Bob Gliner, Documentary filmmaker

August 26, 2000


Volunteers find there's more to life than a rat race



PAUL Taira -- a self-proclaimed "Silicon Valley American" -- didn't spend his vacation laptop-surfing at the beach.

 "In Silicon Valley, you're on the run. You're time-driven. The Internet concept becomes your life: You expect things immediately."

Between instant e-mails and instant gratification, time spins by, he says, in a blur of driving and shopping, working and networking. Ring! Is that your cell phone or mine?

When it came time for Taira, 36, who works for Hewlett-Packard in Cupertino, to take his two-week vacation last year, he didn't settle for a city slicker's tour of photo-op sites.

Instead, Taira embarked on a real-life adventure. He gave of himself and made a difference: He volunteered.

Taira is among the volunteers featured in "Making a Difference: American Volunteers Abroad" and "Making a Difference: College Volunteers Abroad."

The TV documentaries, shown back-to-back Monday on KTEH-TV (Ch. 54), were made by Bob Gliner, an award-winning independent filmmaker and professor of sociology at San Jose State University.

The films offer an in-depth look at the challenges and insights experienced by the volunteers, as they provide a lifeline to street children in Tanzania, health care to poor families in Ecuador, English instruction in Italy, housing in Uganda and activities for disabled kids in France.

Through such organizations as Global Volunteers in Minneapolis and Global Routes in Berkeley, volunteers pay fees starting at $3,000 for a two-week stint.

"Volunteers are interested in stepping out of their limited ways of thinking," says Andrew Rivin, founder and director of Global Routes. "They want to have an adventure in the world, as well as make a real contribution."

"I feel I'm helping bring cultures of people together," says Rachel Bruhnke, 32, in-country volunteer coordinator for Global Routes. "It's incredibly gratifying. You see these volunteers struggle initially to live with their host families in their homes with dirt floors. Later, they're so happy and laughing -- despite the material limitations."

Bruhnke found Gliner's camera unobtrusive. "We all felt very natural with him around. He was so enthusiastic about everything he saw, especially the warm and loving bond he found between the volunteers and the families. It was really beautiful."

For Gliner, documenting the volunteers' experiences was "a labor of love." He produced, wrote, directed and edited the documentaries, sometimes with bare-bones funding, most often at his own expense, on his own time.

"I got into making documentaries," he says, "to reach a broader group of people than I could writing in sociology journals, so these films are my scholarly work."

He has made about 32 films, most shown on public broadcasting and in university classes, including: "Silicon Valley at the Crossroads" (1998), "Cuba: On Its Own Terms" (1997), "Russia and America: Where Do We Go from Here?" (1995), "Jerusalem: The Bridge to Peace" (1992), "Jamaica, No Problem" (1990), and "Defending America: The Price We Pay" (1989).

The work has been good enough to win him honors and acclaim and exciting enough to win him volunteer crews for his adventures.

"It's low-budget, by-the-seat-of-your-pants production. I guess some people see me as the Indiana Jones of grass-roots filmmaking."

Gliner, 57, learned his camera work on his own. "Most people don't realize what goes into documentary filmmaking. They think it's just like turning on your home video camera. But it's a tremendous amount of work. For this project, I boiled down 70 hours of footage down to two one-hour shows."

Beyond the textbook

At the same time, Gliner says, "I've trained myself to be able to shoot within two-minutes warning. They can teach camera techniques in college, but oftentimes the theory doesn't match the practice. No time to light. The sounds aren't right. You just have to go for it."

Getting great footage is a priority for Gliner, almost as much as escaping out of tricky situations unscathed. "I've had my adventures," he says.

Gliner and his crew have flown to Hanoi without a permit. They've found themselves caught in a political standoff between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank. And they've been escorted by gang leaders in Jamaica -- acting as their bodyguards -- to an evening dance.

Despite the dangers, Gliner feels driven by a passion for investigation and a mission for solutions to societies' ills.

"I'm trying to make a difference. And the process itself becomes a part of making a difference. The means and the ends merge. Making documentaries is a long and difficult process, especially when you're doing it on your own. The process has to be interesting and exciting. The people you meet along the way help make it worth it, the people you'd never have met without the camera. This enriches my life."

For this particular project, Gliner "wanted to show how the average person could make the world a better place. Especially in Silicon Valley, where people are in a frenzy -- racing against the clock to make more money, often without a real sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

Making it personal

"What I found was that people feel a need to reconnect with community and to feel they're making a difference in a personal way."

Shirlee Hilton of Mamoroneck, N.J., felt this need. That's why she has volunteered to go abroad twice, first to Poland, where she taught adult education courses and more recently to Italy, where she worked with children.

"The feeling of making others happy is indescribable," she says. "When you help others, you find the best in yourself."

The volunteers find that profound changes occur within themselves.

"Volunteers," says Gliner, "gain a new perspective about what really matters in life; the rewards are internal but they affect their whole perspective. People realize they don't need the latest Nikes. They realize they can laugh and have great relationships without having the latest car."

Taira spent two weeks in 1999 in the small Italian town of Cisternino, where he taught high school kids.

"After I returned home," says Taira, "I realized that spending more time with my family and friends was something I was missing before. I make more attempts now to have a better work-life balance. I'm setting boundaries for myself, where work ends and my personal life begins."

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