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.

It seems to me that generally, the more information is available about poverty, the more disengaged people became. This apathy has several causes. Firstly, the feeling of powerlessness, of facing a problem way too big and way too far from daily life. Secondly, the media bombardment of images exhibiting suffering, which makes suffering commonplace. Nevertheless, exhibiting suffering is often backed by good intentions.

This is what we see in Give Us the Money, directed by Bosse Lindquist. The film tells the story of U2 lead singer Bono and Bob Geldof’s initiative to fight poverty. The effect of their efforts cannot be quantified. But the effects of their approach can be questioned. I am not sure whether Give Us the Money is meant to be simply the story of Bono’s organization and campaigning or a wider and critical portrayal of how the “dealing with poverty business” works in the West. But whether intentional or not, the film does portray the double-sided character of their work for Africa. On one hand, they are doing everything they can to collect money for the dying children. They lobby, talk to politicians about cutting the poorest countries’ debt and struggle to create awareness. But at the same time they are artists. They collect money through concerts in which they exhibit the suffering and make a show out of it. African people are represented as a large group of hungry and dying people lucky enough to have Western people lower their gaze at them. People come to the concert, have some fun and donate some money. That makes poverty hip. Is this approach morally wrong? I don’t know. What I think is that this can influence the way poverty is perceived and portrayed in the long term. The film does portray the double-sided character of their work for Africa.

In the film, we can briefly hear the points of view of different representatives of African organizations. They don’t agree with Bono’s way of doing things. Unfortunately the reasons behind this disagreement are presented in an incomplete manner in the film. In the end, their standpoint is minimized, what the viewer is left with is that they were angry for not being involved in Bono’s initiatives and were happier once they started to be involved.
If Give Us the Money is successfully doing something, then it is portraying how our Western society works and how we deal with poverty. In the end you have seen these classic stereotypes before: the politician’s ivory tower, the big NGOs that often don’t communicate with the people they mean to help and the emotional masses moved by slogans and stereotypical portrayals of Africa.

A good film about poverty keeps its characters’ dignity by letting them be the complex inhabitants of their own world. These films tell a personal story and don’t patronize their subjects. They tell a personal story. And they also don’t beg for tears, but earn them, because they provide a sense that we know the characters. And feel for them.

Rafea: Solar Mamas directed by Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim is a documentary that gives its audience exactly that and much more. The film tells the story of Rafea, a Bedouin mother from Jordan, who is given the chance to study at the Barefoot College in India and become a solar engineer. She does not know how to read or write, she depends on her husband financially and she comes from a culture where a woman is supposed to stay at home. But she is determined to change her life. And the camera follows her on this journey.

Rafea has a charming personality. The camera follows her through a mix of moments and events. We see her encountering people from new cultures and opening her heart to these people. We see her struggle but we also see her smile. We see her being given a chance and we see her perseverance and ambition.
The fact that she is a mother, depends on her husband and comes from this patriarchal Muslim society does not define our understanding of who Rafea is. What defines this understanding is Rafea herself and the way she lives the different moments we witness. This is what makes her story universal and her character unique and full of dignity. This is why anyone can relate to her. Her poverty and social status are only obstacles. Not who she is. She could be someone you know. Her strength and success do move the audience to tears, not of pity but of joy. The film is inspiring and leaves a feeling of optimism and affection. And most likely, Rafea’s story will come to mind in every discussion on poverty, empowerment or women in the Middle East.

At the beginning of this article I asked whether there is anything new to be said about poverty. Yes, something new can be said. Talking about poverty is not new, many of the topics have been approached and talked about before. But what makes a story new is the way it is told. And some of the films in Why Poverty do that. In fact, what makes a story “old” is its stereotypical way of portraying poverty and asking for pity. Such a story, instead of closing the gap between “us” and “them”, such stories just makes it wider. A “new” story, a story that tells about poverty differently, puts its viewer face-to-face with someone they’ve never met before and lets them see what this person has to tell and show them. More importantly, it lets this someone be human and real and not just the face of poverty. This kind of story will always be new and alive. Everything else is already too abstract, too clichéd and too far removed.

The project is run by Steps (, a non-profit organisation that combines documentaries, new media, old media and outreach to get millions of people talking about big issues. Steps ran a similar project, Why Democracy? In 2007 and Why Poverty? builds on that. 

See for information and to watch all the films for free.  (See our bundled DVD too). 

Why Why Poverty?

Mette Hoffmann Meyer

According to Mette Hoffmann Meyer, Why Poverty? is an initiative to create dialogue and debate:

“This is the role of the public TV stations and what we are here for. We are not activists – we are here to try to understand the world. And what docs can do is bring life from far away into our hearts.
I remember sitting reading statistics showing that there are still one billion people living in extreme poverty. What is extreme poverty? We can fly to Mars, but why can’t we feed the people in this world and make sure that just the basic human rights are secured? Can we ask these whys? 400 million children go hungry to bed every night. The three richest men in the world own more money than the 27 poorest countries in the World together. You ask yourself why it is so difficult to secure the basic human conditions? Why do children have to die in child labor? Why can’t they have food, go to school and get treatments when they get sick?”
Will these films be shown in countries facing such problems?
“First of all the Why Poverty? is more about inequality all over the world. We try to get away from the NGO thinking of global north / global south thinking. Alex Gibneys Park Avenu is exactly about this. But we have 71 broadcasters committed to show the films.We have ensured to cover all by working with the biggest satellite stations covering all of Africa and the Arab speaking world and nauturally BBC WORLD. But this is in addition to local national broadcasters and Why Poverty? has got more partners than Why Democracy had – to mention a few new broadcasters Palestine TV, Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia and Taiwan and not least Doordarshan in India.”
 What do you expect the reactions to be?
“I hope it will create debates on a global scale, and that it will strengthen people’s knowledge also  in countries where they normally don’t see documentaries. These films are meant to enable us to understand the world we live in. Poverty is not an easy topic and there is no easy fix but the films also show that it’s possible to change things. I hope people will question what is it that hinders an individual in achieving the living standards they strive for.”
Do you think the changes depend on the individual? People know there is poverty, they don’t know the scale and they don’t face it in their everyday life. 
” In our society we need to care for the poor – it’s a general concern and an apolitical stand. We think that nobody should starve or freeze to death. Really good storytelling always has an impact. My goal is mainly to have people discuss, and in the long run these discussions can have an impact on how you cope with your life, the choices you make.”
  Can these films can have the opposite effect, because people have seen similar stories before?
“The films are very fresh if you can talk about freshness in this relationship. These films are not made with a certain aim. Often when you see films, within five seconds you understand what purpose it serves. These films in ‘Why Poverty?’ are not directing you, they tell stories about people – that’s a big difference. They are truthful.”
 How did you select the filmmakers?
” We gave money developing money to a number of filmmakers, talked to filmmakers about what we wanted to do – they pitched their stories and selected the films we have now. Only one story about each issue, for example child mortality. We also wanted to have the films spread geographically.  I enjoy working with local filmmakers. I think nobody can make a better story than a local filmmaker – who gives the stories a more powerful authenticity and strength.”