Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty

By Ben Lewis
Director of Poor Us

The poor may always have been with us, but attitudes towards them have changed. Beginning in the Neolithic Age, Ben Lewis’s film Poor Us, which premieres tonight as part of the Why Poverty? series special on Global Voices, takes us through the changing world of poverty. You go to sleep, you dream, you become poor through the ages. And when you awake, what can you say about poverty now? There are still very poor people, to be sure, but the new poverty has more to do with inequality…

I got the idea of how I wanted to make this film from a coincidence of spelling. The first three letters of the word POVERTY are POV, which in filmmaking language is an acronym for Point-of-View. It made me realize instantly that I wanted to tell the history of poverty from the point of view of a poor person.

I wanted to make a film that, like the others I have made, was simultaneously a meticulously researched historical documentary and a wildly imaginative fictional envisioning of history. In other words, I wanted to make a film that blurred the line in new ways between documentary and fiction.

So the first thing I did was spend two months in the British Library reading scores of new micro-histories of poverty, studies of poverty in specific historical epochs and locations, which have been published in the last fifteen years. All this new research is little known. I read Sharon Farmer’s Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris, Mine Ener’s Managing Eygpt’s Poor 1800-1952, and Lillian Li’s Fighting Famine in North China, as well as John Iliffe’s classic The African Poor.

So in the film when you meet Morrisset, the beggar with the oozing sore in thirteenth century Paris, he is a real character from contemporary accounts, and the same goes for Jane Brown, the seventeen year old pregnant prostitute in London, while one postwar African leader is modeled after Kwame Nkrumah.

I had been asked to compress an enormous amount of history into a very short timeframe – ten thousand years in sixty minutes. In fact, my commissioning editors told me if I wanted I could just start 600 years ago, but I liked the craziness of trying to incorporate all human history in one hour.

At the same time I was asked to come up with an idea that would be suitable for a film that combined animation with real interviews, archive and motion graphics. Both these requests gave me the dream idea. Only in “dream” time could ten thousand years actually happen in sixty minutes and if I conceived the history of poverty as a dream, I could merge my historical research with symbolic historical memories and fantasies. Also, if it was a dream, then that could also link into my first most important idea – to make the viewer experience poverty himself.

That made me think of one more reference: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In this wonderful book, the reader is the protagonist, who, as Calvino tells him, is reading a book, only each chapter is the chapter of a different book, that all interweave. This novel helped me work out how to link so many different little stories into something that felt like it was one story.

A team of utterly brilliant Dutch collaborators, primarily Fons Schiedon, the head of animation, assisted me on this film. I had not met Fons until I had written the script and shot most of the interviews, but after I saw his animation, I felt like I had written the whole film just for him.

Christiaan de Rooij provided the beautiful motion graphics, in which he took historical visual material – etchings, woodcuts, photographs, etc., and gave them depth and subtle movements, which again related to the film’s dream reality.

Finally Fons Merkies, who used the melody from Faure’s Requiem as a motif to link music in so many different historical styles, composed the film’s music.

Poor Us premieres tonight as part of the Why Poverty? series special on Global Voices, click here for broadcast listings