How can we approach poverty in a way that is insightful and at the same time easy to comprehend?

The new documentary series Why Poverty? is a global project in which broadcasters from all over the world committed to screen a series of features and short films about poverty. Eight feature films and 28 shorts are part of the program. In the last week of November 2012, they were screened all over the world, from Europe to Asia and South America and from the entire Middle East to Africa and Australia. Starting January this year, they are available online for free. Some of the films took part in a one-day Why Poverty? event at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam.

Why Poverty? was initiated by the Steps organization and led by Nick Fraser from BBC Storyville, documentary filmmaker and producer Don Edkins, and DRTV commissioning editor Mette Hoffmann Meyer. The program follows Why Democracy? – a similar project that took place in 2010 and screened films discussing the meaning and importance of democracy. The program had a long life worldwide.

The aim of Why Poverty? is to make people talk about it, ask questions and enable them to understand better the world we live in. The organizers hope it will create debate and offer something new to people from countries where documentaries are not often shown on television. More than this, the films chosen for the program are geographically spread, each cover different topics and portray poverty from different angles.
But is there anything new to be said about poverty?
This was the first question that came to mind when I first heard about the program. Many things have been said about poverty. Many films have been made and many pictures have been taken. In the attempt to become aware of poverty and find solutions, poverty became a media product. Paradoxically, Poor Us is too simple and too complex at the same time.

How can we tell stories about people in a way that makes the viewer empathize while also leaving the characters the dignity they deserve? How can we avoid easy, stereotypical understanding? Let’s take a look at three of the long-length films featured in the Why Poverty? program:

When talking about poverty, the balance between simplifying too much and making the story too complex is difficult to find. A good example of this is Poor Us, an animation directed by Ben Lewis as part of the program. Using a cartoon character that travels from one century to another, the film tells the story of what it was like to be poor throughout 2500 years of human history.

Why Poverty? documentary series
The result is a well-informed film that doesn’t involve its audience. In the beginning, the narrator invites the viewer to imagine himself as the main character of the film, the one animated man that travels through centuries. But this exercise of imagination fails to create empathy with the animated character. On one hand, the story is too long and too complex. The character jumps from one century to another and from one culture to another, making the storyline fragmented. For example, he moves from the Mayan culture to China and then to the UK, each of them in different historical times.  On the other hand, the film contains no explanation of the relationship between these stages of human development. It is not clear what caused the different historical changes and how the different societies functioned in those times.

Paradoxically, Poor Us is too simple and too complex at the same time and this reduces it to an animated, well-documented mix of information. The film does raise questions. In whose interest is it to maintain poverty? What lessons we can learn from history? But at the end, it does not inspire the viewer to question or act. The feeling after watching it is that poverty and inequality are simply part of life. Now we know their history. It is only a matter of chance whether you are born wealthy or not. And even though mankind has been trying to eradicate poverty for centuries, we are still trying to fix a puzzle that has too many uncertainties and grey areas to be fixed.

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