One doll’s journey

One doll’s journey

Westminster teacher’s documentary tells the story of women dollmakers in rural Peru and the program that provides them with purpose and a paycheck

WESTMINSTER — High in the Peruvian Andes, in a small town outside Cusco, Peru, the lives of 47 women have changed for the better with economic opportunity since the launch of the Q'ewar Project in 2002.

The expanding social work initiative both trains and employs the most at-risk women in the small hill town communities. The women make dolls.

The project and the women it empowers are subjects of a new documentary directed by Teresa Savel, a local educator who has been collaborating with Q'ewar since 2000.

Savel's film, Palomita (Little Dove), will premiere at the Bellows Falls Opera House on Thursday, Dec. 1. She will introduce the 54-minute film and answer questions following the screening.

The filmmaker got her start with editing classes at Falls Area Cable Television taught by the public access station's former executive director, Jacob Stradling.

She credits FACT-TV for ongoing support in her efforts to complete the project. Stradling travelled with her to Peru to film in Andahuaylillas, the peasant rural community of Q'ewar.

The film, with vibrant cinematography and original Peruvian music, is told from the point of view of a doll, Palomita (“Little Dove”). Brattleboro Union High School senior Lucia Morey is the voice of Palomita.

In the film, Palomita traces some of the lives of the women involved with making her and notes the processes and local materials that they use in their craft.

And Palomita makes her way to Kurn Hattin Homes for Children in Westminster, to the waiting arms of a sixth grader, Gwen, who won the doll in a drawing among the children in the school.

A Vermont connection

Vermont's connection with the project goes back nearly to the origins of the Q'ewar project, according to one of the film's stars, Margret Daniel, who, with her daughter, Madelaine Wigglesworth, runs Lukana's Dream.

In their nonprofit shop in Bethel, the two sell items created by impoverished people in Peru and Zimbabwe, returning any profits to the craftspeople.

Daniel said that when she was planning a visit in 2002, she had been asked to bring several German-made dolls with her. She dutifully packed them, and after recovering from high-altitude sickness upon arrival in the very rural Andahuaylillas district, she was urgently ushered to the shop where artist and puppeteer Julio Herrera, one of the originators of the project, was trying to figure out how to adhere the hair onto the dolls.

The German dolls' hair provided the answer, and the last piece fell into place for Herrera and the project's cofounder, Lucy Terrazas, to start making the dolls, start to finish. And the project was launched.

With an eye toward preserving traditional social structures, the Q'ewar project identifies the most at-risk and marginalized women in offering training for jobs.

The project provides a small income that makes all the women more independent, free from economic reliance on ailing, indigent, absent, or abusive husbands. Even more important than the money: the regaining of dignity for themselves and their families.

Savel documents the importance to the women of being able to get away from home - and husbands if they are not absent - to be among friends and a network of women they can turn to for social support, and how that alone has changed the lives of all of the 47 women who were part of the project at the time of the filming.

Many of the women live remotely, so they routinely walk hours to work. With the advent of a kindergarten on the premises, women can bring their youngsters to work to receive an education that most of the women themselves did not get.

While the project started with 10 women participating, and grew to 47 at the time of the filming, Daniel said when she visited recently, only 30 women were participating, “because of a lack of money” to support the project.

Savel said she hopes the funds raised by film showings will help build a full elementary school, now that the kindergarten is complete.

Pain - but dignity

One woman's story is perhaps the most heart-wrenching of all of them.

In a previous Commons story about her participation in Q'ewar [“Westminster teacher makes international connection,” Jan. 1, 2014], Savel shared the story of Jesusa, who lived with her blind father in a one-room hut with an earthen floor.

Savel provided a photo of Jesusa sitting in a corner on a raised bed, and another of her father in the opposite corner of the tiny room.

At the time, she was recovering from a broken hip that she suffered when a drunken woman stumbled into her and made her fall. Her father, being blind, could not help much.

Savel said that she was unprepared for what she and Stradling found when they were given permission to come and film Jesusa in her home.

Jesusa had refused a wheelchair that had been purchased for her and would accept only the crutches she is seen using in the documentary to get to work at the center. Her story of privation during that year or more of recovery is recalled with humility: of lying abed in the hut and directing her blind father how to light the stove and cook from there; some days unable to cook, or they did not have water because he could not fetch it.

Her father's alcoholism is not something she hides from the filmmakers, and is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable, but revealing moments in the film, as, in the tiny hut with Jesusa, he sits drunkenly in a corner with her Uncle.

“He only drinks when [the Uncle] brings him alcohol,” Jesusa says quietly.

Jesusa's story sets the tone and explains in part why the Q'ewar project is so important to a woman like her.

The film shows her journey as she tries to heal, with the help and support of neighbors, extended family, and friends from the project.

Alcoholism plays a huge role in the conditions these women find themselves, and while not the subject of the film, its destructive role in the community is also not glossed over.

During her nearly two-years of recovery, the Q'ewar project sent Jesusa - the sole earner in the household - work that she could do at home. When she was well enough to get out of bed, she strapped on her backpack and walked to work over rough cobblestones using the new crutches. Even though it's normally a five-minute walk to work, she must stop and rest, making the trip much longer.

While there is much pain in the stories of the five women in the film whose lives have changed for the better because of the Q'ewar project, there is more pride and regained dignity in the women's faces and, as Palomita notes in the film, the dolls are “seeds - of goodness, purpose, and most importantly, love.”

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