Can a $70 business loan change the life of someone long entrenched in poverty with little education and less hope? And would that loan ever be repaid?
Remarkably, that is exactly what you see in Holly Mosher's affecting "Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus," her yearlong examination of the Nobel Peace Prize winner's microcredit theories put into practice in his homeland of Bangladesh.
The documentary filmmaker, whose work tends to focus on social and environmental issues ("Vanishing of the Bees"), spent most of 2010 in a rural village to capture the process and the pitfalls. Mosher begins by following the money — shadowing the start-up of a branch of the Grameen Bank, the lending system for the poor that Yunus founded and ran until he was forced out by the government last year (a decision he has appealed).
Through interviews with the new bank manager and a range of borrowers, Mosher traces the journey of a handful of individuals as they start tiny ventures and inch toward financial security. Along the way, she cuts to Yunus to explain the economics, which at the most fundamental level is a modern spin on the proverb: "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." In this case, it primarily consists of making small loans to women to start home-based businesses such as planting vegetables to sell.
But first, the notion of the bank must be sold to the villages. The film takes us through those tough early days of the new branch, filling in research on the bank's track record — more than 97% of the loans are paid back, and the ripple effects of financial success — birth rates are lower, life spans are longer among them.
There are short digressions to include the various spinoffs that Yunus began adding to create a social safety net for his emerging entrepreneurs. They include health clinics and a yogurt company, all operating in the black, so in a roundabout way, you get a sense of Yunus' own entrepreneurial drive.
But the women are the stars, a cross section of ages and ambition, more successes than failures. It is interesting to watch them adjust to market forces. One woman's choice to plant trees rather than vegetables backfires because of the years it will take to turn a profit, while another's investment in a cow brings an unexpected calf to sell.
With Mosher handling much of the cinematography, she develops an easy rapport with the women, who are shy at first but increasingly empowered by their financial success. She also captures the rhythms of village life, increasingly vibrant as the money replaces thatch roofs with tin, outdoor pits with latrines.
By making the movie as much about the women as Yunus and his theories, the filmmaker brings a sense of balance to "Bonsai People" that would have been easy to lose given the international economist's long and much-honored career. Packed with details that somehow don't weigh it down, this is a hopeful film — about the power of honest work to confer dignity as well as put food on the table, about how the seed of an idea can take root and grow.