First Person

Why Poverty? Documentary series aims to show, not tell

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Michael Borum is the web manager at Oxfam America.

Has there ever been a better time in history to really bring stories to life inexpensively, with the narrative impact of film, and the reach of the Internet? Oxfam has for years embraced video as a storytelling medium. When done well, it’s hard to do much better to connect our audiences with the work we do. In the age of YouTube, it’s inevitable, and it’s consistent with the tried and true storytelling mantra: show, don’t tell.

This is one of the ideas underpinning the campaign Why Poverty?, which kicked off earlier this month. The unaffiliated campaign (Oxfam is not a participant), supported by more than 20 worldwide partners and broadcasters, has commissioned award-winning filmmakers to produce eight documentaries about poverty, along with some new and emerging voices, for a total of 30 shorter films. They’re taking on big issues and asking difficult questions through stories that are thought-provoking, nuanced, and utterly creative.

Most of us are by now familiar with the “KONY2012” phenomenon that was one of the most viral videos in recent memory. I think the Why Poverty? approach is often more subtle, and broadens the scope of poverty as a systemic, complex global issue that touches all of us in ways mere “viral” videos can’t or perhaps shouldn’t. I appreciate how these films illustrate stories that can be difficult to put solely into words or sound bites.

To be sure, every filmmaker is going to see poverty differently, with their own perspectives on how best to portray this greatest of humanitarian crises—sometimes in ways that make us uncomfortable, too—but that’s the point. Poverty is everywhere, and it can be horrific. We can’t ignore it, and by taking on each of the many underlying issues head-on, we can get beyond the question, “Why?” and begin to understand the many, often surprising answers that can lead to permanent change.

So take some time this week to watch what these filmmakers have to say about poverty, and talk back to us. I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions. See the trailers for some of my favorite entries above and below; for full details and links to all the films, visit

OxfamBuzzList is a blog series about the movies, books, blogs, music, and more that have Oxfam staff and supporters talking. If you’d like to contribute a guest post or suggest a topic, please leave a comment below. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+