The world is watching

Next year, broadcasters from around the world will unite to coproduce Why Poverty?, a multi-million dollar series of films examining issues surrounding global poverty. Here, series editors Nick Fraser (pictured) and Mette Hoffmann Meyer exclusively unveil its flagship titles.
May 25, 2011

November 2012 will see a range of broadcasters from across the globe uniting to launch one of the biggest factual coproductions of the decade so far.

The Why Poverty? initiative, a successor to 2007′s Why Democracy? project, will consist of eight or nine feature-length documentaries (depending on funding), and a number of shorts and online initiatives. At the heart of the project will be one simple question: Why, in the 21st Century, do a billion people still live in poverty?

Spearheading the global doc collaboration is South Africa-based campaigning organization Steps International, along with UK public broadcaster the BBC and Danish pubcaster DRTV. Other organizations committed include networks in Japan (NHK), Holland (VPRO), Sweden (SVT), Norway (NRK), Finland (YLE) and the Middle East (MBC); as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Danish Film Institute and the European Broadcasting Union.

“We believe that you have to understand the mechanism of poverty and why people are poor,” says DRTV’s commissioning editor for documentaries Mette Hoffmann Meyer, who – along with Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand – is overseeing the project. “What we really want to do is change perceptions.”

“If you go back 30 years, people thought that the solution to poverty was aid,” adds Fraser. “But in the last 15 years, the real problem has been how the poorest countries have been run.”

The series follows the highly influential Why Democracy? series, which was screened by 48 broadcasters worldwide and notably produced Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winner Taxi To The Dark Side. A number of award-winning directors have already been commissioned for the new project, including Weijun Chen, Ben Lewis and Brian Hill.

So far, some 33 broadcasters have committed to the project, with a target of around 48 by 2012. For the first time, realscreen can reveal details of the first six feature-length documentaries commissioned for the series.


Directed by Brian Hill / Produced by Century Films

UK indie Century Films’ doc examines infant mortality and the differing chances a child has in life depending on where he or she is born. Shot all over the world, the film will look at the circumstances of the parents, their hopes for their soon-to-arrive children, and international differences in customs and practices regarding pregnancy and childbirth.

At its core is the notion that by knowing the details of a child’s circumstances and environment on its first day on the planet, you can broadly predict how the rest of its life will unfold. “The first day of a child’s life more or less defines that person’s life,” says Fraser.

The film is being produced by Katie Bailiff and directed by Brian Hill, whose films for the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV in the UK have won awards from bodies such as BAFTA and the RTS.

“Brian has done lots of great documentaries, most notably Feltham Sings, where he went into a young offenders’ institution and filmed people singing about their lives,” Fraser says.


Directed by Christoffer Guldbrandsen / Produced by Stine Meldgaard

Spanning many months and countries, the doc follows African journalists on an investigation to expose the scale of corruption throughout the continent. However, in addition to looking at corruption in Africa, the film will also look at the countries whose governments house the corporations that benefit most from corruption.

Taking Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index as its starting point, the film will look to form a new ‘Financial Integrity Index,’ to outline which countries and firms benefit the most from the plundering of Africa’s resources.

The project, directed by Christoffer Guldbrandsen (Fogh Behind the Façade, The President) and produced by Stine Meldgaard, will examine “who the guilty parties are, and who is benefitting from the corruption in Africa,” according to Hoffmann Meyer.

Regarding Guldbrandsen, she says, “He’s the best Danish director, but he has done mostly Danish subject stories on politics to date. He’s just finishing a film about politics in the EU, and he has an amazing filmic and journalistic mind.”


Directed by Bosse Lindquist / Produced by Filmfront

The ambitious How to do Good will broadly examine how, over the past 20 years, the nature of global philanthropy has changed, with a rise in private initiatives and global campaigns replacing the thinking that government aid should be the solution to global poverty.

The film will look at worldwide campaigns such as Make Poverty History and Drop the Debt, delving into how rock stars such as Bono and Bob Geldof have managed to make fighting poverty a sexy subject. “Some 35 million people signed up to the Make Poverty History campaign,” offers Fraser. “But does it work, can it work?”

The doc promises to take viewers behind the scenes of these campaigns, investigating their successes and failures, while looking at the “glitzy celebrities, leftist revolutionaries and conservative Congressmen” who enlisted dot-com billionaires, fashion models, rock concerts and the Web to help lobby politicians and establish themselves as advocates for the poor.

The film is directed by Swedish filmmaker Bosse Lindquist (The Genius and the Boys) and produced by David Herdies.


Directed by Weijun Chen

From award-winning director Weijun Chen (To Live Is Better than to Die, Please Vote for Me), Generation X looks at the new generation of educated Chinese who feel disillusioned with their career and life prospects.

Following a handful of aspiring young people whose families have sacrificed almost everything to get them a university education, the observational doc – still in the development stage – will follow their struggles to get ahead in the most competitive economy in the world.

According to Fraser, the film will focus on “the increasing number of educated Chinese for whom there are no prospects visible,” adding that the issue is “symmetrical with a lot of people’s problems” outside of the country.

“This is acknowledged by the government in China to be the biggest emerging problem,” Fraser explains. “What is at the core of this massive emerging problem is, once they’ve had to go through this education system, what happens to all these people afterwards?”


Directed by Jehane Noujaim / Produced by Plus Pictures

Solar Grandmothers focuses on Roy Bunker’s Barefoot College in India, where women from across the world – mostly in their forties and fifties – are taught to become solar engineers. The college is billed as being “built by the poor, for the poor, and owned and managed by the poor,” with the only criterion applied to candidates being that they must not have had any formal schooling.

The film sees acclaimed director Jehane Noujaim (Control Room, following three women from Africa and the Middle East as they make the journey to India in a bid to learn skills lacking in their local communities. “It’s quite amazing what she’s shot,” Hoffmann Meyer says of Noujaim. “They’ve identified grandmothers in really poor areas of the world – in Kenya, Burkina Faso, Benin – and at this university in India they teach them to become solar engineers in several years.”

Fraser adds: “The women get out of their original society, learn a different life and then come back into their society. The question is, what do they do when they come back – can they change things?”


Directed by Ben Lewis / Produced by Submarine Productions

From Holland’s Submarine Productions and Grierson-winning director Ben Lewis (The King of Communism) comes a documentary promising to address themes of poverty and hunger – with a twist.

Animated History of Poverty will use a combination of treated archive, live action and animation to look at the history of the haves and the have-nots, “from cavemen to Mao and Warren Buffet,” according to Fraser, who says the film “won’t be Euro-centric.”

The doc will be constructed around 10 chapters and will focus on key moments or eras from the history of global inequality, from Biblical times through the Middle Ages, colonialism, the Great Depression, the welfare state and globalization. From the moment “the first wealthy merchant dropped a coin in the palm of a leprous beggar” to the Make Poverty History campaign, the film promises to be anecdotal and humorous.

“When was the first man rich and the first man poor?” asks Hoffmann Meyer. “The film looks at what rulers have done with poverty throughout history – how poor can you keep the poor without having them rioting?”

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.