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Anti-Capitalist Rerun

A new champion of docu-mendacity is born.

Published on May 1, 2009
The End of Poverty
Directed and Written by Phillipe Diaz
106 minutes (Cinema Libre)

It is often said that we live in the golden age of the documentary film. To the extent that this is true, the gold gleams brightest for the drama quotient of recent documentaries. The quality of their social analysis, for those that claim this to be their purpose, has generally been much dimmer. The latest contribution to the genre, The End of Poverty, from filmmaker and scriptwriter Philippe Diaz, is even dimmer than the norm. It devotes 106 minutes to the causes of poverty, but delivers neither drama nor good analysis. The core message is plain: The global South is poor because the developed countries made it that way and wish to keep it that way; free trade is bad and Western corporations are bad; the West is rich because the South is poor.

If I were to judge The End of Poverty as an Entertainment Weekly reviewer I could give it no more than a C-plus. The cinematography and production values are good: The costumes from Bolivia are colorful, the Brazilian accents are romantic and the media-trained talking heads have lovely artworks behind them. It all feels appropriately serious, if somewhat soporific. As a movie, however, it offers no suspense, plot twist or character development. It is didactic in a respectable, old-fashioned way, and that means the movie cannot justify itself as entertainment. It has none of the interesting self-subverting features of a movie like Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 I Am Cuba, an ostensible critique of capitalist exploitation that was banned from Cuba and the Soviet Union in part for making capitalism look too glamorous.

And so, in assessing The End of Poverty we must treat it as a true documentary, as an unfortunate captive audience might watch it in a high school class. That means we have to turn to the facts, and that is where the film gets not just dim, but downright ugly.

Where to start? A few months ago I went back and tried to read some Ayn Rand. As Adam Wolfson has suggested recently in these pages, it wasn’t easy.1 I was put off by her lack of intellectual generosity. I read her claim that “collectivist savages” are too “concrete-bound” to realize that wealth must be produced. I read her polemic against the fools who focus on redistributing wealth rather than creating it. I read the claim that Western intellectuals are betraying the very heritage of their tradition because they refuse to think and to use their minds. I read that the very foundations of civilization are under threat. That’s pretty bracing stuff.

I can only report that The End of Poverty, narrated throughout by Martin Sheen, puts Ayn Rand back on the map as an accurate and indeed insightful cultural commentator. If you were to take the most overdone and most caricatured cocktail-party scenes from Atlas Shrugged, if you were to put the content of Rand’s “whiners” on the screen, mixed in with at least halfway competent production values, you would get something resembling The End of Poverty. If you ever thought that Rand’s nemeses were pure caricature, this film will show you that they are not (if the stalking presence of Naomi Klein has not already done so). If you are looking to benchmark this judgment, consider this: I would not say anything similar even about the movies of Michael Moore.

In this movie, the causes of poverty are oppression and oppression alone. There is no recognition that poverty is the natural or default state of mankind and that a special set of conditions must come together for wealth to be produced. There is no discussion of what this formula for wealth might be. There is no recognition that the wealth of the West lies upon any foundations other than those of theft, exploitation and the oppression of literal or virtual colonies.

The history in this movie starts, not coincidentally one may assume, in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus in the New World. The phrase “natural economies” is used repeatedly to refer to the conduct of the since-despoiled noble savages, and we are told that the Europeans destroyed the natural economies of the countries they conquered. Never mentioned is the fact that these so-called natural economies were themselves based on prior conquest and oppression. In fact, the natural economies are never actually portrayed at all, apart from a brief mention of collective or “ejido” land rights in what became “Latin” America.

Most of all, the movie is blind to the world we actually live in. The East Asian economies are mentioned, but they are praised for their protectionism, not for their productive incentives, their entrepreneurial initiative, their work ethic or their cooperative social norms. Hong Kong and Singapore, two miracles of enterprise and free trade, are not discussed at all.

In the countries chosen for study, there is no regard for possible success stories. A great deal of attention is paid to Bolivia, especially Cochabamba and the history of the silver mines in Potosi. From the movie, you would never know that the Bolivian region of Santa Cruz is relatively prosperous, that it seeks greater trade and contact with the outside world, and that perhaps it will be oppressed or taxed into submission by the rest of the country, including some of the politicians interviewed on screen. Surely a cinematic treatment of poverty in Bolivia should try to understand the difference between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba; did not The Godfather show the difference between New York and Sicily?

The film’s treatment of Brazil focuses on Recife, one of the poorer and most dangerous parts of the country. The skyscrapers of southern Brazil are shown but never explained; might they have something to do with trade? It is never mentioned that in the 1920s Argentina was about as rich as Canada, mostly because of trade. Pinochet is called one of the worst dictators of his time, but it is never mentioned that Chile is for the most part an economic success, again based largely on trade, and that it also has evolved into a well-functioning democracy. Philippe Diaz doesn’t seem to think that such questions are worth asking, much less answering in an honest (or even in a dishonest) way. There are simply the good guys (the indigenous), the bad guys (the Westerners and their corporations), and the associated victimology. Presenting success stories would require some explanation of where wealth comes from, and that would mean looking at incentives and capitalist production. That’s not on the program.

To be sure, many arguments can be made against an excessive role for the market in economic development. It could be argued that public health programs should be stronger, that most privatizations have not gone very well, that free trade alone won’t much help poor nations, or that state-building and market-building must go hand-in-hand. There’s evidence for each of these claims, even if one does not agree with them exactly as just stated. Diaz picks up on the anti-privatization angle but for the most part lets the best arguments against the market lie fallow, probably because those arguments are too complex or too multifaceted to fit into the preferred narrative of the oppressed, poor victims. There’s not a word about technology transfer, remittances, immigration, education abroad, ideas of liberty or the many other ways in which the development of the West massively benefits the poorer nations of the world.

Even on privatization The End of Poverty doesn’t get the story right. As the film notes, the Cochabamba privatization was a big mistake. What it doesn’t say is that before privatization Cochabamba was an equally good example of state-supported monopoly at its worst, replete with fare hikes (35 percent) and resource theft. What the movie also doesn’t mention is that after the privatization was undone, government provision of water has remained unsatisfactory. Water connections are still hard to come by and most poor Bolivians are paying ten or more times the going market price for water. It seems that carrying water into your home from a public well is a lot more expensive and burdensome than having a multinational rip you off.

Does The End of Poverty get anything right? Sure: The film’s critiques of colonialism are mostly spot on, but this is too easily carried off to merit praise. Of course colonialism was an immoral and impractical enterprise, and the movie serves up good evidence to make the point. But colonialism didn’t have the long-run impact that the film argues. The film, speaking through Sheen, never mentions that a number of countries or regions from the South were never colonized. Thailand was never colonized. Ethiopia was invaded by Italy but not colonized in the formal sense. Liberia was never colonized. Afghanistan and most of Central Asia were never colonized, at least not until Soviet times. These countries are hardly the major economic success stories of the South; if anything, their economic performance has been below average. China and Japan, on the other hand, started to do well once each aimed its targets on developing some version of Western capitalism.

The parts of the world that have tried the filmmakers’ preferred recipe for economic policy are also never discussed. Pre-reform India was a hotbed of protectionism and economic nationalism, but it failed to overcome Indian poverty and brought sub-par growth rates. Julius Nyrere’s Tanzania is another example of failed policies that would appear to fit the recommendations of the film. Maybe it’s unfair to pin the failures of Castro’s Cuba on Diaz and company, but since they give us no positive models to consider (other than protest movements), we can only wonder. Do they have positive model countries in mind but withhold them, or is it that they don’t have any real-world evidence that their recipes will work? We are left to guess at the answer, although perhaps the director’s lengthy interview documentary with Hugo Chávez, not available to this reviewer, holds a few clues.

If there is one idea the movie does seem to like, it is nationalism. That’s not very internationalist, but it makes sense against the obvious fact that what the movie hates is the idea of foreigners, especially Western foreigners. Writer and director Philippe Diaz is also known for his 2006 film The Empire in Africa, which portrays the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone as romanticized heroes, thwarted by an evil United Nations. Of course, RUF forces were brutal thugs and killers.

A more interesting movie and, indeed, a more suspenseful one would look at the contrasts and cases that are hardest to explain. Take Barbados and Jamaica, for example: They have similar histories as well as similar lingual, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Yet Barbados is much wealthier than Jamaica; why might that be? Stock ideological theories of both Left and Right don’t readily help us understand the reasons. Or why did Argentina fall behind after the 1920s? Why did South Korea rise so rapidly from poverty to riches? Why has Botswana done so much better than Congo? Why do differing regions in the same country—operating within more or less similar policy frameworks—sometimes achieve very different social and economic outcomes?

Diaz and company also fail when it comes to simple fact-checking. At about the one-hour twenty-three minute mark we are told that an expenditure of $20 billion would cut global poverty in half; this sum is then compared to the much larger U.S. military budget and the suggestion is that Americans are being greedy. You don’t need much calculation to see that this is nonsense. Under any plausible assumptions, this sum is less than $10 per poor person in the world. Even if that money were to be invested very wisely, it’s not enough to pull very many people out of poverty. That’s hardly the only factual mistake. Whenever the CIA had some role in funding or aiding a coup, we are told that the CIA drove the coup. It’s easy enough to criticize this dysfunctional agency without exaggerating its power.

Facts aside, there is not a single moment when this film presents a genuinely critical or thoughtful approach to evidence it does not get wrong. Even the true moments and claims give the informed viewer the feeling of being ripped out of context. It was sad to see Bill Easterly, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen appear in the film as commentators (the latter two are Nobel laureates); I wonder if they know what kind of misinformation they are lending their names to, for none of them shares the cartoonish, if slightly antique, neo-dependencia ideology permeating The End of Poverty. Easterly’s critical remarks about imperialism are entirely correct, as well as true to the spirit of Bill Easterly. The net effect of those remarks, however, is to make this film look reasonable in its broader anti-Western message. It makes the filmmakers look as if they have a larger number of reasonable allies on their side than they actually do. Easterly has been used.

The deeper question is why film as a medium, “documentary” and otherwise, seems so ill suited to subtle treatments of poverty. This year’s award-winning Slumdog Millionaire presents a Horatio Alger myth, and The End of Poverty offers up a good-guys-versus-bad-guys storyboard so simplistic that if that board could be made one-dimensional instead of two, it would be. Yet, of course, these are the two major narratives about poverty that we have, and both have proven time and time again that they can sell both tickets and political views.

Slumdog Millionaire certainly sold tickets; it’s not entirely clear if one of the reasons it has done so well in the United States is that it also sold the Horatio Alger line. The film has come under substantial criticism, most of all from India, for the latter. Numerous and sometimes contradictory charges have been leveled against it, ranging from “we’re not all poor” to “the poor can’t rise to be rich” to “Indian cinema handled that theme a long time ago.”

Perhaps the real lesson here is that someone is always going to be unhappy about how poverty is handled on the big screen. Once a movie decides it is going to cover “poverty” as a theme, its characters are liable to become clichés even before the script assigns them their lines. The better cinematic treatments of poverty are those that are not too consciously concerned with being didactic about poverty per se. For all its exaggerations and clichés, you’ll actually learn more about poverty by watching Deliverance than you will from The End of Poverty. At least in Deliverance it’s clear that a lack of production is among the main root causes of poverty.

If you think about the qualities injected into the most successful commercial movies—romanticization, personalization, hero creation and constructing a simple narrative of good versus evil—it begins to come clear that these are exactly the qualities that prevent a movie from offering an insightful treatment of poverty. The causes of poverty are not poetical but prosaic, not personal but structural, and they are above all not simple. This is a case where the exception proves the rule: The brilliant television series The Wire is so artistically successful at depicting poverty precisely because it largely avoids these traditional dumbed-down formulae.

Ordinarily, this would be quite enough; but in this case it is not, because the “production” of The End of Poverty is not limited to what is in the film itself. Cinema Libre Studios went all out to promote this film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008. Release notices sent to editors described the film quoting Charles Masters from The Hollywood Reporter as “a sort of inconvenient truth for global economics.” The material claimed that the film has been “embraced” by Amnesty International, the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt, the Tax Justice Network and a host of other Hollywood-friendly left-wing organizations and causes.

Given the obvious intent that The End of Poverty should be a film version of a propaganda poster and a recruiting device for a new era of anti-capitalist protest, it verges on embarrassing that, when all is said and done, this film does exactly what it complains about: It exploits and markets poor individuals from the South for the purposes of wealthier people, in this case Western moviemakers, commentators and intellectuals. It is striking how many of the people involved in this film have done very well financially or reputationally by marketing their ideas about the global South.

In this light it is entirely appropriate that the producer of The End of Poverty, Beth Portello, previously worked for Nike and Adidas. I see nothing wrong with her having done so, but one would think Diaz and company would, given these companies’ well-known reputations for running sweatshops in poorer countries. I’m willing to state that those sweatshop jobs are better than the “natural economy” jobs they displaced, but are Diaz or Sheen? The Cinema Libre website tells us that Portello is “making amends” for her past, but in reality she is repeating it—except that now she is no longer giving poor people stable jobs at higher wages than they had before.

Most of all, the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation should be ashamed for having funded this movie. The Schalkenbach Foundation was set up in 1925 to promote the thinking of Henry George, best known as the author of Progress and Poverty and advocate of a tax on land. George was a flawed but brilliant and incisive thinker. He understood that wealth needs to be produced, and he also understood the strong case for free trade, most of all to protect the interests of labor. His 1886 book Protection or Free Trade remains perhaps the best-argued tract on free trade to this day; in that book George refutes exactly the arguments put forward by The End of Poverty. Has Diaz, Sheen, Portello or anyone working today at the Schalkenbach Foundation read it? One has to wonder if anyone who has read George could lend a hand to the production of the screed of mistruths and error that is The End of Poverty. I prefer to be subtler, but this movie does not allow it.


1 “Greenspan Shrugged” (March/April 2009).

Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason University and a member of the AI editorial board.