NEW YORK -- For many American travelers, Guatemala is an inexpensive, exotic destination for visiting Mayan ruins or studying Spanish in a language immersion program. But for a couple of U.S. college students, the country was the setting for a social experiment. They spent a summer living there on the same daily budget that sustains over a billion people around the world: $1 a day.
Then they made a film about it, "Living on One." The film shows just how hard it is to buy enough food on so little money -- never mind paying bills and coping with emergencies -- but it has another theme that's not quite as sexy as sheer survival. "Living on One" also tries to illustrate how people living in extreme poverty manage their money, and how microcredit -- small loans for local entrepreneurs who can't get traditional bank loans -- can make a difference.
"By filming the whole experience, we felt we could bring people along on this journey with us," said Chris Temple, who conceived the project with Zach Ingrasci, a classmate from Claremont McKenna College in California. "We thought that by going through this dollar-a-day experience ourselves, we could make it more understandable and show through our eyes what life is like there."
Now back in the states, they're taking the film on a college tour -- Georgetown, Boston College, Berkeley, Stanford and others -- and have founded the Living on One organization to connect students to these issues through social media. They hope to hit the film festival circuit eventually.
A key aspect of their 2010 adventure in the tiny highlands village of Pena Blanca was replicating the unpredictability of their neighbors' incomes as day laborers. Temple, Ingrasci and two other students with filmmaking experience who joined them lived on a total of $224 -- $1 for each of the four of them, for 56 days -- but they disbursed their money randomly. They filled a hat with numbers from zero to nine, and pulled one number each morning to determine their budget for the day. Expenses included firewood, rice, beans and other staples; renting a hut where they slept on a dirt floor; and making payments on a $125 microloan they used to start a radish farm. They had an outhouse and no running water; their camera was powered by a connection rigged off an electric line.
The worst moment, they agreed, was when Temple became seriously ill with giardia, an intestinal parasite. "After 10 days of being sick, waking up on the dirt floor throwing up, constantly going to the bathroom throughout the night, I was completely dehydrated," he recalled.
It was a low point for others too. "I can't sleep another night like this," Ingrasci says in the film after waking up covered with flea bites, with his sick friend next to him on the floor.
Temple says his illness was when "our simulation failed. We tried to go to a doctor in town to see what the cost would be. It was $25, which would have meant sacrificing food for a very long time." They decided to use medicine they'd brought with them in case of emergency even though their neighbors would have no such safety net.
Before making the film, Temple and Ingrasci, now both 23, had studied economic development and worked for organizations that promote microfinance. (Microfinance made headlines in 2006 when Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker, won a Nobel Peace Prize for showing how small loans can foster economic development among the poor.) Temple had also worked in Guatemala for Whole Planet Foundation, a charitable arm of Whole Foods that grants microfinance loans.
The film ranges from scenes of pure joy -- the shy smiles of curious children, shared meals with neighbors, the successful radish harvest -- to YouTube-style goofball clips of the guys horsing around. There are also moving moments like a young woman wiping a tear as she says: "We are poor and we will continue being poor."
But that woman, Rosa, turns out to be a success story. She starts a weaving business with a microloan and uses the profits to pay for nursing school. Ignasci says the women's group that funded Rosa has a 100 percent repayment rate for microloans, but he acknowledges that "we can't say all microfinance is good." Indeed, critics have found microfinance programs in some parts of the world have failed, often due to high interest rates.
Other neighbors featured in the film include a bright, charming 12-year-old boy, Chino, who wants to learn English to "get a job," and a resourceful man who belongs to a savings club where a dozen families invest $12 a month so each can get a $144 lump sum annually, funding large purchases they could never otherwise afford.
Ingrasci says it's easy to "idealize" the simple lives of the rural poor: "They don't have computers, they don't have this overload of information." But the reality of malnutrition, unemployment and illness, he says, is devastating. Temple notes that locals are not immune to the illness that struck him: Intestinal disease caused by contaminated water and poor sanitation can kill a baby, knock family breadwinners out of work and force kids to drop out of school.
While they understand that they may be criticized for "playing at poverty," Ingrasci says they tried hard to avoid making viewers feel they were "getting played or preached at. It was such an important thing for our peers to feel like they're part of this journey. When someone tells us the film has shown them the issues in a new way, or has encouraged someone to grant a microfinance loan, that's the reason we're doing it."