Documentaries are all the rage lately. In particular, documentaries which attempt to tackle enormous, unwieldy problems in less than two hours (Michael Moore’s Sicko (2007) for example) seem to be becoming the norm. The End of Poverty? (2008), written and directed by Phillippe Diaz, takes on an even more inconceivably huge problem: the evils of global capitalism. The problem is not that the film is a tiny David taking on a huge Goliath; the problem is that the film isn’t well-conceived or well-realized enough to effectively get its message across in the first place.
The End of Poverty? (tagline: “think again”) begins with the unspoken assumption that we in the West believe the world’s current economic structures have effectively resolved the issue of poverty in the Third World. Personally I don’t know many people who believe this to be the case, but whatever. The film divides its time between talking heads (economists, politicians, activists) and footage of indigenous tribes and workers in Bolivia, Kenya, Tanzania, and a few other countries, all of whom rail against the oppressive system under which they are unable to extricate themselves or their families from a lifetime of grinding poverty.
What is this “system,” you ask? The film answers by laboriously laying out the theory that European colonialism is still ultimately responsible for the global wealth disparities that keep Third World peoples “in their place,” i.e. desperately poor. The film’s thesis turns out to be a grand notion about the redistribution of wealth, and the idea that making land “common” property is the only way to humanity’s salvation. That the white men proposing this massive economic readjustment are all ensconced in comfortable offices and lavish apartments does not seem to register with the filmmakers.
Indeed, an odd cognitive dissonance pervades much of the film. As with many social-justice documentaries, End relies heavily on the repetitive use of dramatic inter-cut titles to convey information to viewers. Suddenly, they’re hitting you with statistics designed to turn your stomach and jangle your heartstrings. However, not once is an actual source for any of the titles information cited; this technique of throwing hard facts into a narrative would be much more effective if the filmmakers had done the due diligence to make their information credible. Without sources, the fact interludes begin to feel more like pieces of a conspiracy theory than parts of an elegant, indisputable explanation.
Unfortunately for the noble cause it is pursuing, The End of Poverty? ultimately fails to make its case. Though many of the vignettes featuring downtrodden indigenous people are wrenching and effective, the filmmakers’ failure to make their work cohesive, believable and approachable (how should I redistribute my wealth, anyway?) undermines the considerable work they put into shooting it. It feels like a rough draft—perhaps, with a little fact-checking and some editing finesse, it could make a real impact. Here’s hoping.