values, their strong families and their ability to survive among such difficult circumstances,” Vickers said.

Among the difficulties the Afghan citizens faced were a harsh climate and immense poverty. Though they had little to give, the common people in the small towns opened up their homes to the foreign visitors.

“I was struck by how hospitable people with so little can be to a stranger,” Vickers said.

The group vaccinated thousands of Afghans during their time in-country, leaving in 1971. The WHO declared smallpox eradicated in 1980, giving Vickers and her colleagues satisfaction that their efforts paid some big humanitarian dividends.

But it was also in 1980 that Afghanistan entered a dark chapter of its history from which it has yet to emerge. First came the Soviet invasion and with it, several years of bloodshed. After the Soviet-installed government was toppled came years of oppressive rule by the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban regime. Most recently, Afghanistan has been called a central front in the war on terror, spurring U.S. military actions there. United States forces have seen a ramping up of violence against troops in recent months.

Vickers said she was also struck with how Afghanistan became a chief target of military operations after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She noted those who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks were primarily Saudis.

“Somehow, we needed to counter this notion that a Saudi fundamentalist is the same as an Afghani tribesman,” Vickers said of one of the rationales for creating the documentary.

“Politics, and weapons in a few hands can take out all the goodwill that was created,” she added of the impact on prior goodwill missions to Afghanistan.

Members of Vickers’ group shared those and other sentiments during a series of filming sessions in Concord, N.H.; Williams, Ariz.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Bridport, Vt.; and at the MCTV studios in Middlebury. The women contributed around 90 photos from their Afghanistan collections, which are woven in with McEdward’s footage of 16-millimeter street scenes shot in Kabul during the 1960s. McEdward, an aviator, was in Afghanistan at the time taking high-altitude footage of the nation for oil and water resources purposes.

Vickers and Bergedick completed the film last week, with the help of Katherine Wheatley, a local videographer and independent video producer.

All profits from the film will support rebuilding projects in Afghanistan. For more information about the film and how to obtain a copy, log on to www.dirtroaddocumentaries.com.

The filmmakers are pleased with the final product, which they said sends a message that transcends conflict, humanitarianism and the Middle East.

“Despite were you go and live… at the end of the day, you can look at each other and recognize each other as human beings,” Bergedick said. “That’s the essence of the movie.”

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