The Common Good
March 2008

Seeing is Believing

by Donovan Jacobs | March 2008

Documentary films put human faces on the Millennium Development Goals

No doubt some readers could, without breaking a sweat, rattle off all eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which were adopted by 191 countries in 2000 to reduce global poverty in half by 2015. Others may have trouble remembering them, much less understand how to help realize them. (And admit it: Some of you confused MDGs with MGDs and thought this article was about beer.)

In a better world, goals such as reducing the deaths of children under 5 and improving access to drinkable water worldwide would be the focus of nonstop discussion and action not only in our worship communities but across our nation. But whether it’s the daunting scope of the problems the goals address, the isolation many Ameri­cans experience from people actually living with the problems, or the trivial preoccupations of most public discourse, the goals—with the possible exception of one that touches on global warming—have yet to fully engage many people of faith or the rest of society.

A range of television, movie, and Internet-based documentaries offer intriguing snapshots of the problems that inspired the goals and compelling solutions that could help make the MDGs more urgent and accessible to a broad audience.

1. Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger

This goal aims to reduce by half the number of people worldwide who make $1 or less a day and who suffer from severe food insecurity and malnutrition.

Small Fortunes: Microcredit and the Future of Poverty highlights the growth of the microcredit movement, where locally based institutions offer small sums to the impoverished to help them build their own businesses. Small Fortunes profiles microcredit successes in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and the United States. (2005)

Hunger No More: Faces Behind the Facts , produced by Mennonite Media for the Nation­al Council of Churches, looks at advances in fighting world hunger over the last 25 years, emphasizing how faith groups can work to further reduce food scarcity domestically and internationally. (2005)

2. Achieve Universal Primary Education

Seventy-two million children worldwide (the majority of them girls) don’t attend primary school, placing them at substantial disadvantage. As these films show, many children are allowed to begin school but face challenges remaining in school long enough to better their lives.

Back to School. Screened on PBS’ Wide Angle series, this sequel to the 2003 film Time for School profiles seven children (most from developing countries) both when they started school and three years later, when many students already experienced pressure to quit. (2007)

Granito de Arena (Grain of Sand). American filmmaker Jill Friedberg focuses on the work of 100,000 teachers, parents, and students in southern Mexico to resist efforts to turn their schools into training grounds for low-income workers. (2005)

3. Promote Gender Equality

and Empower Women

The challenges women face in achieving legal, social, and economic justice differ among Western nations and other parts of the world, but the benefits to all people in ensuring women achieve greater levels of self-determination make this one of the most vital MDGs.

All Different, All Equal. Produced by the British nonprofit organization TVE for its Life series, this film provides a snapshot of the status of women at the time the MDGs were developed, spotlighting changes in gender equality around the world in the five years after the groundbreaking Beijing Conference on Women in 1995. (2000)

Dishing Democracy. Another Wide Angle documentary, the subject here is a hit Arab satellite TV talk show (similar to the American daytime show The View) that offers a controversial sight in the Middle East: four women openly discussing politics and advocating for social change. (2007)

4. Reduce Child Mortality

Eleven million children under age 5 die worldwide each year from preventable diseases, yet only a few nonfiction films take on child mortality and its solutions.

The Life series offers two documentaries: A-OK? shows efforts to widely distribute vitamin A capsules to improve children’s health in Ghana and Guate­mala. (2000). A Fistful of Rice deals with malnutrition in Nepal, which affects nine out of 10 children in the country. (2002)

The more widely available PBS documentary series Rx for Survival features several stories about child health initiatives, including a youth-driven polio eradication campaign in India that sought to vaccinate 190 million children in a month. (2005)

5. Improve Maternal Health

This ambitious MDG seeks to reduce maternal mortality rates worldwide by 75 percent.

Dead Mums Don’t Cry, a BBC nonfiction film, spotlights Grace Kodinko, an obstetrician in Chad fighting to reverse conditions there in which one out of 11 mothers dies in pregnancy or childbirth. (2006)

At Highest Risk profiles a woman from the Peruvian Andes about to give birth following her native traditions, a provocative act in a country where government-mandated sterilization and onerous fines for home childbirth are used to reduce maternal deaths. (2006)

6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Diseases

Documentaries about HIV and AIDS are plentiful, though relatively few focus on efforts to combat the disease. Three exceptions are:

Brazil: Winning Against AIDS and Crisis Control: Stemming the Spread of HIV/AIDS are two more episodes in the Life series. The first highlights how Brazil has successfully manufactured its own HIV drugs to stabilize the epidemic. The latter looks at more recent campaigns in the Ukraine and Zambia. (2002, 2004)

Malaria: Killer Number One. Ma­laria kills 3 million people yearly, yet there are far fewer movies about the disease than about HIV/AIDS. Pro­duced by African filmmakers, the documentary focuses on efforts to combat the disease in rural Ethiopia. (2006)

7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability

The impact of Al Gore’s An Incon­venient Truth on the debate about global warming provides strong evidence that documentaries can generate passion for and increase public awareness of MDGs.

Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sau­per’s Oscar-nominated documentary, profiles links between environmental disaster and globalization in and around Africa’s Lake Victoria, thanks to the introduction of the non-native Nile perch, which has wiped out all other fish in the lake as well as the native fishing industry. Many of Victoria’s residents now starve while tons of perch are flown each day from factories by the lake to feed millions in Europe. (2006)

Thirst looks at how the public accesses water in Bolivia, India, and the United States, asking in each case whether that access is a fundamental right or if water should be a commodity to be bought and sold. (2004)

8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Here, two provocative documentaries question the borrowing and debt forgiveness practices of international banks.

The Debt of Dictators, a Norwe­gian film, spotlights situations in Argentina, South Africa, and the Philippines where repressive regimes borrowed freely to supplement their goals, then left the more enlightened leaders who followed to pay off massive international debts while trying to help their people achieve democracy. (2005)

Damned by Debt Relief focuses on Ghana, where the government took advantage of debt forgiveness policies enacted by the G8 countries but where many now feel that the strings attached to that forgiveness prevent Ghana from developing its own economic resour­ces. (2006)

Finally, The Millennium Goals: Dream or Reality? (2004) is another episode in the Life series that outlines each goal and steps being taken to implement the goals around the world.

This list only hints at the range of documentaries available on these subjects via such online sites as Bullfrog Films (bullfrogfilms.com) and Media­Rights (mediarights.org). These movies can be expensive, but such costs could be dwarfed by the inspirational value of the right film—the sort of inspiration needed to perform the profound but doable miracle of seeing the MDGs actually achieved.

Donovan Jacobs is a writer, educator, and story development consultant based in Los Angeles.

For more information on the Millennium Development Goals and each of the films, see:

General information on the MDGs:

Films mentioned in the article:

Web sites for researching documentaries:

Bullfrog Films ( http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/)

MediaRights ( http://www.mediarights.org/)

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