A Tulsan’s documentary follows his mother to Panama.
Donna Litwack, right, with Paulina, one of the villagers who saved her life in Panama.
Tulsan Zach Litwack’s documentary, “One Life for Another,” tells the journey of his mother, Donna, as she relives her harrowing experience as a 21-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Panama in the early 1960s.
During her time as a volunteer, Donna helped bring sanitation and health practices to a poverty-stricken village. Though the group consisted of 15 volunteers, Donna was the only Peace Corps member stationed in her village when a group of anti-American rioters stormed the area and threatened her life in January 1964.
In its 29 minutes of footage, the documentary, which was screened at the newly renovated Circle Cinema in late September, captures both the history of Donna’s journey and near-death experience, as well as her 2008 trip back to Panama, where she attempted to reunite with the villagers who saved her life.
Zach is a Tulsa native and 2001 graduate of The University of Tulsa’s Film Studies program. He earned his Master of Fine Arts in film writing and directing from Columbia College in Chicago before moving back to Tulsa in 2011 to pursue film projects inspired by his childhood in Oklahoma.
“One Life for Another” is his first major documentary project. He has completed dozens of fictional shorts, two of which, “Lost and Found” and “Improvisation,” were featured at the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner.
Zach says he was inspired by his mother’s journey and decided to bring a camera with him as he joined her on a return trip to Panama.
“I had heard the story since I was a little kid and always thought about turning it into something,” he says. “In 2008, it was the 45-year reunion of the Peace Corps in Panama, and I decided to follow my mom there to see what we could find.”
Donna Litwack’s tearful journey back to Panama offers an intimate look at her memories, struggles and gratefulness to the people who saved her.
“(The villagers) changed my life,” Donna says in the film. “These people had nothing, and they were still ready to give it all for me. They would give their lives because that’s all they had.”
Donna’s reunion with one of the villagers present at the riot makes the film a piece of art that will remain with the audience for much longer than its half-hour screen time.
Following her return to the United States in November 1964, Donna still had the desire to help. She volunteered with the VISTA program in Oklahoma, working with the Cherokee Nation from 1965-1967.
Despite her experience in Panama, she has positive advice for those considering joining the Peace Corps: “If you have a desire to serve others and help people, you will get acclimated to the work. If you have this passion, be yourself and be sincere.”
“One Life for Another” is available for purchase from Zack on DVD, and he is seeking more awareness for the documentary.
“I plan to begin a festival run with the film and look for distribution outlets,” he says. “The Peace Corps is potentially interested in picking up the film for use training incoming volunteers.”
Zack’s other plans include shooting “Good Intentions” in Tulsa in early 2014. The short film will be part of a larger film showcasing the work of Zach and other writers.
He says, “I would love to collaborate with other Tulsa filmmakers to make this film (“Good Intentions”) a project that really showcases what Oklahoma filmmakers are capable of producing.”