When we were contacted by a member of the board of the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and asked about our interest in making a film on poverty, several questions rushed to my mind. First, could it be more than simply "a" film on poverty? Could it be a film which would explain the true causes of poverty and moreover, the true historical and political causes of poverty?
The second question was: Are we ready to invest time, money and years of our lives to such a noble but seemingly impossible cause? This answer came quickly: 'yes' on all fronts. We created Cinema Libre Studio with the idea that movies can make a difference. And for the last six years we have produced and distributed movies to that effect.
On a personal level it was the same: I had started making movies when I was 13 and then studied the philosophy of art as well as political philosophy at La Sorbonne in Paris, instilling in me the belief that movies could make a difference in the world. As a young producer in Paris, most of the 25+ feature films I had made tackled world issues in one way or another. In 1999, I had returned to directing for Nouvel Ordre Mondial (Quelque Part en Afrique)( The Empire in Africa) a feature-length documentary that explains that famine and hunger are not a natural phenomenon, as many people believe, but rather a political one. We chose to film in Sierra Leone, which had been embroiled in a terrible civil war for nine years. We were there for a month. (Even if it was the most difficult experience in my life, it prepared me for this new assignment.) The success and impact of this film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000 and went on to garner many awards around the world, encouraged me to use documentaries as tools to make a difference.
So of course the answer was, 'yes'. I had spent most of my life using movies to try to make a difference in the world. After the screening of The Empire in Africa during the Cannes Film Festival a journalist asked me: "Why would you take so much risk to make a film?" I answered: because I am probably not courageous enough to take a weapon and fight against injustice like many people do, so I take a camera, it feels safer!
And of course this film is about injustice…and inequalities which grow wider and wider every year, and about answering the daunting question: Why, in a world of so much wealth, do we still have so much poverty, where billions of people live on less than one dollar a day? (This is also the introduction to the film as narrated by the wonderful Martin Sheen.)
In developing the concept for a poverty film, many other questions came to mind: Why is it that when we make all these technological advancements the poor grow poorer? Why, if we find more and more wealth every year, do the poor grow poorer? Why, when a company makes huge profits that their shareholders pocket, do the employees pay the price when that company fails yet the shareholders retain their profits? Why are the natural resources given to us by nature exploited -- to the extent of destroying the planet - by only a few people who reap the benefits while millions of others suffer as a consequence? It was clear to me that making this film would be a wonderful opportunity to dig deep into a system that has created so much suffering, a system which is still almost deified by so many.
After months of research, discussions and several proposals, the Foundation allowed me to expand the scope of the film beyond a narrow Georgist perspective, in order to explain the true historical and political causes of poverty in the world. Ultimately the goal of the film was to change the dialogue around the poverty debate from "poverty is a shame," to "poverty exists for a reason."
When we finalized the budget, it was clear that we would have to limit our travel to a few countries. That coupled with the fact that the issue of poverty is remarkably complex, meant we also had to limit the scope of our investigation to a few specific topics.
The production would eventually entail over one hundred hours of interviews and bring us to four different continents: South America (Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia), Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), Europe and North America. The criteria for the countries we chose were: countries with governments that were open to acknowledging and talking about the poverty challenges they faced; and secondly, countries that represented a specific issue in the thesis we were developing, such as land rights in Kenya. As absurd as it sounds, many Third World governments facing dire poverty are still ready to deny this even though one can see evidence on every street.
Originally I wanted to show both sides of the poverty debate. We even filmed several experts who were proponents of the "progress and technology will solve everything" mindset supporting the notion that mosquito nets and bags of fertilizer could solve the poverty conundrum. This is the theory that Bono's economic sidekick, Jeffrey Sachs, has touted all around the world. But the first cut of the film was more than three hours long, so many of these interviews were left on the hard drive of the editing system.
We decided to make the film with a small crew since we would be going into slums and the homes of poor people, which we knew to be small and crowded. Our itinerary was punishing and we planned to move fast and visit multiple cities in several countries, which required mobility.
The form of the documentary was of particular importance to me, not as much as the content of course, but we were going with a mission to change people's perception of the true causes of poverty. It was essential nevertheless because I saw too many documentaries ruined by their lack of form or too much of it. The stars of the film had to be the poor. And I knew that I couldn’t turn such a devastating subject into "cinema." I would therefore have to refrain from using zooms and any other effects unless they were absolutely necessary to the context of the scene. The camera would be mostly fixed on a tripod or handheld when necessary. I would create a totally different feel for the experts who would be interviewed in natural settings: it is easier to fight poverty from a comfortable office in a university or an international organization – which doesn't diminish the importance of what these experts who do – but it is another to live it on a day-to-day basis. To wake up hungry everyday without knowing where you can find enough money during the day to feed your family is simply not the same thing.
I decided early on that lighting choices would be my ally in this complex cinematic question. I would install my experts in a comfortable setting and light them with three to four light sources, ultimately using diffusion and colored gels. When filming those living in poverty we would use natural light, which very often, was almost non-existent. I also decided to shoot the poor subjects with a handheld camera, allowing me to follow behind them when they were showing us their miserable living conditions – unless the subject was seated. Our experts would be shot with a fixed and immobile camera.
Our experience in working with these poor people brought us to a level of understanding I never thought possible. Many of them had an understanding of their situations and of its causes that most experts would find accurate beyond belief. But the experts opened our minds in a no less interesting way. We started shooting in 2006 and most of the experts predicted an imminent financial crisis which would engulf the world, while most of our politicians and our media were glorifying the prowess of capitalism. One of the experts, Serge Latouche, put it in very simple words: Today 20% of the planet uses more than 80% of its resources. Moreover, every year we are consuming 30% more than what the planet can regenerate, therefore digging a giant hole under our feet and making it bigger every year. And of course, these resources come primarily from the countries of the (global) South. And the most condemning part is that in order to maintain our lifestyle in the North, we have to keep these countries at a level of dire poverty. Even worse, because the world's population continues to increase in order to maintain our lifestyle we have to plunge more and more people into poverty every year. Latouche makes the point that if everybody had the same lifestyle as the people in North America, we would need six planets.
I summarize here the main points made in the film. The question is: how did this catch all of our top economists by surprise last October (2008) when the global economy imploded? They had no idea and no way to predict. Funny isn't it?
Ironically, in the last year our movie became the film to explain the current economic crisis while it was touring the festivals. The Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival, selected the film when it was not even finished which started an international festival tour that has passed the 25 mark and is still counting. I've been invited around the world to present the film and explain why we have to change our understanding and our perception of poor people and of poverty. Because at the end of the day, as long as we remain rich, they will remain poor and we'll keep digging the gigantic hole under our feet… which one day, without a doubt, will swallow us all.
But we have to hope that we are more intelligent than to let that happen.
Los Angeles, California