Variety’s Analysis

varietyPosted: Tue., Feb. 17, 2009, 6:47pm PT
Pan-African

The End of Poverty?

(Documentary)

By Robert Koehler

A Cinema Libre release of a Cinema Libre production, in association with the Robert Shalkenbach Foundation. Produced by Beth Portello. Executive producer, Clifford Cobb. Co-producers, Matthew Stillman, Richard Castro. Directed, written by Philippe Diaz.

With: John Christensen, Clifford Cobb, William Easterly, Susan George, Edgardo Lander, Chalmers Johnson, Alvaro Garcia Linera, John Perkins, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Eric Toussaint, Michael Watts.
Narrator: Martin Sheen.
(English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili dialogue)

For those who believe capitalism is the scourge of the earth, “The End of Poverty?” will be an oasis of clear-headed thinking. For those who view capitalism as the best system for creating and expanding wealth to the most people, Philippe Diaz’s pic will seem a muddle-headed mess, as inchoate in its economics as its take on solutions to global poverty. Take your pick, but the film has had a respectable fest run since its Cannes Critics’ Week preem last year; upcoming Stateside release will play to the anti-capitalist choir.

Relying considerably on the writings and research of historian Clifford Cobb (who exec produced), Diaz lays out a simplified historical overview, positing that the world’s current state of poverty is due almost entirely to Western (specifically referred to here as “Northern”) corporations, their government toadies and the colonialist tradition they follow.

The presentation is much like that of an educational film, with a parade of academics, economists and some actual poor citizens of the world explaining the history and legacy of brutal European colonization of the Third World. There’s an irony in the numerous accounts of European oppression, ranging from the Spanish slave mines of Bolivia to the brutal British rule of India: Not only are most of the commentators well-off, comfortable-looking Europeans, but they tend to point the finger at countries other than their own.

After this long, numbing passage — offering no new information about the colonial period and leaving out a good deal — the modern era is further reduced to a formula: Northern capitalists bad, opponents to Northern capitalists good.

The heart of writer-director-lenser Diaz’s argument is that the rapacious behavior of the Euro powers has been mimicked by American corporations, in tandem with the World Bank and the Intl. Monetary Fund, exploiting poor countries’ resources while imposing onerous debt obligations. And when some of these countries (Iran, Guatemala, Chile) moved to nationalize their resource production, harsh U.S.-backed regimes were forcibly imposed.

The problem with this and much of “The End of Poverty?” is that while the thesis applied up to the 1960s and 1970s, history has ushered in a new era of broadly developed wealth creation in large sections of the world. Never once is it mentioned that formerly brutalized India and Brazil have independently built fast-growing industries on their own soil. (East Asia’s even more dramatic regional rise from poverty is barely noted.) The causes for today’s stark gaps between rich and poor, and widely uneven patterns of development in Africa and Latin America, go far beyond the failures and successes of U.S. policy and capitalist industry.

As a sign of the film’s structural sloppiness, Cobb’s cure for global poverty is nearly lost in a welter of unsourced stats and factoids: Eliminate privatization, and return to “the commons.” What this is, exactly, Cobb doesn’t explain, but the viewer is free to conclude that Cobb may be referring to some form of socialist organization of the economy — a model with a highly erratic, usually failed track record. After the doc’s lengthy attack on capitalism, it’s fair to expect a sharper political alternative than the one provided.

Lensing of dozens of talking heads is bland, with the only vivid filmmaking involving workers in Bolivia’s Potosi mines and desperate sugar-cane cutters in Brazil. Martin Sheen’s TV-ad-like narration underlines the starchy educational-film qualities.

Camera (color), Diaz; editor, Tom Von Doom; music, Cristian Bettler, Max Soussan; sound (stereo), Beth Portello; re-recording mixer, Patrick Bowsher; research, Keya Keita; associate producers, Bettler, Carla Ortiz. Reviewed at Pan African Film Festival, Los Angeles, Feb. 14, 2009. (Also in 2008 Cannes, Montreal, Sao Paolo film festivals.) Running time: 104 MIN.

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