This is the inspiring, logic-defying, yet true story of one man’s idea, a strange new kind of bank, and the millions of lives it’s changed – around the world and here in the United States.
What prevents poor people from getting ahead? Banks refuse to give credit without collateral. Where commercial banks see insolvency, Nobel Prize–winning economist Muhammad Yunus sees opportunity. His groundbreaking Grameen Bank was built on the radical notion that if you loan poor women money within the context of peer support, not only will they repay, but they’ll sustain the bank and elevate their communities in the process. With millions of microloans to rural entrepreneurs in developing countries, Grameen is now audaciously importing its methods to the bastion of first-world capitalism: the U.S.A. First stop: Queens, New York. [Synopsis courtesy of the film’s website]
Responses courtesy of “To Catch a Dollar” director Gayle Ferraro. “To Catch a Dollar” screens in select theaters across the country for a special one-night only engagement on March 31st. To purchase tickets click here.
An academic background…
Since I was in grade school, I have always been interested in three things: acting, filmmaking and true stories. As a child actor, I wanted to be the director and produce work. I had enough of my own personal experiences through my early twenties to provide plenty of material for me to contemplate through a lens. It was a natural evolution for me to work through my own situation on a parallel track when I got the opportunity in the late 1990’s with digital filmmaking and some seed money. I had worked my way up from dropping out of four schools to staying put at UMass Boston for a B.A., and then a Masters at Boston University for International Communications. I still felt like I needed more substance to support my film interests and began Human Rights Law at Oxford and went on to acquire my Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 1999.
How the project evolved…
“Sixteen Decisions” was my first film in 2000 and happens to take place in Bangladesh and follows the opportunities afforded to a 16 year-old mother-of-two when she is given a loan by Grameen Bank. Through my interviews, I learned that she had been sold as a domestic child laborer at age 8 because her own family could not feed her. The film garnered interest wherever it screened, but at the time there was little to do with a film based on social issues, so I moved onto two other documentary projects – – “Anonymously Yours” (2002) which reveals the struggle of sex trafficked girls in Burma to regain a life after their experience; and “Ganges: River to Heaven” (2003), which takes place in Varanasi, India and follows the dying who make a last pilgrimage to achieve Moksha (salvation) in the Holy City.
In early 2007, I had several ideas for a new film when the opportunity arose to work directly with Dr. Yunus right after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Although he speaks about microfinance everywhere, it was very tricky to have a focus on him or his work because microfinance is a concept and that is not interesting filmmaking. Six months after I set my mind on crafting a documentary on Yunus’ life, I heard that Grameen America would be opening in Queens, NYC.
So, it seemed that I had two projects now: one with Yunus and one with the women in Queens. For a year, I worked documenting the two stories separately looking for the focus of each film. I traveled the states and the globe with Yunus ,as he spread the word, counseled, lectured, awarded and was awarded, visited, assessed and started new programs. But I struggled to find the core story.
When I wasn’t traveling and documenting Yunus, I was in Queens trying to make myself invisible with my camera and sound equipment at the Grameen America branch office and attending center meetings.
It was September 2009 and the financial meltdown. I was looking at these two different stories that I was working on and suddenly I realized that they are the same story: Muhammad Yunus’ story is the women’s story and their story is his story. It was all the same, and once I identified that key piece I was able to work on the storylines in a linear way and create the story arc and drama.
Going for it…
As you can probably tell by my subject and manner of self-producing, I just go for it. I don’t have time to find financing and sometimes it has not been quite the production quality that I would have liked. At the same time, I did know that NO ONE was going to give me money without a whole lot of work and I could maybe make it on my own in the same time as a year or two of fundraising. Time is always a critical piece and there is something that it very visceral for me about my subjects and it is not until I am done with the film and I have some distance that I realize what it meant to me personally to make that film, deal with that material, claim it.
I still don’t know entirely, I have not had enough time to reflect on “To Catch A Dollar” to know what was so important to me about these women and their challenge, or what keeps Yunus running and working the way he does. I am closer to answering those questions for myself, but not quite yet.
Overcoming the project’s specific challenges…
Yunus really didn’t want me to have a camera around him documenting what he was doing. Even though he was out in public he was very camera-shy. That was a real….. you could say, challenge. I spent a year showing up with a camera crew and documenting whatever I could get – I felt passionately that there was a story there. After a year, I put together a 15-minute short video for him to see and he really liked it. At that point he was okay with me continuing to document his work and it was much easier to have great access.
The second big challenge was the women in Queens and respecting their privacy and also respecting Grameen America and their work process. I was always in a no-win situation. I had to be as non-a part of whatever was going on to the point that I hesitated to ask for a light to be turned on or to put a mic on anyone because I didn’t want to turn the attention to, “Hey what is she doing there?” After many months the women had gotten to really know me and it became easier to be in their homes, particularly as conflict started happening.
On the film’s potential impact…
My hope is that what I saw ten years ago with “Sixteen Decisions” and the discussions it started after people saw the film will happen again, to an even greater extent, with “To Catch A Dollar.” This film and campaign has the potential to inspire audiences to bring microfinance to communities throughout America that are in need. It offers a way for us all to participate in providing the financial start for people to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. It would be great if this idea captured the hearts and imaginations of Americans at a time when we have never been more focused on our banks and our money.
True stories made into narratives…
I really get inspired by true stories made into narratives – – “Hearts and Minds,” “Midnight Express” and “Missing.” Newer films would be “Philadelphia” and “Milk.” I love the story of someone fighting for a right so much bigger than themselves.
Projects in the near future…
Geez, there are many things spinning around. I have promised to work with Yunus on a Social Business film, but in light of this new situation with the Bangladesh Government I may be making a very different kind of film.
Below find the film’s trailer:
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