Filmmakers Document Lives of Rural Poor
Living on a Dollar a Day
Published: Friday, September 28, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 17:09
As an economics major at Claremont McKenna College, Chris Temple understood the numbers of poverty. He had studied the financial problems faced by developing countries. He knew that 1.1 billion people — about 15 percent of the world’s population — live on less than one U.S. dollar a day. But he had no idea what living in poverty actually felt like.
“I had a really good academic understanding of extreme poverty, but didn’t have any way to connect at a deeper level,” Temple said. “I wanted to put a face to poverty.”
So in the summer of 2010, Temple flew to rural Guatemala along with his friends, Zach Ingrasci, Sean Leonard and Ryan Christoffersen, to experience poverty for himself. Funded by Whole Planet, the philanthropic wing of Whole Foods Market, the group spent 56 days interviewing their neighbors, eking out a crop of turnips from a rocky mountainside and trying not to spend more than one dollar each day. All four were 20 years old at the time.
“It was overwhelming. … You’re living so close to the edge,” Ingrasci said. “But it transformed all our lives being able to live in a community and develop real relationships with our neighbors.”
Temple and Ingrasci made a movie about their experience titled Into Poverty: Living on One Dollar; it will be screened in Gaston Hall Wednesday night. The film follows the stories of three of their neighbors in the small village of Pena Blanca.
Anthony, a 24-year-old working to support his family of eight, was their first friend in the community. On one of their first days in Guatemala, Anthony invited Temple, Ingrasci, Leonard and Christofferson to his home for a traditional feast — a once-a-year extravagance.
“It was this really impactful moment when someone who has so little was willing to share,” Temple said.
Through Anthony, the group got to know Rosa, also 24, who was forced to drop out of school to work in her family’s fields but is now pursuing a nurse’s assistant degree, and Chino, a precocious 12-year-old who dreams of returning to the school he dropped out of at age 7.
According to Temple, the residents of Pena Blanca were constantly looking for ways to negotiate the constraints of poverty.
“We were amazed at how incredibly innovative and intelligent our neighbors were,” he said. “For our neighbors, a dollar has to be stretched to feed children, pay for education, pay for medicine or an emergency or a wedding. … But small opportunities had a huge effect on people’s lives.”
Ingrasci pointed to Rosa, who was funding her education with the profits from her weaving business, which she started with a microfinance loan.
“She was the best example of [how] microfinance was allowing [members] of the community to change their own lives,” he said. “The people down there … showed us that these are things that can help people empower themselves and bring themselves out of poverty.”
“People are really innovative and it’s just the situation they’re in that’s holding them back,” he said. “Microfinance can help change that situation.”
Raising awareness about microfinance initiatives, which grant small loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries, was one of the primary goals for Temple’s and Ingrasci’s film.
“We were really interested in microfinance but realized there was no engaging media around it,” Ingrasci said. “There needed to be something that would inspire members of our own generation … [and] show our peers the tools they need to become an effective change-maker.”
The film is composed mostly of scenes filmed during the group’s stay in Guatemala. Each week, the group would upload videos to YouTube documenting their daily life and the lives of their neighbors, providing insight into the difficulty of living on a dollar a day.
The four rented a one-room home with a dirt floor. They could only eat one meal a day, but each meal required five hours of work — hauling fire wood, building a fire, monitoring the pot of beans as it slowly came to a boil.
“It was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I went to a liberal arts university. This wasn’t a world I’d faced every day,” Temple said. “[Going] to bed hungry every night, [waking] up on a dirt floor covered in flea bites. … You would wake up every morning and not want to get out of bed because you had no food, nothing to look forward to. … But that’s the reality for so many people.”
The experience quickly took its physical toll: Ingrasci lost 22 pounds during the eight-week trip; Temple lost 20.
“The physical elements of it were very apparent and overwhelming … but mentally it was even more challenging,” Temple said. “[In America] I’d spend a dollar whimsically, but here … there’s this kind of element of being so stressed all the time on how we budget our money.”
Aside from the five-hour effort that cooking required, the group spent most of their days interviewing their neighbors, asking about their lives and financial plans.
“As economics majors, we were really interested in the [kinds] of financial services these people had available to them,” Temple said. “We were essentially creating the financial diaries of people’s lives. Where were they saving money? Where were they getting access to loans?”