As a documentary producer and, when the subject really hits me in the gut, a director, I like to tell stories about one person making a big difference. I had read about Muhammad Yunus, the subject of my most recent film, in the New York Times. In 1976, he pioneered microlending – making small loans to people who have no collateral – by giving $27 from his pocket to 42 women in the village of Jobra, Bangladesh.
By the time I went to meet him in Bangladesh in 2007, he had helped over 6.5 million women. I did the math: With 6.5 billion people on earth, he had already helped one out of a thousand. For that, he and Grameen Bank, the community development bank he’d founded, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Grameen Bank took donations to get started, but Yunus is really about creating social businesses – companies that do good for people without any profit motive and without depending on charity. His model is a sustainable one, to make just enough to stay in business, to reinvest profits, pay employees, and keep working. The women who borrow from Grameen live in remote villages. They once had to deal with moneylenders, but now they have a local bank worker; every week, they pay back just a little, and they also save. The process is like social work – it’s really about financial education and responsibility.
I went to Bangladesh without an appointment to pitch my film. I had planned to approach Yunus’ secretary about a meeting, but when I got out of the elevator, I saw Yunus coming out of his office. To my surprise, he walked right up to me and said, “Hi. What’s your name? Where are you from?” I looked behind me, thinking, are you talking to somebody else?
Fortunately, he was very open to the idea for my documentary. But he didn’t understand why I wanted to be there for a whole year. All the other film crews came for a week or two. “Trust me,” I said. “This film will be better.”
I also mentioned how inspired I was by his having helped 6.5 million women.
“Oh, it’s eight million now,” he said, with a humble laugh. And he added that each of the women represented a family of five, on average.
“So you’re actually helping one out of every 200 people directly,” I said.
The film I made about Yunus is called Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus. It took more than four years to do, with help from a $150,000 grant from the Ceres Trust, a handful of private donations, and money I’ve put into the film myself. I also got over $50,000 from Kickstarter, an online fundraising tool. I have to cobble together funds to stay afloat.
I’ve always been interested in film; I like to ask questions, and I like going places and having people open up their lives to me. But if not for my experience with the Rotary Youth Exchange program, I might never have tried making documentaries, especially international ones.
I remember the day that my father, a member of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, came home with exciting news. He said, “Rotary has a program where they host exchange students. What do you guys think?” My family thought it was a great idea. During my junior year, we hosted visitors from Brazil, Costa Rica, and New Zealand, each for three months. Living with kids from different cultures opened me to the world. And that’s when the meaning of Rotary – its influence, reach, and ability to inspire people – became real for me.
After that, I got the chance to spend my senior year in northeastern Brazil as an exchange student. It wasn’t exactly as I’d imagined: At that point I was still very much a city girl, and I’d written on my Rotary exchange application that I didn’t want to go to a small town. So, of course, I ended up in a really small town, called Parnaíba, in Piauí, one of the poorest states in the country. I arrived at the Teresina airport on Easter, in the middle of the night. Parnaíba was at least a four-hour drive away. We stopped partway and I thought we’d arrived, but it was just a farm, where everyone slept in hammocks on the porch.
The great thing about Rotary’s long-term Youth Exchange program is that the exchange student stays with several families during the year abroad. I lived with three families of different economic means. I’d had two years of Spanish, so it only took me about four months to learn passable Portuguese. As part of the program, I flew with a Rotarian from Parnaíba to the regional convention in Fortaleza. We also went to São Luís, and I attended local club meetings. Brazil was just coming out of a military dictatorship; I got to see how people made do with what they had, and begin to figure out their new lives.
I returned to Brazil after college at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and worked on four films as an assistant. I loved being there. I loved the people, the inclusive culture. Piauí may have been poor, but every weekend there was music, dancing, and the beach. The spirit of Brazilians became part of me. They have a saying, “There’s always a way.”
Just before I left Brazil, I came into contact with two local women’s groups that assisted the victims of sex trafficking, who in most cases are children. These groups were a way in for me to examine sex trafficking as a documentary subject.
That’s when I met Adriana, a 17-year-old who’d left home at 6 and had a daughter at 11. She’d found an assistance program when she was pregnant. She got help taking care of her daughter and turned her life around; otherwise, she would have been dead, like most of her friends.
Though I went back to Milwaukee for a time and produced a few commercials, I couldn’t forget Adriana and the problem of sex trafficking. In the States, I tried to do research about it, but there wasn’t a lot of information then. You didn’t hear much about the 13-year-olds who thought they were going to be actresses or models or maids, but found out the terrible truth later. Or about the girl whose boyfriend said he’d get her a ticket to Europe, only for her to discover that she had been sold into sex slavery. Now you hear more about these things.
It wasn’t until 2000 that I could return to Brazil and begin filming Hummingbird, about domestic violence and street kids. When I saw Adriana, who is in the film, she and her daughter were doing great.
That experience set me on a lifelong journey, which I never would have taken if it hadn’t been for the Rotary Youth Exchange program. I’m now based in Southern California and have made films about the pharmaceutical industry and the vanishing of bees. I’m currently involved, as an executive producer, in a project called Pay 2 Play, about money in politics. These are all big issues, and sometimes I can get cynical, but instead I harness that anger and let it feed my work. In the end, my job is not to dwell on the problems. The key is to follow the answers – which I think is what Rotary does – to bring the message of hope and change.