Imagine living on one dollar a day. Somehow you’d need to feed and clothe and house yourself with only four round, shiny quarters. That is exactly what 1.1 billion people around the world currently have to do. In 2010, three young men raised on Bainbridge and a fourth buddy tried to do it themselves for one summer in order to call attention to global poverty. The documentary Into Poverty: Living on One Dollar tells the story of their experience. It will premiere at Lynwood Theatre on Sunday, August 26.
Filmmakers Zach Ingrasci (of Bainbridge) and Chris Temple met at Claremont McKenna College and became fast friends, bonding over their shared interest in microfinance. They founded their own microfinance organization with a membership of 1700 students from 165 universities in 60 countries. But they struggled to cross the gap between people of means and those living on just one dollar a day. According to Ingrasci, they “wanted to figure out a way to engage” their generation of peers “with these really difficult issues of global poverty.” The two men often referred to the media’s way of tackling the topic of poverty as “poverty porn”: images of malnourished children with which, Ingrasci said, “it was impossible for people to connect.”
The Viral Hook
While at a bar in Columbia during a microfinance conference, the two Economic Development majors came up with the concept of inserting themselves into the equation, theorizing that that would bridge the gap between the reality of poverty and the rest of the world’s ability to understand it by creating a “viral hook.”
To test out their theory, Ingrasci and Temple chose to create a poverty reality for themselves in Guatemala, one country where many people live in extreme poverty, and to film their experiences. They recruited Ingrasci’s Bainbridge High School buddies and videographers Sean Leonard and Ryan Christoffersen. Over a span of eight weeks in 2010, each of the four men spent only $56. During the two months, they were afflicted with E. Coli and lived in “heightened financial stress.”
But it was an imperfect experience because, as Ingrasci explained, “We knew we’d never be able to simulate poverty.” So they rigged their situation to “simulate key aspects of it.” For example, to mimic the unpredictability of poverty income, they decided to draw a number out of a hat each day. The number represented the amount of income they would earn that day. So, although they lived on an average of $1, some days they gave themselves far less, which required them to plan and save. The men also had to take out a small microfinance loan for the house they lived in and for the land on which they grew radishes. They had to pay back the loan with interest from just that average of one dollar per day.
Ingrasci and his team were inspired by their neighbors and friends who, under actual circumstances of poverty, somehow managed to survive for the long term. Ingrasci said the film is “really the story of our neighbors. That’s what we’re devoted to sharing. We want to give them a voice.”
The neighbors and friends are the 17 families of the tiny Guatemalan village of Peñablanca. The film focuses on three of them in particular: 24-year-old Tono Solares, who supports eight people in his family on $1.50 per day; Rosa CojBocel who dropped out of school in 6th grade and at 21 started a weaving business with a microfinance loan to put herself through school so she could become a nurse’s assistant; and 12-year-old Chino (Carlos) Coj, a kid in the only family in town that couldn’t afford to send their children to school because of the $25 book fees.
Ingrasci said that they hardly ever took out the camera during those first weeks in Peñablanca, which were spent largely getting to know people. That task was complicated by the fact that the local people spoke Cakchiquel, not Spanish, so one of their friends had to serve as translator. But filming happened in earnest during the second month, providing the team with enough footage for a film.
Living on One
Ingrasci and Temple have a big vision for the film and their ongoing work. With their pals Sean Leonard and Hannah Gregg, they founded Living on One, an organization that creates engaging media to connect peers with issues of global poverty and inspire people to take action. Now that they have graduated from college, the four are taking their message on the road in the 2012 Living on One Tour. For the next four months, they will drive a 1978 school bus around the nation, speaking with thousands of high school and university students about the fight to end extreme poverty. The bus is wrapped in branding, and it is outfitted with a PA system and a mobile projection unit. The tour will take them to 25 campuses, some high schools, and eight private events.
They will end the tour by plane in Guatemala City and finally Peñablanca.
Living on One is supported by Whole Foods Market, the Whole Planet Foundation, and the Creative Visions Foundation. Some prominent people serve on their advisory board, including Gary Ross, the director of The Hunger Games, David Doss, a former Executive Producer at CNN, Michael Lang, former CEO of Miramax, and Jeff Klein, former General Manager of the Los Angeles Times.
Ingrasci already began the tour in a way last year when he spoke at Woodward Middle School. He wasn’t sure how well the kids would be able to connect to his story about poverty, so he focused on Chino’s story. He was surprised by how engaged the kids became. Two weeks later, he heard by e-mail from one boy who had collected old toys from classmates, refurbished them, and sold them to raise $250 to donate to global microfinancing efforts.
Apparently, Ingrasci’s and Temple’s bar-generated theory about engagement holds water, as the viral hook has caught some fish: Their video has been seen 570,000 times on YouTube.
Ingrasci, who is 22, has already lived a lifetime of adult work. But he gives no indication of burnout and with his three partners intends to pursue other projects that “bridge the gap” on issues of economic development. He said. “This has become an incredible dream of ours, to continue to tell these stories, to find something we’re incredibly passionate about,” and he said that he imagines this work becoming a “lifelong career.” Conscious of his own fortunate upbringing, he talked about how Bainbridge is a wonderful community that has been “incredibly supportive” of their work.
But the work always seems to take him back to the people at the heart of it. He told me that Chino, who is now 14, is working 100 hours a week in a dog food shop far from his family. Chino sees his family only two times a year. His work and the money he sends home ensure that his siblings can attend school. Ingrasci and his pals paid for Chino to take time off so he could get in another visit at home. He said they all had a wonderful meal together back in Peñablanca.
The documentary’s premiere is being hosted in partnership with Treehouse Café at Lynwood Theatre, at 4569 Lynwood Center Road. The screening will begin at 4:45 p.m. A Q&A and hors d’oeuvres with the Living on One Co-founders will begin at 6:10 p.m. at Treehouse. All proceeds from the event will go directly to the Living on One non-profit organization. Visit their Facebook page here.
Photos courtesy of Living on One.