CHICAGO — Documentaries often get a bad reputation for being boring and educational – something you watch in middle school history classes, or on the Discovery Channel. But many documentaries are actually intensely fascinating and cover vast and important topics. Here are a few documentaries about poverty that you can’t miss if you’re interested in learning more.
1. Waste Land
An Academy Award Nominee for Best Feature Documentary in 2010 and a winner at Sundance Film Festival, Waste Land follows Brazilian artist Vik Muniz as he journeys from Brooklyn to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump, located on the edge of Rio de Janeiro. In his most compelling project yet, Muniz photographs catadores, collectors of recyclable materials at the dump, and collaborates with them as they recreate images of themselves out of garbage and represent their experiences through art.
“I’m at this point in my career,” Muniz says in an interview near the beginning of the film, “where I’m trying to step a little bit away from the realm of fine arts… What I really want to do is to be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials that they deal with every day.”
Muniz is an effusive, talkative character, eager to share his stories and experiences of growing up in Brazil and re-visiting the country as an adult after living in the United States for many years. The film reflects on both the joys and sorrows of the catadores, and how the relationships Muniz forms with the individuals he meets shape his art.
2. We Feed the World
In We Feed the World, Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer takes a look at the origins of the food people across the globe eat. He travels to Spain, France, Switzerland, Romania, Austria and Brazil, exploring topics that surround the main idea of scarcity and starvation in a world that has plenty of food to go around. As he talks to farmers, fishermen, biologists and CEOs of large food corporations, viewers gain a better understanding of the process of food production, and the hardships of the individuals who feed the world.
In an interview on the We Feed the World website, Wagenhofer says that he did not want his film to be about images of the poor starving to death or visibly suffering from hunger. Instead, he focuses on the successes, however large or small, of food producers.
“It’s the beautiful things we humans have,” he says, “living life and making something out of a desperate situation. It was hard to make a montage out of that, but that this woman and her children can still laugh… I thought that was good, that there’s still a spark of hope left.”
3. Why Poverty?
Why Poverty? is a project run by Steps, a nonprofit organization that combines documentaries, new and old media, and outreach to get people talking about big issues. The organization commissioned eight documentaries from diverse film makers and 30 shorts, ranging from two to 10 minutes, that tackle important issues surrounding poverty and hunger. The films were screened around the world in November 2012 and are now free to view online. The organization encourages the public to use the films on websites, in school newsletters, or at individually arranged screenings in the community.
The website states its mission for the films: “We do want people to think and ask questions. What is it like to live in poverty? How does it shape you? Why are people still hungry? Why does it matter? What can I do to change the situation?” Each film is accompanied by discussion questions, links to more information about the relevant topics, and a facilitator’s guide with more information.
Among its short films is two minute-long Morris’ Bag, which follows an urban farmer, Morris, who lives in one of the largest slums in Mathare, Nairobi. He shows the camera how he and other residents of the community use large sacks filled with soil to grow food for their families in the limited space they have. “With one sack,” he says to the camera, “I can feed my family of six for a whole year. I am very happy.” In under six minutes, the film Colours in the Dust illustrates the life of 12-year-old Jouvens Lauteur in Jacmel, Haiti, who was left homeless after the earthquake in 2010. The boy takes us through his former home before the earthquake destruction, and then shows us the art he creates out of garbage that fuels his hope for the future.
All of these documentaries about poverty vary in style and pace, but they have one thing in common – an interest in issues affecting individuals across the globe. All that’s missing is a bowl of popcorn.
– Rachel Reed
Sources: One, Why Poverty, The Last Hunger Season, Waste Land, We Feed the World