'Tis the season for movies attacking capitalism. Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" was followed by "The Yes Men Fix the World." Now we have "The End of Poverty?" That question mark in the title is, of course, ironic. This is a movie about how poverty will endure as long as capitalism thrives.
Unlike Moore's movie, which was framed as a personal odyssey interspersed with his usual grab bag of barbed clips and trumped-up confrontations, "The End of Poverty?" couldn't be more sober. Moore, no historian, mostly focused on the post-Great Depression years. Philippe Diaz, the writer-director of this latest frontal assault, starts way back in 1492, a storybook date emblazoned in the memories of all American schoolchildren. For Diaz, it's a date of infamy. Whoops.
Diaz connects the history of colonialism with the history of Western capitalism. He offers up a slew of talking-head academics and politicos, ranging from Nobel economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz to Álvaro García Linera, the vice president of Bolivia. He takes his cameras into some of the poorest regions of the world, the favelas of Brazil and the shantytowns of Kenya. The message comes back unmistakably: Greed is not good – at least not for those on the short end.
Big villains in this movie are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which, according to Diaz, virtually enslaved entire nations, especially in Africa, with insurmountable debt. Statistics are periodically printed on the screen, such as: "In Latin America, the richest 1 percent of the population receives over 400 times as much income as the poorest 1 percent," or, "the richest 1 percent of the world's population owns 30 percent of the wealth."
Statistics such as these don't begin to tell the whole story, nor do they elucidate why capitalism alone is to blame. Nor is capitalism given any credit for progress anywhere in the world. India, for example, is held up as a paragon of inequality, and yet no mention is made of the economic boom, or boomlet, occurring there.
Diaz leaves the impression that no multinational corporation has any interest, even brazen self-interest, in relieving the misery of starving children – 16,000 of whom die each day from hunger-related causes. These and many other atrocities cry out for a solution, yet the talking heads in "The End of Poverty?" don't offer much. Like "Capitalism: A Love Story," which floated the panacea of a "democratically run economy," or "The Yes Men Fix the World," with its satiric nihilism posing as principled outrage, there is ultimately much less here than meets the eye. I realize that Diaz, like Moore and the Yes Men, is under no obligation to offer economic solutions and right the world's wrongs. But not even a little bit? Because Diaz constructs his movie like a classroom tutorial, we expect something more from him than an appeal to end privatization. There's a Rousseau-ian tinge to Diaz's prescription: He wants to return to the communal – i.e., "natural" – way of life.
I understand, of course, why so many documentaries are being made about poverty and the global economic meltdown. But screeds, whether they emanate from the left or the right, are not what I crave now. The dangerousness of our era demands something more, something richer and more comprehensive. Novels, not pamphlets, are what these trying times require. And a few real-world solutions wouldn't hurt, either. Without them, these movies are like dive bombers alighting in cloud-cuckooland. Grade: C+