Skip to main content

Review: The Importance of Being Not So Earnest

The documentary "The End of Poverty?" takes an impassioned if clunky look at international capitalism over the last half millennium. Guess what it finds?
  • Author:
  • Updated:

As far as Philippe Diaz is concerned, the issue of world poverty is a simple mathematical problem. "If we consume 30 percent more than the planet can regenerate, it means for us in the Northern Hemisphere to maintain our lifestyle, we have to plunge more people in the Southern Hemisphere into poverty. We have [an economic] system that is digging a bigger hole every year."

Diaz is the writer-director of The End of Poverty? a documentary that opens throughout the country over the next several months. His film spends 104 minutes attempting to explain how this all happened. In this case, that means taking the long view, which might be too long for some viewers. The End of Poverty? begins 500 years ago, showing how Europeans introduced capitalism to their newly acquired colonies, ripped off the indigenous cultures, sold some into slavery and basically used the Americas, Africa and parts of Asia as natural resource centers for their burgeoning industrial might.

In what the film refers to as "mental colonization" — imposing an outside culture through religion and other means — you have a film that could have been subtitled Rapacious Capitalism 101.

"I would have started even earlier" on the historical timeline, Diaz said, "if I had had time in the film. But when you have an hour and a half, you have to start somewhere, and I felt people could relate easily to the beginning of modern times."

MOVING PICTURESAn occasional look at movies that matter.

An occasional look at movies that matter.

For some, however, modern times might not arrive until about midway through the documentary, when Diaz takes on the world monetary system and how it has kept the globe's poorest countries in debt through the policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. The End of Poverty? sees this happening in a number of ways:

• Forcing countries to pay off loans left over from the colonial era.

• Opening markets to subsidized agricultural products from more developed countries, thereby driving down prices and hurting indigenous farmers.

• Encouraging "structural adjustment" programs, which privatize key resources like water.

• Making countries reduce expenditures to pay off their debts, which means privatizing educational and health care systems.

Diaz uses footage from countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Kenya to show how the extreme poor are affected by these policies. Title cards spread throughout the film deliver some sobering statistics — the richest 1 percent of the world owns 32 percent of the wealth; 16,000 children die each day from hunger or hunger-related diseases; nearly a third of the world's population has no access to affordable clean water. There are also a few stats that seem a bit hard to believe, such as the claim that cutting world poverty in half would cost $20 billion. That figure wouldn't even buy every team in the NFL.
Diaz interviewed a panoply of experts — government officials, academics, Nobel Prize honorees (including economics prize winners Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz) and heads of nonprofit organizations, to make his point. They all present a solid case for the destructive policies of the former colonizers and their financing institutions, although one or two come off as smug ideologues driving home their preconceived talking points.

The director denies his film is preaching to the choir. "It's not ideological, that's not the issue," he said, and adds that "in all these experts, you have two types: the pessimistic ones expecting a major crash, and the others who believe we are intelligent enough to change the system.

"I am one of the optimistic ones. Ten years ago, no one was talking about global warming; now everyone is; it's everywhere. And I believe the poverty issue is bigger than global warming, because today, people are dying every day because of it."

Solutions? Diaz says global poverty is a "systemic problem," which means big questions call for big answers. He and some of his experts think there are political solutions, like agrarian reform, an end to the monopolizing of resources and changing the tax system. But the ultimate answer may involve what Diaz refers to as "de-growth. It's consume less, but consume better. Right now, we are wasting quantities of everything. Unless we de-grow, we will explode."

The End of Poverty? is righteously impassioned, but a bit dry. All those talking heads don't help in a cinematic sense, and Diaz' focus might be too broad. Plus, some of the material, particularly that from the colonial era, seems overly familiar. Yet commitment like this is refreshing, and the issue the film is tackling is certainly of paramount importance.

"I feel," Diaz says, "we are in a major crisis we don't realize." On that point he, and his film, are certainly correct.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.