I Watched a Documentary.

Living on One Dollar

I don’t often watch documentaries. The only Artists’ Den episode I’ve ever seen was the one about American Ballet Theater’s Misty Copeland, and that’s only because she came from my dance studio. And I did see First Position, the feature documentary about the world of competitive ballet, again because I trained in ballet for ten years.

Normally, when scrolling through the front page choices on Hulu, I look for my usual comedy shows; I rarely click on something I’ve heard nothing about. But earlier today, I clicked on this: a documentary called Living on One Dollar. The picture wasn’t super incredible, just a shack in a jungle with some dudes, but something in the back of my mind told me I’d enjoy it.

And I did.

I don’t often watch documentaries for two reasons:

1) It’s such a clinical, “objective” (in quotes for reasons I’ll explain later) approach to storytelling and there are ways to get your message across in a dramatic narrative. There’s this expectation that documentaries tell The Truth, that they show life as it really is, and when I’m in the mood to watch a movie or television show, most of the time I want to escape from real life.

2) If you leave a camera in one place and show everything that it records in one sitting, then you have real life. Documentaries are made by people who have a specific message in mind; they choose topics to film, they choose which people will represent those topics and how to shoot these people, they choose what to show in the film and what to throw onto the figurative cutting room floor. Documentaries are truth filtered through the bias of the directors and editors.

So I normally expect documentarians to be weathered, experienced filmmakers with a predetermined vision that skews the film’s perspective. That’s probably the reason why I instantly liked One Dollar. The filmmakers were students, the voice overs were unprofessional, and the film had a refreshingly self-reflexive feel (it drew attention to the fact that you’re watching a film). At the beginning, many shots were shakily handheld, out-of-focus, and there was a moment when the students turned the camera on and sat around like, “Well, we should be saying something meaningful and worthy of being captured on film but…what do we say?”

It was cute. And then right after that it got real.

I’m hoping that by leaving out any of the plot of the story I’ll force you to watch it (link above) because it’s really worth the watch. These four students are doing something brave and meaningful, something I wish I had the guts to pull off. They had an idea and they made it happen, even though it took them way out of their comfort zone to a place full of potential health hazards. I’m sure they did their research beforehand and had back up cash in case something terrible happened; regardless, they had little idea what potential diseases and hardships they would have to face.

Why can’t we all take such bold risks? Because it’s clear that they pay off, at least in the way that life-changing experiences can. Yeah they lost an unhealthy amount of weight, exposed themselves to parasites, faced fear of starvation every day, but they gave their new friends in Pena Blanca something new, just as they received new ideas and a new understanding of a different kind of life.

I hope, someday, that I’ll have the courage to leave my comfort zone and immerse myself in a new, challenging culture–one without any of the creature comforts I’m used to. It’ll make me appreciate my life in the States that much more.



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