Stories of survival and stories of heroes: interview with filmmaker Tom Nazario

Artist interview: filmmaker Tom Nazario, director/producer of Living on a Dollar a Day

Living on a Dollar a Day is produced by the non-profit organization, The Forgotten International.  Their mission is to develop programs that alleviate poverty and the suffering associated with poverty both in the United States and worldwide, in particular, that experienced by women and children.

Over the course of a year, from 2010 to 2011, The Forgotten International sent Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Renée C. Byer and videographer George Rosenfeld on a journey to ten countries on four continents to examine and report on how the world’s poor often survive on less than a dollar a day. After the book Living on a Dollar a Day was published which told the story of what they had found in words and photographs, the founder of The Forgotten International, Tom Nazario, began to look at the video footage in order to make a documentary about the making of the book, the people they met and the stories they had collected. The film Living on a Dollar a Day is now touring to film festivals to great acclaim.

Where did the idea for this documentary first come from?

The idea for the documentary grew out of my desire to create a book that in a very visual way captured the lives of the world’s poor. In creating such a book, I needed a photojournalist and it occurred to me at that time: why not also send a videographer to capture her work in the event that someday I wanted to make a documentary?

 

Through your organization, The Forgotten International, you are active in impoverished communities around the world. How did you choose which communities to focus on for the documentary?

I knew I could only tell a certain number of stories in the film, so I wanted to focus on the stories that captured the work that the majority of the world’s poor do to survive. That’s why we told the stories of subsistence farming, herding and recycling and, of course, the stories of those heroes that take time from their lives to help people who are in desperate need.

 Image courtesy of Renée C. Beyer

Image courtesy of Renée C. Beyer

The book Living on a Dollar a Day was the first iteration of this project. Has it been challenging transforming the ideas and the material into a documentary?

Yes, it has been somewhat challenging because in the book we were able to do so much more. To figure out what stories to tell, what would be most compelling, and what would work best on film was not easy. The truth is we could have easily produced a ten-part series on this subject.

 

The film is making its way through film festivals at the moment. You’ve been accepted into a great range of festivals. What is it that audiences are particularly responding to in the documentary?

We have received quite a bit of feedback. Particularly about the stories that focus in on children and the difficult lives that many of the world’s impoverished children lead. Some parts of the documentary bring people to tears, while others are filled with hope. Although global poverty often seems insurmountable, those that view the film learn that everyone can do something to help others in need, and no one should ever use the excuse that they can’t possibly make a difference.

 

Where do you expect the film will be available once it’s completed the festival circuit?

Our plan is to get the film before as large of an audience as possible. If that means getting it to Netflix, YouTube, or some system that allows for free downloads to schools around the country, then that’s what we will hopefully be doing. As a nonprofit foundation, we don’t care to make money on the documentary; we just want people to see it and hopefully work to make the world a better place.

 Image courtesy of Renée C. Beyer

Image courtesy of Renée C. Beyer

When you make the film available to the general public will you be identifying specific audiences that are sympathetic to the themes of the film?

Our target audience will be individuals and organizations that have access to resources that can help others, as well as young people around the country who may be inspired to make poverty alleviation part of their life’s work. It’s so important to get the next generation involved.

 

The concept of compassion fatigue occasionally comes up in public commentary on aid and development. Do you expect compassion fatigue will affect the way you promote Living on a Dollar a Day?

This is a real issue. It is so easy for us to focus on our own circle of friends and activities and close ourselves off to worrying about the myriad problems that others face. We believe, however, that all of us wish to create for ourselves a meaningful life. One way to do that is through service to others. Those who understand the joys associated with giving and caring will hopefully come to the realization that in helping others, we are also helping ourselves to become better people.

You are an established non-profit organization with well-developed networks. You have built up a community of donors to get the film made. Do you spend much time keeping your donors up to date with developments in the film?

We spend a lot of time keeping our donors up to date with everything we do at the foundation, including the film. They deserve at least that much.

 

Do you have strategies in place to connect with audiences beyond your networks, and audiences who don’t have a natural affinity for the concepts addressed in the film?

Much of this is already happening. Through the publication of our book Living on a Dollar a Day and now the documentary, we have made many new friends that we wouldn’t have had but for these efforts. As an example of the outreach, we are now doing is bringing the film to high schools around the country in an effort to engage young people in the work of helping others.

 

In any socially aware documentary, there is an element of trying to educate and enthuse audiences to take action. Is this something that was built into the fabric of Living on a Dollar a Day, and is it something that you will take into your marketing strategy?

I think the lesson that people come away with after viewing the documentary is that it’s not that difficult to do something positive for those who are less fortunate. If we can encourage thousands to embed the practice of caring and giving to others into their daily lives, we would have accomplished much. If people need help and guidance to do good, they certainly can contact us and/or other community-based organizations where they live and simply get started.

 Image courtesy of Renée C. Beyer

Image courtesy of Renée C. Beyer

What will a successful film release look like for you? Do you measure it in terms of the number of views of the documentary or people engaging with The Forgotten International or funds raised for impoverished communities or some other metric?

All that you suggest would amount to measurements of success. The only point I would disagree with is that it’s not so important if people get engaged in the work of my foundation. What I care most about is that everyone does something to make a positive change in the world.

 

Do you have ongoing contact with the communities that were featured in Living on a Dollar a Day? Will they be involved in screenings of the film?

In some cases we do, others that were featured in the film, to be perfectly honest, we’ve lost contact with. In fact, some may have died. That wouldn’t surprise me after seeing first-hand the results of extreme poverty.

 

This has been a massive project for The Forgotten International. Are you planning for the next media project to highlight the issues that you’re passionate about?

I’m presently writing a screenplay with a working title of “A Meaningful Life.” If I ever find the time to finish it, I would love to see it on the big screen. Hopefully, someone out there will help me accomplish just that.


The Forgotten International can be found here. For tickets and information about the screening of Living on a Dollar a Day at FirstGlance Film Festival go here.