Four friends set out to live in rural Guatemala for two months on $1 a day. If the plot sounds a bit gimmicky or contrived, the end result—a 2013 documentary called Living on One Dollar—is in fact the opposite; an insightful look at the impact of poverty on a micro level. Directed by Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, along with a camera crew of Ryan Christoffersen and Sean Leonard, the film came to fruition after the group released a short YouTube video after arriving in the country. The video quickly hit 700,000 viewers and inspired a more detailed look at extreme poverty.
The journey begins in Guatemala City with a bumpy six-hour ride on the back of a chicken bus to Pena Blanca, a mostly Mayan town of around 300 people in the rural highlands of a region where 7 in 10 live under the poverty line. Living on 900 calories a day from beans and bananas bought at the local market and sleeping two to a bed in a local family’s home, the filmmakers meet others in the community with stories to tell. Chino is an adolescent boy with dreams of learning Spanish to find a job, while 20-year old Rosa remembers quitting school to help out her family and a lost opportunity, but hopes to use a new micro-loan to start a small business. Town members give the young men advice on adding cheap lard to their beans for subsistence and discuss a successful savings program where small contributions by twelve members each month enable one person to buy something more significant.
The real strength of the film lies in the group’s efforts to replicate the ebb and flow of income local residents in the community and those in similar situations around the world face on a daily basis. Instead of simply budgeting $1 a day, the filmmakers understood income in an informal economy fluctuates based on the success of one’s crop and other (often unforeseeable) factors. The group drew a number each day and their budget ranged from $0 for all four individuals to $9 on a good day. In other words; a string of bad luck could lead to little to no income for days, which in fact happened at one point during the film. Much like other members of the community, the group also took out a micro-loan at the beginning of their stay to grow radishes, a loan which needed to be repaid in increments each week. A telling trip to the local bank later in the documentary showed just how impossible securing more traditional loans could be for those without a real paycheck.
The problems and stress caused by such little income—even in a span of two months—was more sobering than expected, in part due to the impact films can have over words in portraying prevalent problems in our society. The conversations with locals and real-world issues encountered—both large and small—makes the documentary a must-see for anyone interested in learning more about poverty or considering a trip to a similar locale. The film ultimately draws the correct conclusion that poverty cannot be solved by a one-size-fits-all solution, an insightful take on global poverty echoed in recent articles by people with much more experience in the field than the four young men who made the documentary.
Living On One Dollar, which won Best Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival and received praise from Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, is now available on Netflix and iTunes. The image in this post is credited to Living On One.
Living on One Dollar Review: Official Film Trailer