by Ben Lewis
28 November, 2012
“Poor Us” is a global overview of the history of the poor people, from 10,000BC to today’s era of globalisation. Animation, interviews, motion graphics and archive are combined in this innovative, mould-breaking documentary which imagines the history of poverty as a never-ending dream – nightmare.
“Poor Us” – not poor them – makes you, the viewer, the central character of this story. You fall asleep in front of the TV – yet more grim news about the world’s poor – and then you dream your way through twelve millennia of history, reincarnating in the bodies of poor people from different times and places, searching for an understanding of the history of poverty, and, through that, for a solution to this eternal problem. The dreamer crosses the plains where prehistoric man roamed; hears the first play discussing poverty in Ancient Greece; hides in medieval Cairo and begs in medieval Paris; watches the Spanish conquer the Incas; experiences famines in Imperial China and colonial India; and become a pregnant prostitute in industrial Britain. The dreamer is the recipient of aid in postwar Ghana; attempts illegal immigration to Europe; and grows rich in the booming economy of contemporary China. On the way, the dreamer meets iconic figures from the history of poverty – among them, Ghandi, Confucius, Buddha, Karl Marx and Kwame Nkrumah.
“Poor Us” combines interviews with the world leading poverty economists and the world’s leading poverty historians. Among them: Jeffrey Sachs (author of “The End of Poverty”), nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Esther Duflo (MIT Poverty Lab and author of “Poor Economics”), Tim Hitchcock (Council of the Royal Historical Society), Emmanuel Akyeampong (Historian of Africa, Harvard) and Oscar Guardiola (Author of “What if Latin America Ruled The World”).
If we want to make poverty history, “Poor Us” tells us, we must first understand the history of poverty. So what does history teach us about poverty that we didn’t know before? Our history of poverty shows that the division we see today between a rich North and poor South was not always so. In fact, before the nineteenth century parts of Africa and China were as economically vibrant as European countries. In the era of colonialism and then industrialisation, Europeans’ superior technology enabled them to colonise Latin America and Africa, taking the wealth from those parts of the world to enrich themselves in the postwar era we flooded Africa with billions of dollars of aid, yet the results were very limited. Today the age-old poverty problem of hunger is receding, but instead we are living in a world of ever-growing inequality.
And what does history tell us about what we can do about poverty today? As Esther Duflo says in our film, even today, economists don’t know exactly what gets rid of poverty. There is no one answer. It’s a combination of things – free markets, technology, wealth redistribution, political stability, education and sanitation. The trick is to keep trying to get the combination of all of these things right.
“I got the idea of how I wanted to make this film from a coincidence of spelling. The first three letters of the word POVERTY are POV, which in film-making language is an acronym for Point-of-View. It made me realise instantly that I wanted to tell the history of poverty from the point of view of a poor person.
I wanted to make a film that, like the others I have made, was at the same time a meticulously researched historical documentary and a widly imaginative fictional reversioning of history. In other words, I wanted to make a film that blurred the line in new ways between documentary and fiction.
So the first thing I did was spend two months in the British Library reading scores of new micro-histories of poverty – studies of poverty in specific historical epochs and locations – which have been published in the last fifteen years. All this new research is little known. I read Sharon Farmer’s “Surviving Poverty in Mediavel Paris” and Mine Ener’s “Managing Eygpt’s Poor 1800-1952″ and Lillian Li’s “Fighting Famine in North China” as well as John Iliffe’s classic “The African Poor”. So in the film when you meet Morrisset, the beggar with the oozing sore in thirteenth century Paris, he is a real character from contemporary accounts, and the same goes for Jane Brown the seventeen year old pregnant prostitute in London, while one postwar African leader is modelled on Kwame Nkrumah.
I had been asked to compress an enormous amount of history into a very short time-frame – ten thousand years in sixty minutes. In fact, my commissioning editors told me if I wanted I could just start 600 years ago, but I liked the craziness of trying to incorporate all human history in one hour. At the same time I was asked to come up with an idea that would be suitable for a film that combined animation with real interviews, archive and motion graphics. Both these requests gave me the dream idea. Only in dream time could ten thousand years actually happen in sixty minutes, and if I conceived the history of poverty as a dream I could merge my historical research with symbolic, syncretic historical memories and fantasies. And if it was a dream, then that could also link into my first most important idea – to make the viewer experience poverty himself.
That made me think of one more reference: Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveller’. In this wonderful book, the reader is the protagonist, who, as Calvino tells him, is reading a book, only each chapter is the chapter of a different book, that all sort of link up. This novel helped me work out how to link so many different little stories into something that felt like it was one story.
I was assisted by a team of utterly brilliant Dutch collaborators, principally Fons Scheidon, the head of animation. I had never met Fons until I had written the script and shot most of the interviews, but after I saw his animation, I felt like I had written the whole film just for him. Christiaan de Rooij provided the beautiful motion graphics, in which he took historical visual material – etchings, woodcuts, photographs, and gave them depth and subtle movements which again related to the film’s dream reality. Finally moving music was composed by Fons Merkies, who used the melody from Faure’s Requiem as a motif to link music in so many different historical styles.” (Ben Lewis)