Due to its timely subject, Philippe Diaz’s The End of Poverty?—a 35mm indictment of the colonialism that led to the free market system, that led to our current global economic catastrophe, that led to the onslaught of documentaries rushed into the marketplace to blame it all on the system that funds them—was invited to premiere at Critics’ Week at Cannes before it was even finished. Which is an odd choice given that the financial meltdown in itself has already personally and viscerally brought home the shamefulness the film addresses, essentially neutering Diaz’s straightforward explanatory doc.
Narrated by a grating Martin Sheen, the doc crosses four continents and cuts between talking-head academics and impoverished citizens. But it gets off to a slow start on the wrong foot with its thesis—that the world’s woes can be traced back to one year: 1492. That was when the intrepid frontiersmen of Spain and Portugal set out for the Americas to explore new lands, steal resources, and destroy local culture. And, Diaz’s film argues, this is still going on today, with the Northern hemisphere forcing the Southern one ever deeper into poverty in order to maintain its overly consumptive lifestyle. But while the fact that 20% of the planet’s population uses 80% of its resources is a shame, it isn’t all that shocking to anyone except perhaps an expat Frenchman living in L.A. What’s shocking is that any filmmaker would be compelled to make a doc “exposing” what most of the population, rich and poor, already knows. When Diaz expresses astonishment in the press notes that many impoverished people in the Third World “had an understanding of their situations and its causes that most experts would find accurate beyond belief,” only the director’s own clueless nature is exposed. Why wouldn’t those dying from lack of basic resources be aware of their own history? That an all too ignorant Diaz would equate poverty with ignorance is the real shame.
As is the director’s decision to blame it all on evil colonialism. “Too big to fail” was the explanation given for saving the top banks and insurance giants during our own financial meltdown. Of course, the better common sense solution in lieu of a bailout would have been to demand that they shrink. When a system gets too big it consumes the local culture. And this gets at the core of the real problem with colonialism—how the movement spread like wildfire, devouring whole continents, a crucial aspect that Diaz fails to address.
Instead, the film operates under the false assumption that colonialism is a philosophy in and of itself rather than a product of a certain monotheistic religious mindset. In other words, Diaz didn’t dig deep enough or far enough back in time to get to the real root of today’s myriad crises. His film’s textbook approach just gives us a bunch of stale myopic facts—often delivered on boring title cards—without connecting those facts to anything of substance. (Besides, talking heads dispensing numbers and figures is not cinematic.) Perhaps he should have watched the thrilling doc Constantine’s Sword, which traced that same conquering and land-grabbing impulse all the way back to the Romans and the early use of religion as a political tool. (It’s not a coincidence that missionaries played a key part in colonization.) Films like Constantine’s Sword or The Power of Nightmares, which delves into the neoconservative movement, make for such engrossing and enlightening entertainment because they sink their teeth into a philosophy rather than its mere results.
But perhaps most surprising of all are the parallels Diaz accidentally draws between the “evil” First World and the “innocent” Third. Harmful farm subsidies? Yeah, we got those here, too. Pharmaceutical companies that block access to affordable drugs and a health care system so broken the poor can’t afford to go to the hospital? Ditto. When the director interviews South Americans lamenting slave labor and child prostitution, or Africans mourning the loss of homes from flood waters, an American can’t help but think of all the day laborer immigrants in East L.A. or the teenage prostitutes in the Bronx, not to mention all those homeless residents of New Orleans. In other words, even while the U.S. cannibalizes poorer nations it is cannibalizing itself. Those same destructive policies are in effect right here at home where the tax burden falls on the working poor (those down south on the economic ladder) to ensure the lifestyles of those up north on the fiscal food chain. Astronomical wealth disparity and its attendant link to violence is something we share with Brazil even as we rape that nation’s rain forest.
In addition, we don’t just export those terrible values of privatization and neoliberalism as Diaz’s film simplistically claims; we implement them on ourselves. We just have a façade of wealth that usually masks the harsher reality. Hurricane Katrina and the economic collapse only revealed America’s rotten underbelly, and the fact that we up North are in many ways just as poor as the South, though we keep it better hidden. This is why immigrants often become so disillusioned when they arrive on these shores. We’re a nation of dreamers living in a dream. Sure, the poor are starving in Africa—and they’re obese here. Once again our façade of wealth is only masking the very same malnutrition. The chickens always come home to roost, pecking a big hole in the film’s bipolar premise that Diaz is never able to patch up. In the end End of Poverty? is just too small-minded to succeed.