TO CATCH A DOLLAR: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America
What inspired you to make TCAD?
My first film ten years ago, SIXTEEN DECISIONS, also focused on Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus. Over the years, I have developed a relationship with Dr. Yunus and had the opportunity to see the impact of his work on people at every level and every position in life. Even after his 2006 Nobel Prize many people still do not know of his inspiring work. This film is an opportunity to amplify his story and that of women in Queens NY to initiate discussions and community action.
What is Microcredit?
Microcredit provides small loans to low-income individuals for income generating activities. For example, a borrower might use a loan to invest in equipment for a food-cart, purchase a sewing machine for a tailoring business, or start a home-based day-care business. Grameen uses a group lending model that requires prospective borrowers to form or join a group of five members, who meet weekly. These groups are organized into “centers”, with 3 to 6 groups to a center. Centers meet weekly usually in a borrowers’ home. The group and center model encourages a culture of financial responsibility where peer-support leads to 99% rate of repayment. The group also serves as a social network of voluntary mutual support, as members are individually responsible for their own loans, they are expected to voluntarily provide assistance to their peers where needed.
What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
Gaining and maintaining access and trust with subjects is always a primary obstacle. Yunus is personally humble and modest and doesn’t like attention, but recognized the power of film to showcase the effectiveness of his efforts and ideas. While there was a line of filmmakers with better bios and funding, we had that history and trust. His schedule was another obstacle—we shot for 2 ½ years and travelled to almost 20 different countries—which required gaining access and trust with bankers and leaders around the world who didn’t want the pesky documentarian shooting their public and private meetings and events. It was very hard, but we eventually did what we needed to do and got what we needed, and everyone came around again.
How did your vision for the film change over the course of production?
Originally, this was going to be two films, one about Yunus and his work after winning the Nobel Prize and another following the women, as they became the first entrepreneurs to receive micro-credit from Grameen in the U.S. After the economic meltdown, the two storylines converged. We shot 400 hours of Yunus, 100 hours in Queens and took a year and a half following the women. We had the honor of being a part of the Sundance Documentary Lab, and that process and feedback changed the film a lot. We had many fun scenes in the film, an upbeat score, but the film focused too much on Yunus and his success. It became very clear that the women in Queens were the real story, which made my long-time collaborator and editor Keiko happy, too, as it brought the film back to the struggle and possibilities that have been a trademark of all our films together. The documentary became much deeper, complex, and compelling. Similarly, the intellectual aspects of Yunus model are complemented by the women’s emotionally rich stories.
The Lab provided our own trailer, assistant, and editing suite. To work with such intense, peer focused effort, not worried about anything but the creative process was instrumental in finding the backbone of the film. I was down for it and Keiko was up to it and we re-cut the entire film in three days.
As you've screened the film how have audiences reacted to it?
We screened it intensely in the edit room for months. We would screen it on Thursday, clean it up on Friday and by Monday at noon and we would screen it again. This brought us back to a big challenge, one of our characters, Elizabeth, kept changing her hairstyle and it would be difficult for audiences to follow her storyline. We had to inject a creative element to make the hair changes part of the story. One of the happiest surprises was that everyone wanted to know more about micro-credit and how to get involved. We feel like the film gives just enough to so that people can talk about the film with anyone, but will seek out more information and want to engage in the efforts in some way. Everyone involved with the film including Dr. Yunus converged in New York at IFP at the Good Pitch and we found time after that to have a private screening with the inside crew. I thought that it was 99% done, but the next two months were the hardest work of all. We kept pushing a little harder, further, making it a little edgier to capture the drama. We’re very happy with our final product.
What impact/result do you hope the film accomplishes?
I really hope that this film helps obliterate prejudices against poor people. So many people believe there is no excuse to not make money and it is not that simple. To think poorly of kids from families who don’t have money or opportunities is so unjust. We think this film will really showcase the power and effectiveness of investing in the poor and creating entrepreneurs.
What kind of audience engagement/action campaign do you plan for the film?
We are developing a comprehensive outreach campaign designed to expand investment in micro-credit in the US and beyond. We are working with major multi-nationals and national organizations to have audiences and action campaigns in place when we launch the film.
How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
I’ve always been attracted to true stories that explored people trying to rebuild their lives. All of my films follow this arc, and have given me a much deeper self-understanding and connectedness with the world. I will always make very personal films about people who are bucking expectations, defying pre-established roles and rising above barriers. Each one of my documentaries is an inspiration to me personally and I hope to audiences.
What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
Different ones in different ways. Michael Moore because he is fearless. I don’t like his tactics, but he gets things noticed—and that is so important. I admire everything that Charles Guggenheim did. I love almost all documentarians and have implicit understanding, admiration and respect for small stories that people work so hard to make so that audiences can share them.
Do you have other projects you are working on?
I am working on maximizing the impact this documentary, but have a few projects in incubation. One is in Cuba. Dr. Yunus has challenged me to do a film on social business, which will be so much bigger. I’m also working on a screenplay that captures some of the dangerous high jinks during the making Anonymously Yours.
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