With job creation a constant topic in the news, there’s no better time to see Gayle Ferraro’s powerful documentary about microfinance, To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America.
The term “microfinance” refers to financial services provided for micro entrepreneurs, small businesses and low-income clients, who lack access to banking and related services due to high transaction costs.
The documentary follows renowned Nobel Laureate professor Dr. Muhammad Yunus as he attempts to bring his unique model of micro-lending to the United States (first stop: Queens, NY). 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 women in Bangladesh, To Catch a Dollar chronicles Yunus (whose life mission is to eradicate poverty) setting out to do the same in the U.S.—and changing millions of lives in the process.
The film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and today makes its DVD debut from Shout! Factory. Just before the DVD release, MM caught up with director Gayle Ferraro—who traveled with Dr. Yunus on his global tour for nearly three years—to discuss the importance and relevancy of To Catch a Dollar, as well as how Grameen America has evolved in the years since the film was completed.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): For those of us who don’t know much about “micro lending,” could you describe, in general terms, what it means and how it works?
Gayle Ferraro (GF): Micro lending is generally a loan of a very small amount. In the Grameen definition, it is a very small loan specifically to start an income generating business. These loans are very small and non-collateralized. It is an opportunity to help the poorest gain some equity and build a business with support.
There are many models of micro lending, but since I really know the Grameen Bank method well, I’ll describe how it works. You have to be very poor and prove it. Then you need to become a member of the bank or Grameen America, which means you will become part of a five person group and that group will meet weekly with up to seven other groups at a center meeting to make a payment on the loan and discuss any issues.
As a member of your group, you keep an eye on each other and you don’t want someone who is not as committed because if they fail, you don’t receive another loan until their money is recovered. So, there is pressure to be sure whom you bring into your group or what group you join. You want someone with a good idea you believe can do it.
My first film in 2000 was in Bangladesh, Sixteen Decisions. When I went back ten years later and met Selina, the 16-year-old girl, who I had interviewed for the film, she had stayed with the program and had taken many loans over the years. She was the daughter of a blind beggar and was given as child labor at age 8, married at 11, and the mother of two children at 16 when I met her. She had her first $40 loan for chickens, a down-payment on a bicycle rickshaw for her husband and rice that she would husk by hand. When I met her ten years later, her daughter was in high school studying English and hoped to be a doctor. Selina had a three-room house with furniture, (from a one-room empty hut with a sleeping mat), two rice fields of her own, a cow, and they were buying a motorized rickshaw. Many changes.
MM: Since we last discussed the film two years ago, how has the Grameen Bank evolved? Has it been a bonafide success in the U.S.?
GF: First, ‘Grameen America’ is not a bank in the US. It is a non-profit organization. Grameen Bank is however a bank in Bangladesh and they received a special dispensation in the 70s from the government to operate as a bank.
In the past five years—and it has already been five years, I am amazed every time I hear the latest numbers of Grameen America. The first year was so rocky, finding the right staff, getting the system in place, finding borrowers. Then it turned a corner. They are up and running in eleven cities: NYC (6 branches), San Francisco, Omaha, Indianapolis, Charlotte, and Los Angeles. There are several other cities close to opening. The number of women now receiving loans is over 13,500 and the amount of money loaned is over 66 million, with a 99% to 100% repayment rate. In addition, they have over one million dollars in savings.
I think this is amazing. Grameen America is growing exponentially in the US now that they have a foothold. I had seen this happen in Costa Rica and Guatemala five years ago when on a trip with Dr. Yunus and Whole Planet Foundation. A modest start and then suddenly they had 35,000 women with microloans.
MM: Having worked on To Catch a Dollar for many years, what would you say was the biggest challenge or obstacle you encountered during the making of the movie?
GF: Access was always an issue, whether it was with Dr. Yunus and meeting people with him in sensitive contexts or the women and being part of their private lives. You have to become invisible and always be around. It is a very tough balance.
MM: The film was released theatrically in 2011, and is just now making its DVD debut. What was the reason for the delay?
GF: With a social cause documentary the schedule is somewhat different from a feature film release. We have been touring the country hosting screening events in local theaters, community centers, and to students on college and university campuses. Following screenings, discussions are held to raise awareness about several issues touched upon in the film. These include microfinance, low-income entrepreneurship, poverty, economic empowerment, human rights, women’s issues, and sociology.
MM: What’s the best piece of advice you’d offer to a moviemaker interested in making a social action documentary? What are some of the pitfalls they should avoid?
GF:I would say be sure that you want to commit to the process and intend to come out the other end for whatever that means because you need to be that committed and open. I go through a metamorphous with the material, my thinking changes, becomes deeper and clearer and generally I find I understand something entirely different than what I thought I was trying to say.
I never intend or set out to make a ‘social action documentary.” It is in the discovering that happens while making the film at all stages and the impact of what I am documenting that becomes clearer to me and takes on meaning. I find myself with an opportunity to make a film about a particular subject or issue and it resonates for me. I often don’t understand my reaction well, but I am clear that I feel strongly enough about something that it is worth putting in the time and effort, financing and giving up other opportunities.
Leave yourself open to what you are experiencing. I don’t over research—I don’t want to come up with answers before I understand why I think the way I do about the material and like I said that will, or should change as the filmmaking process evolves
MM: In the long run, what kind of impact do you think Grameen America, and Muhammad Yunus’ inspiring work, will have on this country? What are some of the important ideas in the film that you hope will stay with viewers?
GF: I hope that people who see the film will feel they understand themselves a bit better and why they have attitudes and opinions about poverty and the poor. Poverty is a complex issue when you really get into it. I had not really seen it in such simplicity and complexity before making To Catch A Dollar. It is easy to identify it when you see it—children, parents, houses…But it is really so complex as well.
There are so many layers to it and they all need attention. For instance, food has to be on the table to even function. You need to have a decent, safe night’s sleep to do well. Education becomes critical and if the parents are without, likely the children will suffer. Health care becomes important because generally poor don’t eat well because of lack of money and so medical problems occur. How to pay and take care of a sick family member? All of this is before we even begin to talk about financial stability. I think the film shows this reality and difficulty.
I had traveled all over the world for years and made films in Bangladesh, Burma, India and had surely seen poverty. It wasn’t until I was here in the US and seeing people up close in neighborhoods a train-ride away that I started to feel some connection, understanding. I began to see how invisible and marginalized our system is on the poor. America is about winning, success. When you are not part of that it is incredibly hard to get a footing, any footing. You really need some way of getting a hold not to keep slipping.
MM: What’s up next for you? Any projects in the works you can tell us about?
GF: There are several issues catching my attention, but I would rather keep them to myself for the time being. I will of course be keeping up with Grameen America as it evolves in the US and elsewhere, as well as follow Muhammad Yunus and his new Social Business venture. I think Grameen America could be a game-changer for a segment of society in terms of opportunity, and for others it could help us be more compassionate and understanding. MM
For more information, please visit http://www.tocatchadollar.com/.