Filmmaker Interview with Producer Mark Weber
What motivated you to make this film?
Our director Michael Matheson Miller has a very interesting background with a masters in philosophy, a masters in international business in Europe, and a masters in international development in Japan. In this film, you see those three fields come together. Michael was discouraged by the social engineering mindset embedded in international development, feeling that the people we label “the poor” were being treated as objects with categorical programming that failed to appreciate the creative capacity and destiny of the individual person. That philosophical anthropology that each human person is endowed with dignity
and creative potential is the starting point of the film’s analysis.
My own awakening to this objectification of “the poor” came in 2008 in a tribal village in Bangladesh. I was the captain of the Notre Dame Boxing Team, which since 1931 has been supporting the Catholic missions there. Our motto was “Strong bodies fight, that weak bodies may be nourished.” We used it in all of our promotion with stock photos of Bangladesh and everyone praised us for fighting for such a great cause. In the 78 years before the 2008 trip I organized, no students had ever actually been to Bangladesh because of the extreme conditions and wars there. But there we were, finally, visiting a girls’ school and listening to a Bengali priest explain who we were. “These are the Notre Dame boxers, and we are very thankful to them for supporting us for many years so you can go to school. They have a beautiful motto: Strong bodies fight, and they are the strong bodies,” he gestured to us. “So that weak bodies may be nourished, and we are the weak bodies,” he completed slowly gesturing to the girls, realizing the strangeness of what he said only as it came out of his mouth. The young women looked confused. We felt an intense discomfort and sank in our chairs, hit in the face with the embedded paternalism in our most prized motto. “Na,” one of the girls declared verbally. We are not weak. I will never forget that moment. It changed my mindset from that day forward and inspired me to be a part of this film.
Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film and/or in your distribution/exhibition efforts?
Distribution is a real challenge because it is an ever-changing landscape and there is no one way of doing it. By the time a book is written on the subject, it’s already out of date. Our strategy involved playing the film as many places as we could. No festival was too small and it so happened that our educational and international agreement with Ro*Co Films, came from playing at the Topanga Film Festival (a person there was friends with a person at Ro*Co). We also contacted as many filmmakers as we could, interviewed them, and took careful notes on how they did distribution. Each film was different, but understanding the many possibilities helped us craft a strategy and execution plan best fit for our film.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
The title of our film is a bit of a tip-of-the-hat to one of our favorite films, FOOD, INC. That film concludes with an interview with a Walmart buyer. A decade ago, no one thought Walmart would be carrying organics. But consumers “voted” for organics in the marketplace, thus compelling Walmart to respond. This is the dollar democracy of the market economy at work.
I hope people join us in our own educational process of shifting from paternalism to partnership. We need to take that charitable desire to help others and integrate it vertically through everything we do, not just silo it in a separate category we call philanthropy, charity, or corporate social responsibility. We need to vote for companies, nonprofits, and government leaders that treat people as persons with potential, not as the objects of our compassion.
Practically speaking, this means we don’t donate to nonprofits that are perpetuating paternalism through their models and marketing. It means we buy from companies that manufacture their products and source their materials ethically, or are at least deeply committed to improving this transparency year over year. It means we vote for leaders that uphold the institutions of justice that allow people to flourish – property rights, rule of law, and freedom.
Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:
We encourage audiences to frame their discussions with the understanding that this documentary is “open-source.” It’s not designed as a closed argument that tells you what you’re supposed to do next. “What can I do?” is a question we often hear. While we appreciate the desire to help, the question itself is also representative of how stuck we are in one-size-fits-all solutions. You are unique. We couldn’t possibly portend to know what your unique path is to making the most of your talents. Our goal is to give you an interpretive key, a decoder, a way of looking at the world. Your responsibility is to use that decoder to look inside you and to look around you for opportunities to apply yourself and your principles consistently, effectively, passionately.
Specifically one thing we want to remember is that this film is not a condemnation of charity. It’s aimed at redeeming the true meaning of charity. We’ve made charity synonymous with writing a check to a cause. True charity – caritas – is a deep form of interpersonal love, where you look into the eyes of a unique person and see him or her in the fullness of who that person is. Being charitable is much more about our time and daily interactions than it is about the deductions on our tax forms. It’s time to redeem this word
by bringing attention to how much we have cheapened it.
Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?
This September, the Millennium Development Goals are up for renewal and they’re being redrafted as the Sustainable Development Goals. I personally believe they are a distraction from what’s really important. Policies like the U.S. Farm Bill and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are much more relevant. Furthermore, I fear the more active and well-funded the Sustainable Development Goals are, the more harm they might do. As an example, the Haitian earthquake relief was an unmitigated disaster, fraught with corruption and
incompetence that delayed Haiti’s recovery. See the NPR and HBO Vice pieces on this. Relief is an appropriate intervention for wealthy countries to make, yet we fail. If we cannot be successful with basic relief, why do we believe we can succeed in the infinitely more complicated process of development? Development is organic. It can’t be manufactured. Can you grow a hamburger in a petri dish? Yes. But is it a viable way to create food. No. And it never will be.
What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?
Again, keeping in mind that the film is an interpretive key and there is intentionally no “donate here” button, a few ideas:
If you’re interested in law, maybe you can volunteer your time as a legal advocate to protect people’s property rights, help them navigate the legal system to be productive, and most of all, help find ways to incrementally improve legal systems and regulations that weigh people down unnecessarily.
If you’re interested in business and entrepreneurship, vertically integrate your ethos throughout your entire supply chain. Ti voglio bene, the Italians say. I will your good. This is what the actions of 21st Century business leaders should communicate to consumers, suppliers, employees, investors, and even rivals, whose competition drives innovation forward for all.
If you’re interested in nonprofits, consider the fact that you are still part of the marketplace of value exchange. Your donors give you money in exchange for good work they expect you to do. Be very aware of the pitfall intrinsic to such an exchange: the feedback loop between the donor and the end-user (the person you are trying to help) is broken. The instinct of every organization is to survive and perpetuate itself. Be wary of this as it relates to how and why you go about your work.
If you’re interested in donating, consider adopting an integrated understanding of your dollars. Don’t separate out your charitable spending and the rest of your spending. Spend consciously and intentionally in accordance with your values. Consider spending more of your time building relationships that aren’t solely predicated on you helping someone from a position of power. Sometimes people just need someone to look them in the eye and treat them as a person. Don’t give a million dollars to a foundation then never stop to talk to someone on the street. Even if you don’t give that person a dime, give that person the respect of looking them in the eye.
If you’re interested in policy, consider the words of Juan Jose Daboub, a former World Bank official from El Salvador. “We looked at many countries that had had comparable experiences, either because of some sort of war or civil strife, or for some kind of natural disaster. We looked at Chile, and we looked at countries that after World War II were totally destroyed. South Korea came into the picture, but also Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan. These were countries that had one thing in common: they removed obstacles for people to be able to take destiny to their own hands, and we wanted to emulate that. We wanted to change the role of the government from one of an orchestra director to one of a referee that addresses, that helps resolve the controversy among the different actors in society, but that do not have to over-intervene in people’s life. This was the basic thing that El Salvador was able to accomplish.”
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