I was fortunate enough to grab a quick interview with Chris Temple, whose project Living on One is pushing boundaries not only in the world of filmmaking but also in international aid and development.

In the summer of 2010, Chris and three of his friends from university embarked on a project of living on $1 per day in rural Guatemalan village. Armed with cameras and questions, the team entered into a world of extreme poverty. To share their story with friends and people back home, they released short YouTube videos about their experience. The videos quickly received over 700,000 views, inspiring Chris and his team to produce a full-length feature film, Living on One Dollar. The film has since won Best Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival and received endorsements from Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, and Hunger Games director Gary Ross.

    * Editor’s note: This interview was conducted via Skype and transcribed by the author. To hear more of the conversation, click on the links at the end of each response.

KSA: Lets begin with the ‘nuts n bolts’ of your project — how did the entire concept come about?

CT: We were students in college studying economic development. We kept hearing statistics such as “there are over a billion people living under a dollar per day.” These are abstract and shocking statistics. We could not really understand how someone could budget such a small about of money every day and survive. So we decided to spend our 60-day summer vacation living on one dollar a day in this rural village in Guatemala. The idea was to learn firsthand how these billion people around the world do live every day with just a dollar — not just for food, but water, education, starting businesses, emergencies.

    Click here for more.

Did you realise what the project was going to entail, how ‘big’ it was going to get, when you kicked this off?

We had no clue. It was just supposed to be a two-month project initially. We were not even planning on making a full documentary. We planned this idea for about eight months, we were trying to raise the money, but everyone seemed to think it was a really bad idea so we got rejected from 9 different sources of funding. Most of them were citing liability reasons, things like that, or that this was just a bad idea!

When we saw it get 500,000 views on YouTube we thought, maybe this is a way to connect people. This is working!

Could we go live in this village and try and understand the reality at that level? If we released a video each week on YouTube, would people watch that? It would be a live interactive journey into poverty. It was born out of our own frustration with watching full-length documentaries. We released a video per week and put them up on YouTube and they started going viral.

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What tactics did you use to connect the audience with the story? I saw that you used comparisons between the local community in Guatemala and the States. Do you think this helps a Western audience connect with the story?

The film comes across as relatable because it is the reality for some of our neighbours in Peña Blanca who are really not that different than we are.

People are not poor because they are lazy, or because they lack intelligence…it is really because they are lacking fundamental opportunities.

The human connections we were able to make with the village, although there were language barriers [for two of the team members], although there were cultural barriers, still the love of playing soccer, or the love of sitting around with people and engaging in conversation, just laughing, the power of a smile, all these little things are shared humanity.

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Do you think the members of your team who did not have language skills had a different experience than you did?

Yes, I think they very much did. Two of the people who were with us out of the four, Saun and Ryan, did not speak any Spanish. It was in a lot of ways an isolated experience for them not to be able to communicate, but Ryan sings and plays music. We would all sit and we would have these drum circles with the kids and he would sing and perform and they loved it! So again, you can find ways to connect across cultures.

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You were discussing subjects such as finance, a touchy conversation to have regardless of the culture. Were there any times during the project where conversation was uncomfortable?

When we first got to the village a lot of the community members were very confused as to why we wanted to live in this ‘mud hut.’ Why we wanted to be here for eight weeks.

This is a key part that I think journalism often forgets, is when you go in for a news piece and you stick a camera in someones’ face and ask them personal questions, you know, why would they ever tell you the reality of their lives or their stories?

Imagine if someone came and knocked on my door, right now, and asked me — Where do I save my money? Where do I hide my money? How much money do I make? There is no way I would ever tell anyone that kind of information.

It was the kids who were our first introduction to everyone. This is what really started to build our relationships. Throughout this time, during the first two weeks, we didn’t even bring our cameras. We were just there, living, making friends, not filming.

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Let’s talk about how people manage money in this community.

One of my preconceptions going into this project was that people are in that ‘survival mode’ — perpetually. It’s hard when you put yourself in that position to imagine trying to think about the future or try and start saving for the future when you go to bed hungry every night, or your kids are going to bed hungry. But what we really found was that people were saving or finding ways to save and build these bigger sums of money.

    Listen to examples of money-saving tactics used by communities living at or near the poverty line.

You simulated poverty and lived on a dollar per day — do you think you were put at a disadvantage both practically and physically not growing up in the community and learning life skills from birth?

Yes! Definitely on the farming skills side, I had no farming skills in my background. We kinda joke a bit about it in the film when we are trying to decide whether or not we should farm. Zach mentions, “We have no clue how to farm! How do we go about starting this business?” In a lot of ways it comes across in the film how woefully under-prepared and under-skilled we were going into this.

But the advantages we had were undeniable as well. Growing up with a full nutritious diet during the first couple of years of our lives, alone, that makes a huge difference in the brain’s capacity for someone who is living at that level (of poverty).

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You got sick, correct? How do people budget for healthcare?

It really just brought up this heart-wrenching question: What are the safety nets in place for rural indigenous populations that are not receiving government benefits?

Yes! After about two weeks of saving up for medicine, it was about $25 we would have needed to pay for that, we just couldn’t save! We got up to about $12, which was the most we were ever able to save. It got to a point where we had to take medicine that we brought in case of emergencies.

But what happens if this is your reality and you don’t have any safety net or any neighbors there to catch you if something goes wrong?

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So let’s quickly discuss the concept of micro-finance and how this was working in this particular community.

There is still a lot of controversy about micro-finance, but it is not a silver bullet to poverty. It got built up to be this amazing thing, the new revolutionary idea, and then it got brought down a little bit. I am actually glad it is in the middle ground. What it is, is an effective tool. [Micro-finance] helps to provide someone who is living in extreme poverty access these reliable financial services, and that is part of the solution.

    To hear more about how micro-finance worked in this particular community, click here.

Tell us more about how people can ‘get active’ and what your short episodes and longer feature film are aiming to do in an educational sense.

When we were leaving this experience, if there was one thing we felt like we walked away with, it was that small changes can make a huge impact in someone’s life:

  • Access to a bed to sleep on, so that you are not sleeping on the floor with the fleas and you can be rested
  • Having better nutrition
  • Moving from $1 per day to $2 per day while you are technically still in poverty — that is a massive change, as you are basically doubling your income!

We left so hopeful about what we could do to help end extreme poverty. We really think that if we can engage young people, they can be a vital asset.

We now have our full film up online on iTunes for anyone to download. We have also developed an eight-part video series that is short. They are about 6-8 minutes each, and they go into the specific aspects of life in extreme poverty.

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What’s next in the cards for you guys?

With Living on One as an organisation, we think there is a lot of value in the power of connecting cultures through storytelling. Living on One is now a nonprofit film production company that will continually immerse itself into issues of global poverty and other humanitarian issues in order to tell the stories of the people who are on the ground, and to connect it to our friends, our Western audience, and allow them to better understand this reality.

At Living on One we will always make sure that Guatemala and Peña Blanca are the core of what we believe, core to the values that we move forward with as an organisation.

No matter what, Guatemala and this village in Peña Blanca is like a second home to us now. Since we filmed this experience, we have actually gone back twice to visit the community and we actually showed them the film before we showed it to anyone else. We wanted to make sure they were okay with the way their stories were being portrayed on camera. I think this is a very important thing to remember, that these are people’s lives you are showing when you are a documentary filmmaker.

    Click here to hear about the ongoing relationship between the team and Guatemala.