What is microfinance? The term is often used to define financial services for poor and low-income clients. It is also the subject of Gayle Ferraro’s new, buzzed-about documentary—To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America. The film follows Nobel Laureate professor Dr. Muhammad Yunus as he attempts to bring his model of micro-lending to the United States. Known as the “father of modern microfinance,” Yunus founded the groundbreaking Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which provides microcredit to help its clients establish creditworthiness and financial self-sufficiency. Having helped many people in Bangladesh, To Catch a Dollar chronicles Yunus setting out to do the same in the U.S.—and changing millions of lives in the process.
To introduce American audiences to the potential of microfinance, a unique distribution strategy is planned for To Catch a Dollar. On March 31, theaters across the country will show the film for a special, one-night-only event, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Following the film will be a taped discussion with Dr. Yunus, moderated by CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo and featuring special guests, including Suze Orman and Robert De Niro. There will also be special video appearances by Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, Russell Simmons and others.
Just before this exclusive media event hits theaters, MM caught up with Ferraro to discuss the importance of To Catch a Dollar.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): How did To Catch a Dollar initially come together? Was Muhammad Yunus heavily involved from the beginning?
Gayle Ferraro (GF): I’m going to answer the second part of this question first. Yunus railed against this at the beginning! He just couldn’t accept having a camera follow him—and he is a very humble and modest man. He would agree for these few days. And then he would need to be coaxed into the next days… I spent a year showing up with a camera crew and documenting whatever I could get access to. I felt passionately that there was a story there—you would have to take that kind of rejection. He always hoped it would be enough after each and every trip to the U.S. and letting me shoot a few days more. After a year, I put together a 15-minute short video for him to see and he really liked it. At that point he was okay with me continuing to document his work and it was much easier to have great access.
The film is a hybrid of ideas from four years ago. I had several ideas for a film in early 2007 when the opportunity to work directly with Dr. Yunus immediately after he won the Nobel Peace Prize seemed to be a possibility. Within six months, I heard that Grameen would be opening in Queens, New York, so it seemed that I had two new projects now: One with Yunus and one with women in Queens. For a year, I worked documenting the two stories separately looking for the focus of each film. It was September 2009 and the financial meltdown. I was looking at these two different stories that I was working on and suddenly I realized that they are the same story: Muhammad Yunus’ story is the women’s story and their story is his story. It was all the same and once I identified that key piece, I was able to work on the storylines in a linear way and create the story arc and drama.
MM: How do you think the panel discussion that accompanies To Catch A Dollar reinforces what the film has to say?
GF: It was clear to me after Sundance in 2010 and seeing the audience reaction that we need to have a big dialogue to focus some part of America’s attention on these issues of poverty… So I went about assembling individuals that would be an asset in developing a campaign to take this to another level. We worked for six months to get the right participation on this panel with Dr. Yunus. The fit had to be perfect because this would set the tone for the long-term campaign, which would follow in the communities. When Suze Orman’s name came up in a brainstorming session, in my mind the search was over. I felt she was the exact right person to head up this panel with Yunus. We quickly added Premal Shah, the president of Kiva.org, and Vidar Jorgensen, the president of Grameen America—all moderated by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo.
The following panel discussion takes the stories off the screen and into our cities, neighborhoods, homes and lives. Suze, who is such a respected, down-to-earth, well-known and trusted advisor, makes it clear that we are all in this financial situation together and what affects one, affects all and each of us needs to look at our “own truth.” After watching these women look at their own truths, it becomes a springboard to broaden the discussion.
Premal has ideas that take us into the next decade with microlending and cyberspace and you can see how the women in the film would benefit in his world. Vidar envisions a very different America of empowerment and economic justice that comes through in the women’s stories as they struggle. It gives us a glimmer of what offering basic financial services to the poorest can do for societies.
MM: Ideally, what do you hope audiences learn about microfinancing from watching the film?
GF: Most Americas know very little, if anything, about microfinancing. It took me a while to really have a deeper understanding of how and why it works and see the simplicity in real opportunity for everyone. So, on a practical level, I hope audiences will understand the basic principles of the Grameen model and how it works, it takes five members, meeting every week, making weekly payments, the interest rates and saving program…
But beyond that, I hope that they see that it took Yunus 35 years to get it here in the States and see how it evolved. Ideally though, my hope is that the film can show the meaning of microfinance in poor families’ lives. We are very uncomfortable in the U.S. with poverty and those who work for less are given a second-class citizenship and treated with suspicion. Yet, when you have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall, you can see they do their jobs with such dignity and hard work. It is these insights that can spark our imaginations and lead us to take social action.
MM: What do you think is most important about social action documentaries being available to the public?
GF: Social action documentaries are necessary. The best ones provide a sharp focus on some need in society. It mirrors back to us what we can’t see easily and often deeply and over time, so you can react. There is not nearly enough support for this genre of film and yet it is the hardest [to make].
I never start out to make a social action documentary—that is not anywhere in my brain. I didn’t realize that was what I was doing for quite a while. I am always reacting viscerally to a story or a topic or a feeling and that is all I am thinking about when I start. Because I don’t consider the outcome of the film at the outset, my films don’t fit easily on television and they are tough in the theatrical marketplace. But I tackle big topics—microcredit and the father of the movement, sex trafficking, death and dying—and they all lead to discussion, and deep discussion at that.
MM: Is your next documentary project already in the works? Can you tell us about it?
GF: I have promised to work with Yunus on a social business film, but in light of this new situation with the Bangladesh government removing him from his position as General Manager of the Grameen Bank he founded 35 years ago because of his age, I may be making a very different kind of film. The Bangladesh government is always listed as one of the most corrupt governments on earth and as recently as December 2010, they jailed independent workers from Transparency International that checks findings.
For more information, visit www.tocatchadollar.com.