My family is from the Midwest, and I was born in Chicago in 1938. My father, Ralph Lane, was from a farm family. He majored in mathematics and minored in foreign languages at the University of Illinois, where he also became a convinced member of the Society of Friends (the Quakers). After graduating in 1934, my father found a job with a life insurance statistics company in Oak Park, Illinois, where he met and married my mother, Katherine Peacock.
During World War II, we moved to Winchester, Massachusetts while my dad taught ballistics at Harvard and I started grade school. My younger sister, Karen, was born there. After the war, we moved back to Oak Park, and my father returned to his old job.
My father liked teaching, and in 1948, when I was ten, he took a position in the Mathematics Department at the University of Texas. We moved from Chicago to Austin, Texas, where my youngest sister, Jeanne Emily, was born. My classmates quickly let me know that as a Yankee I was an outsider in the South. I compensated for my rejection by finding friends who were outsiders like me. Schools were still segregated, but I got to be friends with some of the Mexican kids in my school, who inspired me to start learning Spanish in the 8th grade, to listen to the Tex-Mex radio, and to hang out in the barrio.
Of course our white neighborhood was segregated, but the black ghetto was just a block away. The small grocery where we shopped was owned by Robert Shaw, a master of great barbecue, and also of the barrelhouse piano (I later filmed him for “Deep Ellum”, a short on Texas Blues). So the move to Texas unexpectedly gave me an abiding fascination for Hispanic and African-American music and culture.
Fortunately, my parents recognized that I was not happy at Austin High, where my social life centered on the debate team, and arranged for me to finish my last two years at Verde Valley School, a “multi-cultural” prep school near Sedona, Arizona. I loved the school, the gorgeous red rock country, and – most of all – being accepted by the school community. My roommate and best friend was from a radical Berkeley family, a superb guitarist whose Folkways record collection included Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie – and the songs of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, which I can sing to this day. My favorite teacher shared his love of ancient Greece, and introduced me to Homer, Sophocles, Xenophon, and Socrates. In my first semester, Sterling Hayden came to VVS to speak against the UN. I spoke for the UN, and reportedly wiped the floor with Hayden. Anyway, I was elected student council chair, then student body president.
Best of all at VVS were the “field trips”. Every year, the school took a 3-week trip to Mexico, and a one-week trip to the Navajo reservation. Of course, since I had continued my Spanish at VVS, I fell in love with Mexico. The beaches were great, but what I remember best was my first “gallo” (rooster = serenade) in Guadalajara: as we swigged tequila, we serenaded an appreciative senorita with “Las Mananitas” at 3 am. But the trips to the Navajo reservation had an even more profound affect on me. We were invited to the wonderful all-night Navajo “squaw” dances and the magical curing ceremonies. The singing and drumming, the intricate sand-paintings, and the smell of pinyon smoke, filled my dreams. Here I am, 45 years later, living in a Mexican Indian village, and making films about Mexican Indians!
In 1955, in my first year at college, at Tufts University near Boston, I studied ancient Greek, and hung out in the Greek cafes of Boston. I turned 18, so i had to decide whether to apply for conscientious objector status or not. For the first time, I had to look at my Quaker faith seriously. By applying for CO status, I also recognized that non-violence was a way of life at odds with my own segregated society, built on slavery and genocide. So I began to explore intentional communities as a non-violent alternative to mainstream America. In an American Friends’ Service Committee work camp that summer in San Antonio I had a chance to improve my Spanish while working in the barrio. I decided to go to the University of Texas to study anthropology for my sophomore year. Then the following summer, 1957, I spent at an AFSC “Interns in Industry” work camp in Chicago, where I worked in the C&NW locomotive roundhouse. I fell in love, hopelessly, and dropped out of school. That fall, after a month in a Benedictine monastery, and several months at the Bruderhof (a “neo-Hutterite” community), I lived for a year at the Reba Place Fellowship, a Mennonite “house church” community in Evanston.
Since my love was in Milwaukee, we met on the weekends. When she went to Europe, I followed her – only to find that she was involved with someone else. But I had money in my pocket, and some friends I had made on the boat were studying at the famous German University of Goettingen. So i spent my first semester there becoming bilingual in German. During semester break, following in the footsteps of my VVS teacher, I traveled to Greece to visit the ruins, but also to stay in Orthodox monasteries while hiking the mountains of Crete. In Athens, I climbed Lykabettos hill to see the sunrise over the Akropolis. Back in Germany, I visited Dachau, then attended The German Friends’ Yearly Meeting in East Berlin, where I saw for myself the consequences of the Cold War. The following semester I studied Russian (in German!) and Marxist economics at the University of Heidelberg.
After my year in Europe, I returned to the University of Texas in 1959, to finish my BA in Political Science. It was the height of the civil rights movement, and I was active in the sit-ins and picketing in Austin. UT had a summer exchange program in Chile, and in 1960 I was chosen to go. Most of our time was spent in Santiago, at the Teachers’ College, which was the stronghold of the Communist and Socialist parties. For 6 weeks I argued politics with many of the Chilenos who 12 years later served in the Allende government, and were “disappeared” when Pinochet took power. Besides becoming fluent in Spanish, the experience refocused my interest from Europe to Latin America.
When Kennedy ran for president, I felt that at last an American leader was speaking to my vision of what America could become. In 1961, I joined the very first Peace Corps group, Colombia I – Jack Kennedy shook my hand before we left. Trained as a rural community organizer, I was assigned to a black-majority village on the Caribbean coast near Valledupar. After growing up in Texas, and participating in the civil rights struggles, being in a bi-racial community where blacks and whites lived, and intermarried, with no friction was a revelation. Intellectually I knew it was our goal, but actually experiencing “integration” was delightful. Equally important, I discovered that i liked living in a natural – as opposed to intentional – small community. I have unconsciously – and later consciously – sought to recreate that experience ever since.
Colombia also gave me the chance to continue my interest in Native Americans. I traveled in the Colombian Amazon, to visit Indians there. With my friend and Peace Corps partner, Al Wahrhaftig, an anthropologist, I visited the Kogi, an amazing tribe living on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, whose culture centered around coca, and the Motilones, a lowland tribe given to inter-band warfare, like the more famous Yanomamo.
Like my studies in Germany, the Peace Corps intensified my interest in economics and politics. It seemed natural to resume my interrupted studies, but this time with a slightly different focus.I applied for, and got, a graduate fellowship in Economic at the University of Michigan in 1963. There, as America became involved in Viet Nam, I discovered the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and participated in the early anti-war protests. In June, 1965, as I was beginning my master’s thesis (on Cuban economic development since 1959), the Agency for International Development asked me to be a graduate student intern in Viet Nam. I never have figured out exactly why I was contacted, but the aim was both to recruit new talent, and to show American students we were fighting the Good Fight. After some hesitation, I accepted.
Twenty grad students went; each of us assigned to work in a different province. I was in Vinh Binh, in “IV Corps”, the Mekong Delta. There were only 31 Americans in the whole province – 26 military advisors, my AID boss, a USIA rep, an American doctor, me – and the CIA officer. I made friends with as many Vietnamese as I could – and in the process picked up fair French. I hitched rides on helicopters, went on military operations, visited hospitals, talked with soldiers and civilians, and spent a week in the old imperial capital of Hue before it was destroyed in the Tet offensive. I even arranged to speak with two “Chieu Hoi” – “turncoat” Viet Cong guerillas, the most impressive and memorable people I met in Viet Nam. While teaching English, I got to know two Buddhist monks, members of the large Cambodian minority in the province, which had been part of the Cambodian empire before being conquered by the Vietnamese. I spent two weeks with them in their Buddhist monastery, meditating in the midst of a war.
The more I saw, the more disillusioned I became with our involvement. We were fighting the wrong war in the wrong place in the wrong way. We had been briefed in Washington, and in Saigon by Ambassador Cabot Lodge, and by General Westmoreland. It was shocking to realize how out of touch these American “leaders” were. What we heard in the briefings simply did not fit with what we saw in the field. I realized that they – we – did not understand what was happening, because we did not understand the Vietnamese. Since then, repeatedly, I have watched the US make similar mistakes around the world, for the same reason: poor intelligence because of our inability to understand other cultures.
At the end of the summer, I was offered a mid-level job with AID, a great career move, but one I turned down because I could not justify what we were doing. It was the end of my career plans to work with the US government. With hindsight, I often regret that decision. It was undeniably exciting to be involved in a war. And perhaps I could have done something good by getting my hands dirty. Certainly, refusing to be involved left me confused and drifting. But then if I had accepted, I would probably be dead.
On the way back to the US, I visited Japan, and was invited by the US Information Agency to tour Japan and talk about my Viet Nam experiences with Japanese students. Because I did not attempt to defend the US, and was deeply skeptical myself about our involvement, I got great student response. It may seem impossible to imagine, but the aim was not to convince the students the US was right, but that they needed to think for themselves, not just accept slogans unthinkingly. Those were the days! Anyway, I got to travel from Hokkaido to Kyushu and to spend a lot of time with young Japanese. In Kyoto, I was invited to drink matcha (green tea) on the balcony of the oldest house in Japan – a Zen temple – while the full moon rose over the mountain. Perfection.
When I got back to Texas, I was not sure what to do with myself. I was heartbroken by what my country was doing. I no longer wanted to work for the government, even in Latin America, and continuing grad school seemed pointless. My father had died while I was in the Peace Corps, so I decided it would be a good time to take my mother and two younger sisters to Europe. So in 1966 we took ship from New York to Nice, and settled for a semester in Strasbourg. Karen, my middle sister, and I studied French at the university, and Jeanne, my youngest sister, boarded at a French Lycee.
After travelling in Britain for most of the summer, we moved to Portugal, where Karen studied in Coimbra, while I enrolled in Lisbon university and Jeanne attended a French Lycee in Lisbon. We all loved Portugal very much – the Fado bars of the Moureiria and the Alfama, the wonderful food and wines, the warmth of the Portuguese. It was a wonderful time for all of us – but it didn’t get me much further with what to do with my life.
When we returned to Texas, it was 1968, and the world had changed – or so it seemed. Suddenly the things I had nourished as solitary passions – Pacifism and Marxism, the radical politics of the SDS, folk music, Blues, and Tex-Mex – were suddenly hip. And drugs: I had tried peyote at Verde Valley School in 1954, and again in 1956, and smoked hashish in Morocco in 1966. Now, everyone was doing psychedelics! All of a sudden, I found myself ahead of the curve, and part of a movement. The Revolution was on, and for a magical year, at least, it felt great!
I decided to go back to grad school, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do. I took a film production course, and was instantly hooked. I quickly realized i was not interested in fiction film, nor in experimental film, but in documentary film. What fascinated me about filmmaking was the possibility of showing people about other cultures so that Americans could overcome the cultural blindness that had got us into Viet Nam – and had enabled us to exterminate the Indians and enslave the Africans.
Of course, I was searching for a new voice for myself: my career plans were in ruins. Even in the euphoria of 1968, however, the stories I wanted to share were bound up with my experience as an outsider in my own society. But something else was at work! I think the psychedelics gave me a new access to the visual part of my brain. I had never been able to draw more than stick figures, and avoided art classes as much as possible. Words were my tools – or so I thought. When I discovered film, something profound happened: I found a part of myself I had never known about.