by Janan Zaitoun
But what if I only had one dollar a month to live off?
“Living on One Dollar” portrays a different meaning to the dollar sign. In the movie, four college students set out to experience poverty by living off an average of one dollar a day for two months. The result is an award winning documentary and many lives changed.
In a slideshow at the beginning of the film, we find out that Chris Temple, from New York, and Zack Ingrasci, from Washington, met in college. After graduation, they decide to travel to Guatemala and discover answers they could not find in their textbooks when they majored in international development. What’s it really like to live in poverty?
Soon after arriving at Pena Blanca, Guatemala, where 7 out of 10 people live under the poverty line, the four Americans realize how far they are from their comfortable lives. Temple and Ingrasci bring along with them two film making students. Together, they strive for survival by learning first-hand how to live off $30 a month, and get it all on tape.
Though it is a documentary, the first few days in “Living on One Dollar” are a lot like Tom Hanks’ time stranded on an island in the fiction film “Cast Away,” as we watch the main characters in both figure out how to acquire their basic survival needs. The four students arrive at a shack, which they turn into their home and their first project is to try and make a fire. The next day, they find a water source. It’s not their usual trip to the kitchen. Rather, it’s quite a walk into the village. One of the students is disgusted when he sees a bug swimming in his murky glass of water.
The extreme poverty is an obvious element in the film. The students play soccer with local village boys on a narrow, gravel slope. But far in the horizon, are breathtaking mountains. Thankfully, nature is free to look at and enjoy. In that aspect, villagers from Pena Blanca are wealthier than many of us.
The 60-minute film is made up of stories of people who are ready to give you all they have, despite their difficult living conditions. It’s about Chino, a 12-year-old boy, who dreams of becoming a professional soccer player. About Rosa, a 20-year-old woman, who dreams of becoming a nurse one day.
When Temple asked Chino, wearing faded jeans with short sleeves—who, by the way, has a smile that will make your heart melt—what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said a farmer. It’s as if he had accepted his father’s fate as his future, no questions asked. Temple rephrased the question to: What would you want to be if you could be ANYTHING? Only then did Chino say a professional soccer player.
Chino’s smile reminded me of smiles I saw in a refugee camp in Jordan in 2009. There were three boys in particular who caught my attention. The first wore stripes. He was about 9-years-old. There was something in his eyes—a light. He was happy. He looked forward to the future. I couldn’t understand why, when his life was lacking almost all basics of life. Then, there was another boy about the same age. He was angry. Serious. His eyes reflected burdens weighing him down. A third boy, about 6 years old, looked naïve and oblivious, unaware of the opportunities other children had outside the bubble of his limited experience.
The boys living in the refugee camp in Jordan all expressed joy in different levels when my college friends and I visited them. It was similar to Chino’s reaction to the four foreigners, who traveled a long distance to “feel” with them. The children’s smiles were not triggered by the new clothes we bought them. I think they appreciated the human connection we wanted to make. They liked the pat on their shoulder. They yearned to feel equal to “the others”—you and I, and not be looked down on by us. They wanted us to ask them what they dreamed of.
Rosa, a mother of three and care-taker of seven, took a $200 loan from a small, privately owned non-profit and used it to start her home-based weaving business. She then used what little profit she made to go back into school, where other grown women like her sat on small desks with big dreams to pursue. At one point, the camera is directly in her face as she sits outside her house weaving a multi-colored rug. She is blushing.
Her shy gaze took me back to Muscat Festival in the capital of The Sultanate of Oman, part of a set of festivities that the Omanis have across different parks every February. Qurum Park, the largest festival location, is in a well-off neighborhood. In the center of all the liveliness, cameras and reporters of the Omani local channels were filming men and women folk dancing, and making traditional handicrafts. Some women made straw baskets, while some men made leather shoes. On the other side of the cameras, children dressed in traditional clothes walked in groups singing folk songs.
One Omani woman stood out. She wore a white dress with a green cloak, and a golden metal burka was covering her mouth. She was making a bracelet with red and silver threads. I kneeled down right in front of her face, aligned my camera, and took her picture. She never looked up at me, even though, I wanted her to. I had hoped to talk to her, and ask her about who she was. But she was clearly in robot mode. Her picture was taken by hundreds of people that night—tourists, who traveled to be entertained by simple villagers. Those villagers crossed a long distance by bus to be paid by the government for displaying their country’s history, and for entertaining foreigners.
The Omani woman seemed like a professional at what she was doing. Most probably, when the month of festivity is over—and she goes back to her village—she will continue to make her bracelets to generate income.
I couldn’t help feeling that Rosa and the Omani woman were on one side of the lens, and the rest of us on the other side. The four American college students broke the barrier by experiencing first-hand what they are documenting.
On day 57 of their journey, Temple writes in his journal:”What can I do to help?”
“There is no one answer,” said Temple. “[There are] $3.5 trillion in international development trying to end poverty. And, a lot of times it’s just made things worse. That’s what we’re trying to prove here: The power of partial solutions. Each individual can help and affect a single other individual to change the world.”
In two months, Temple and Ingrasci teach Chino and other village children some English and Spanish. Until March of 2015, their website shows that they have raised $195,000 for education, nutrition and health in Peña Blanca & for microfinance around the world.
A day before they returned to the US, the four students danced after dinner with Chino and his family of eight to Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” which played on a big old stereo from the 90s. The four students were repaying the family for their help and generosity. The humble family taught them how to make a fire faster, get a better bargain at the local market, and figure out how
to get the calories they needed to survive on their meager budget. But most importantly, they offered their unconditional friendship.
In a context of dominant poverty, giving to others is the prevailing theme in the film. Such a value is deteriorating in our materialistic lives. Joseph Garner’s “Craigslist Joe” film presented the same theme in a different way. In the film, Joe sets out on a one-month journey across the United States depending solely on the kindness of peoples’ Craigslist posts. The majority of the strangers that offer Joe a meal or a room to crash in for the night are clearly barely making it themselves. He got rides across the country in beat up cars, and even shared a burger with a man he had just met. Yet, the strangers in both “Living on One Dollar” and “Craigslist Joe” were happy to share all they have.
After watching “Living on One Dollar”, I checked out their website. Having been raised in Jordan, I was thrilled to find out that their next project was al-Za’tari camp for Syrian refugees located in Jordan. That reinforced my feeling of trust in their film. Their journey was more than just documenting. Their quest for making a difference has only begun.
“Living on One Dollar” is geared toward creating awareness and positive change. The next time I went to the dollar store, I set a budget and returned some items back on the shelf.
This film will not only change your outlook on poverty and make you question your financial decisions. Hopefully, it will encourage you to change another person’s life.