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