Saturday, February 19, 2011
Out of Africa
From the Peace Corps to the big screen
Jake Wilson, Zolokere villager Mr. Zunda, Cy Kuckenbaker
Some people write stories about their toughest life experiences. Cy Kuckenbaker made a film about his.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, Kuckenbaker, ’98, taught English to teenage students in Kupiskis, Lithuania, from 2000 to 2003.
“Being a post-Soviet country, Lithuania deals with a lot of issues: complex social problems, alcoholism and borderline poverty, to name a few. It’s a very complicated place because it’s been so traumatized.”
Kuckenbaker captured those hardships in his first documentary, “The Potato Eater,” made in 2003 and screened at several film festivals in Europe. Coincidentally, that experience led—in a roundabout way—to a second film.
In Lithuania, Kuckenbaker met Jake Wilson, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a nearby village. After their assignments ended, Kuckenbaker went on to film school at the California Institute of the Arts, and Wilson eventually returned to the Peace Corps, this time in Malawi.
Kuckenbaker eventually visited his friend in Africa. Wilson was working in Zolokere, a remote village with no electricity, three long hours from the asphalt. After shooting some experimental footage during the trip, Kuckenbaker knew he wanted to return and make a feature film.
That vision turned into “Bush League,” Kuckenbaker’s first feature. Recently screened at the Vancouver Film Festival, the film follows four members of Zolokere’s titled soccer team—Chatwa, a struggling farmer; Jacqueline, the head cheerleader; Mlawa, an expectant father; and Wilson himself.
Kuckenbaker credits his time at SDSU, majoring in film and minoring in sociology, for providing a solid foundation to analyze and document the Malawi culture. “I had really good sociology professors at San Diego State who taught me a whole new vocabulary and frames of view for how to understand society. Even now, that’s a cornerstone of how I think and how my films function.”
He recommends the Peace Corps experience to others, though cautions that it’s not for everyone. “You need an attitude that’s modest and realistic. Curiosity is a good motivation. It’s also important to have people in your life who support your decision to enter the Peace Corps.”