Bonsai People is bound and perhaps even a little partially designed to provoke some healthy amount of white guilt. As understandably disenfranchised as many Americans currently feel in an age of unfathomably rampant government and corporate corruption, few of us—at least in the rapidly evaporating middle-class—have it as bad as the predominantly lower-class citizens of Bangladesh. A country mercilessly cramped with over-population (we’re told to imagine if all the residents of the U.S. lived in the state of New York as a point of comparison), Bangladesh is plagued by starvation, usury corruption, and social disorganization, the latter of which partially caused by the relatively recent independence won from Pakistan in the 1970s. The people of Bangladesh are mostly unemployed or working menial jobs that offer virtually no chance of financial independence. As we can tell by their stricken, prematurely elderly faces, these people are literally hopeless.
As folks have often said of our own country’s socio-economic concerns, where to start? In 1976, Muhammad Yunus visited the poorest homes in the village of Jobra near the Chittagong University where he chaired the Economics Department and found the women surrendering to perverse loan conditions to buy supplies for their families. In response, Yunus lent a total of 27 dollars to be split 42 ways among a number of the more ambitious Jobra women—an action that netted a profit of two cents to each villager. The loan, which would strike most Americans as insignificant, obviously has a meaning larger than the profit. Yunus reached the villagers with action as opposed to platitude, proving to them that a significant improvement of lifestyle was within their reach. Over the last three decades this experiment has grown into a social corporation that includes banks, health care facilities, and even dairy farms, with the enabling of low-interest rates acting as a prevailing philosophy. The great irony, besides the considerable good that Yunus’s work has done, is that his companies are actively profitable, a refutation of the perhaps silently held belief that philanthropy is naïve anathema to actual survival.
Bonsai People is more concerned with the people of Bangladesh than Yunus himself; he only occasionally appears as a sort of cameo conscience. Director Holly Mosher follows the opening of a new Yunus bank, affording us an opportunity to witness the surprisingly detailed nuts-and-bolts process of reform. The women, in another unconventional strategy, are primarily targeted by the banks in an effort to empower them in a predominantly restrictive Muslim society, and so we see a bank manager as he counsels them on spending and investing, as well as property renovation. The preoccupation with detail is refreshing: As the actual work of change is underlined so that we understand Yunus’s efforts as more than well-intentioned pontification.
The doc is still, ultimately, more of an educational video than a movie. Mosher’s footage is occasionally haunting, particularly when you see the villagers’ faces curling into rare smiles, but there isn’t really any place for this film to go after Yunu’s basic practices have been established to the viewer roughly 20 minutes in. You admire Bonsai People for the taken-for-granted society of greed it openly critiques and dismantles (a corresponding relevancy to the United States’ ideologies is clearly intended) more than you enjoy it. In the end, it feels unavoidably dull, as there isn’t much thematic ambiguity to be found in the assertion that humans deserve life that’s defined by more than indentured servitude.