East Villagers, Unite! Documentary on Ending Poverty Rich in Critiques

martinsheengetty East Villagers, Unite! Documentary on Ending Poverty Rich in Critiques It wasn’t all doom and gloom at Friday’s premiere of “The End of Poverty?” at Village East Cinemas. The film, which traces the origins of global poverty back to the Age of Exploration, offers a reason for hope: things might soon get so bad that the impoverished will rise up in armed rebellion.

The documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen, argues that economic imperialism is the cause of widespread poverty in the Southern Hemisphere. According to the film, international economic policymakers at the IMF and World Bank ransom the natural resources of poorer countries, using coercive loans and crushing debt. At the same time, “structural violence” left over from colonialism has rendered these nations helpless, passive witnesses to their own despoliation.

In describing 500 years of the West’s unalloyed villainy, the film turns to a long roster of experts—from Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen to John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The documentary alternates these experts with impoverished people from places like Brazil, Kenya, and Tanzania, who tell their stories of hardship. The film seems to be at pains to give equal billing to experts and ordinary people. But when spliced into the film’s lengthy discussion of the historical roots of inequality, these present-day narratives feel slightly out of place.

The movie’s title, a reference to Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs’ 2006 bestseller, The End of Poverty, is not meant as an homage. With its provocative question mark, “The End of Poverty?” is intended as a rebuttal of Mr. Sachs’ prescription for alleviating poverty through mosquito nets and fertilizer. “Of course, I have nothing against mosquito nets and fertilizer, but for the fact that we tried that for the last 100 years, and it didn’t change anything. In fact, it became worse,” the film’s director, Phillipe Diaz, said after the screening.

The director’s real target is neoliberal economic policy, championed by Mr. Sachs in the 80s and 90s, which promotes privatization and globalization. In particular, Mr. Diaz is hostile to the idea that natural resources can be owned by a corporation—one of the film’s experts, Clifford Cobb, advocates a return of “the commons,” an ethos of shared ownership. In this, the movie echoes the ideas of the 19th-century economist Henry George; the documentary was financed by the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, which promotes George’s philosophy.

In an interview with The Observer, Mr. Diaz pointed out that the foundation allowed him complete editorial freedom. “I told them right away, if they want me to make a movie on the ideas of Henry George, I’m not the right person,” Mr. Diaz said, although he acknowledged the influence of George’s ideas on his own thinking about private property.

Despite its title, the film is short on prescriptions for improving the situation. Mr. Diaz suggests that violent uprising is likely, but does not propose a system for the imagined revolutionaries to install in the place of late capitalism. One of his experts, Serge Latouche, suggests that the West submit to a diet of “de-growth,” in which Americans would work and consume less. But Mr. Latouche’s idea isn’t given much time in the film, leaving the specifics vague.

In a question and answer period after the film, the earnest East Village audience pressed Mr. Diaz on questions of doctrine. “There’s no reason to think that over-consumption is the problem, and you’re misleading people with that,” one irritated viewer complained. Another suggested that Mr. Diaz was preaching to the choir, and questioned whether he would be able to inspire real change with his film.

“We put ourselves in this situation,” Mr. Diaz said. “Our system is based on the resources of the South. Unless we can change that, we will arrive with this war over resources and this permanent terrorism.”