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Poverty Porn?

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Last night I was trolling around the web, reading up on the Academy Awards nominees. I found an article about “Slumdog Millionaire” the movie about a poor boy who grows up to become a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  As I was reading about the movie, I clicked on a link about the controversies surrounding the film. One is that the movie is less a realistic view of poverty in India, and more an exploitative look at the country’s slums.

A columnist from Britain’s Times calls the movie “poverty porn” and writes: ” … the film is vile. Unlike other Boyle films such as Trainspotting or Shallow Grave, which also revel in a fantastical comic violence, Slumdog Millionaire is about children. And it is set not in the West but in the slums of the Third World. As the film revels in the violence, degradation and horror, it invites you, the Westerner, to enjoy it, too.”

Hmmm. I don’t know that I agree with that summation. In fact, I think using the term “poverty porn” is, in its own way, exploiting poor people for the sake of selling newspapers. But I can see how someone who watched the movie might have felt uncomfortable watching it.

When I went to see Slumdog, I took my parents, who are Sri Lankan immigrants. I had read something about how it was this year’s feel-good-movie-of-the-year, which made me think it would be uplifting and light compared to all the downers in the theaters right now. But uplifting wasn’t how I felt watching it. It was more like scared stiff for the characters, who you follow from their childhood into adulthood. The slums were dangerous, and the children were constantly escaping physical and emotional harm. Yes, the title tells you a bit about the eventual bright spot of the movie, but generally, it was tough to watch. After it was done, I looked at my parents and saw the startled look in their eyes. I don’t think they found it relaxing. I think they found it stressful. They had seen poverty in their own country, after all, and I don’t think I was providing much of an escape by taking them to see a microscopic view of it.

A few days after I watched the movie, I first witnessed some of the debate surrounding it on Facebook. Many friends had posted status updates about how they had just seen Slumdog, and they “LOVED” it. But a couple weren’t so happy. Something about the film and how it depicted poor people didn’t sit right with them.

All the back and forth got me thinking about how we at Oxfam communicate about the poor people we work with around the world. The people we talk to deal with real dangers, pain, and worry. Many of them live in homes and wear clothes that, to a Westerner, look fragile and dirty. But this is the reality of their lives. For us, the trick is to be true to what we see without undermining the inherent dignity of each person we meet. They don’t always have much in a material way, but they often have more of the elements of a high quality life – close-knit families, deep ties to their culture, indigenous knowledge, independence, and joy. Theresa Yaa Serwaah, a cocoa farmer I interviewed last year in Ghana, put it better than I ever could.  She said she’d rather reject payment from a gold mine rather than give up her family’s home and farm. “For us, development is not about having big, big things, but having your peace of mind. For us, development is about working for oneself and leaving something for the next generation,” she said.

It’s that spirit, that voice that we try to capture in our work. It’s brave words like Theresa’s, and photographs devoid of flies and bloated bellies. Poor people are just like us in many ways; they’re just trying their best to make a go of it. We hope relating the honest truth, not some stylized, overly dramatic version of it, motivates our constituents. If not, oh well. It’s not worth it to us to insult the very people we’re trying to help. So, in the end, I guess I’m happy that movies like Slumdog exist. Maybe they don’t always get it right, but at least they spur some important debate about poverty and how best to deal with it.

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  1. Marzieh1@gmail.com'Marzieh

    i thought the movie was a good movie. but i wonder if it would get the same kind of coverage if it did not release about the same time of bombings in India. after all this kind of living and this kind of desperation is nothing new. why all of a sudden pay so much attention to a movie that at best was better than average?

    don’t get me wrong, we do need awareness regarding this issue globally.

    Reply
  2. yitaudl@yahoo.com'Julie

    I don’t think it’s ‘poverty porn’ because I don’t think Danny Boyle intended to titillate. But it was a mediocre movie at best (in my humble opinion) so, yeah, I think the accolades and nominations are more about the glimpse (realistic or not) into the slums of Mumbai than because it’s such a stellar film.

    Slumdog aside, I can’t figure out if ‘poverty porn’ and ‘poorism’ are helpful, exploitative or both.

    Reply
  3. cpowley@verizon.net'Carol

    My take on Slumdog? I was blown away. Strictly from an artistic perspective, I was mesmerized, swept away. I thought it was a great piece of film making on various levels. But art is not what we’re talking about here.
    As I watched the film, my heart broke seeing the images of an India that perhaps far too many people haven’t seen, but should see. For instance, I kept thinking of some of the people I work with in my little office in a part of rural New England, people whose worlds do not extend far beyond their own lives and whose interpretations of people of color or those of different cultures are often tainted by their own ignorance and lack of exposure. Don’t get me wrong; they are good people, but I wanted them to see this film in order to expose them to a world that exists outside of their own, and just for two hours to experience the horrors that far too many people have to endure on a daily basis, including devastating poverty; the kind of horrors that they would probably only ever have nightmares about. I wanted them to see this film if for no other reason than to prove to them that we share a common humanity, that those that they might label as “different” or “other”, are indeed no different than they are, than we all are. So I raved about it at work and strongly suggested that everyone should run out and see it right away. I hope they take my advice.
    So heck yea, I’m glad a movie like Slumdog exists.

    Reply
  4. Andrea Perera

    Carol, I love the term “common humanity.” And I agree with you. A lot of people don’t have the time, money, or interest to visit developing countries and see what life is really like for the people who live there. I think movies that provide a window into those worlds can be hugely educational — and help people understand life outside their comfort zones.

    Reply
  5. gawain@niawag.com'gawain

    hi andrea,

    thanks for this post. I have mixed feelings about the movie: glad for the exposure it gives to the lives and trials of poor people, but annoyed by the need to overdramatise – and in some ways romanticize the film. Visually, it was gorgeous. But it was also somewhat abusive to the viewer with the extreme cruelty and brutality (especially since the movie marketing mis-represented it as a “feel good” movie, ugggh!).

    Thought you’d be interested in seeing other, related and also different critiques on the film:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/30/AR2009013003897.html

    gawain

    Reply
  6. martin_clark.1@virgin.net'mc

    “Poor people are just like us in many ways;..” WTF! – patronising, elitist statements like that summarise why Oxfam is as misguided as any ‘poverty pornographer’

    Reply
  7. indianiec@yahoo.com'kb

    great movie and very smart. An important message about poverty and its effects wrapped in a Bollywood-style cheesy plot that helps to deliver it to masses.
    And the message already works, because people who prefer pretend that all is OK already started raising their voices.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development? « Aid Thoughts

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