Category Archives: Documentary Film Review

Documentary Film Review: Minimalism

It’s hard to know what to write about right now. With the ongoing Coronavirus lockdown and subsequent humanitarian and economical crises, I just don’t know what the world is going to look like when this ends. That’s why I decided to sit down and watch the documentary called Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.

I’m not a minimalist. I mean, I try not to have too much “stuff,” and I find tiny houses fascinating, but I like the warmth and color that accessories bring into my life. I live in an environment of weather extremes, so we pretty much need two wardrobes and a few waterproof things for the in-between. I thought that if nothing else, I would enjoy the calm of a documentary about minimalism, and maybe get a few good tips for how I can get rid of more stuff.

The movie surprised me. I mean, how complicated can a movie about minimalism be? It’s minimalism… But it was really quite warm and relaxed. The main focus of the film is a duo that calls themselves The Minimalists (Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn). They are a pair of lifelong best friends who went from striving and unsatisfied to minimalists, and it changed their life for the better. They wrote a book about it called Everything That Remains, and in the film they’re on tour, one suitcase each in an old car, promoting their book.

Along the way, the film crew interviews other self-proclaimed minimalists, and they talk about things like the challenges of a minimalist lifestyle with children, the calming effects of meditation, tiny houses, and the effects of advertising on children.

Some of the people featured in the documentary are more strict adherents to the philosophy of minimalism, while others just lead a simplified version of what most of us consider normal. One of the guys described minimalism as a continuum, and explained that we all fall somewhere on that spectrum and have to find balance and compromise with the people we live with.

That balance was a refreshing change from the “slash and burn” way I’ve heard minimalists speak in the past. They also said that if something makes you happy, don’t get rid of it. Surround yourself with things you love – just get rid of the excessive rest of it, and don’t get caught up in striving for more stuff because you think it will make you happy. Stuff won’t make you happy.

Aside from not being fulfilling, the quest for more stuff drives humanitarian and environmental disasters. Our “need” for the latest and greatest leads manufacturers to cut costs, outsourcing jobs to countries that don’t have labor standards and creating unsafe work environments for people – including young children – who aren’t paid a viable wage. Making fewer and more deliberate choices in our consumption allows us to do more good with our spending rather than making more waste.

Minimalism is just over an hour long, and it available on Netflix. It was made in 2016 by director Matt D’Avella.

While I’m not about to get a dumpster and toss out all my stuff (that just feels wasteful…), the movie did inspire me to reconsider my shopping habits and the things I strive for. Plus, I just really enjoyed a relaxed hour of clean and organized spaces…

Documentary Film Review: Hunger in America

Hunger in America is a 2014 Emmy award-winning documentary written and directed by Zac Adams. As the title clearly explains, the 51-minute long film talks specifically about hunger issues here in the United States.

A common misconception that many Americans have is that hunger and poverty are problems that occur only in developing nations and in small pockets in inner cities. Hunger in America seeks to correct that misconception and reveal the true facts of food insecurity across the country.

Hunger and poverty often affect senior citizens, the disabled, and children. These people groups can’t do much to change their financial situations – seniors are often too old to work and are dependent on the fixed income provided by social security and/or their retirement savings, the disabled are physically or mentally unable to take on additional work and are dependent on their social security disability income, and kids are too young to legally work. Subsequently, when the cost of food goes up or systems around them break down, the old, disabled, and young are particularly vulnerable.

But it isn’t just these groups that experience hunger. As one interview subject stated in the film, “Someone you know is hungry today.” Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck and are just one small disaster (minor illness, car repairs, etc.) away from financial setback, or one big disaster (major illness, house fire, natural disaster, etc.) away from going hungry.

And it’s not just resources and access to food. Lack of skills for preparing or storing fresh ingredients often leads to waste as fresh ingredients go uneaten until they rot. Without the skills to store and prepare fresh food, many people rely on prepackaged and processed junk to get their calories. People end up filling up on empty calories because they’re easier to store and prepare.

The upside of a documentary – quick overview – is also the downside. Documentaries don’t go deep, and they don’t cite their sources. Hunger in America doesn’t dig deep. It provides basic information to clear up misconceptions and encourage donating and volunteering. If that’s what you’re looking for, check it out. It’s well made and short enough to show in a classroom or small group.

Documentary Film Review: The Drop Box

Back in 2015 I saw a lot of social media buzz about a film called The Drop Box. People were sharing the trailer, and I watched it several times. It sat in my Amazon Prime wish list for about two years, but they never made it available. This month we’ve been doing the free trial of Netflix. I know what you’re thinking. Yes, we were the last household in America without Netflix. And when the free trial is over we’ll go back to being the only household without it. I just won’t pay for another streaming service, and most of what I’m missing on Prime isn’t on Netflix either. The Drop Box was an exception. Thanks to Netflix, I finally got to cross it off my list.

The Drop Box is a documentary telling the story of Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak, his family, and their unique ministry of providing a safe box where unwanted babies can be abandoned safely. South Korea has a problem with infant abandonment. The culture’s unforgiving and life-altering stance on unwed pregnancy means that unmarried women’s lives are virtually over when their pregnancies are discovered. Parents disown pregnant teens, schools kick them out, and they have no options. So it is not uncommon for these girls to hide their pregnancies (receiving no prenatal care), and abandon the babies soon after birth. Other mothers abandon babies because they are born with special needs, and the parents have no resources to care for them. In 2013 there were 203 abandoned babies found on the streets of Seoul alone.

This seems shocking, even barbaric. But it’s not just a Korean problem. Here in the United States, hundreds of babies are abandoned every year at churches, fire stations, and hospitals. Many of the abandoned infants in America are born addicted to drugs.

The Lees’ journey to becoming an infant drop site started with the birth of their son, Eun-Man. Eun-Man was born with serious physical and mental disabilities. Through their experiences raising him, Pastor and Mrs. Lee learned in a deep and personal way the value of each and every life. When, a few years later, a little girl with Down’s Syndrome was left on the doorstep of their church, they started thinking about how to save more abandoned children.

Today, they have the drop box. It’s simply a box built into the side of the church. When a mother wishes to abandon her newborn, she opens the door and places the baby into the heated box. This triggers a doorbell in the church, which is also the Lees’ home, and they rush to collect their new visitor. The police are called, and the baby is cared for and prayed for until the police arrive to place him or her in the foster system.

Sometimes the Lees end up taking in the children themselves. With their staff and volunteers, they are currently raising 15 children, all of whom have some level of physical and/or mental disability. Their work is physically and emotionally demanding, expensive, and often heartbreaking. But they keep going every day because they passionately believe in the value of each tiny life.

As I mentioned, The Drop Box is available on Netflix. You can also get information, or donate to the Lees’ work on the film’s website. There is no doubt that orphan care is close to the heart of God. James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The Lees’ work is inspiring – sad and beautiful.

Have you seen The Drop Box? What did you think of it? What additional ways can we get involved in caring for the “orphans and widows” of our world?

Documentary Film Review – The Line: Poverty in America

I’ve been laid up for the last two weeks since a tumble on the ice messed up my right knee. I’m not in much pain, but it’s my driving leg, so I’ve been out of work and spending a lot of time on the couch with my leg elevated. It has given me lots of time to read, watch movies, fold laundry, and do other sedentary tasks like prepping my Christmas cards. While I’m eager to get back to work, I’ve managed to enjoy myself as well.

One of the movies I finally got around to is The Line: Poverty in America. It’s a short documentary about the working poor in America, made by a non-profit called Sojourners. It’s only 45 minutes long, and is available on Amazon Prime and YouTube for free. The film defines the poverty line as less than $25,000/year for a family of four, and quotes the U.S. Census Bureau in claiming that “1 in 4 young children live in poverty… in the richest nation on earth.”

The point of the film is to reveal the struggles that cause people to become poor or which keep them from rising above the poverty line. They site trauma and violence that make people feel hopeless and disenfranchised. Changes in the economy, health, and the physical environment (eg: natural disasters) are also examined. The filmmakers argue that the working poor are so busy just trying to survive that they don’t have the resources to try and improve themselves and their situation.

An overarching theme of this short film is that hope is the only thing that keeps people trying. I believe this. I believe in hope, and that a life without hope isn’t going anywhere good. But what this movie really fails to address is what can be done to rectify the situation. For someone already concerned about poverty in America, there isn’t much to gain from watching this. When I finished the movie, I tried to figure out who they made it for, and where it could be beneficial. I decided that this would be useful for helping high school and college kids understand that poverty is about a lot more than laziness and drug abuse. It would be useful in opening young eyes and starting some good discussions, and its short length and free availability make it a good fit for a class as well.

My overall impression is that this is a well-made short documentary about the working poor in America. If you are looking for something like that, The Line is very accessible.

Have you seen The Line? What did you think?

Documentary Film Review: Living on One Dollar

Living on $1

Tonight I watched a documentary called Living on One Dollar. (Available to watch free on YouTube) The film was a student project featuring four American college students who spend 8 weeks in a poor rural village in Guatemala. During their eight week stay, the guys live on $1 per person per day while growing a crop of radishes. They use only what they had or could buy, and they divide up their summer’s worth of money in a random fashion to simulate the unpredictable finances of the poor, many of whom are day laborers, working when they can and suffering when they can’t.

On the downside, the film’s production values are far from perfect, especially in regards to sound. The film is just one hour long, and there are areas that could have been greatly expanded to make it feature-length. But keep in mind that it’s a student project, and as such it is actually very well done. My only small problem with the project itself is that the guys did not seem very prepared; they lacked knowledge about the agricultural practices they wanted to try. I know that in the developing world you can’t just google how to do something (although cell phones and internet are becoming more and more prevalent around the world), but the locals would have had information and experience that was passed down to them from their parents and a lifetime of experience in the local environment and economy. These Americans did not have that, and they could have used the internet to better simulate that familiarity.

But those are small details. Over all I thought the film was very well done. These guys really got their hands dirty and experienced life in rural Guatemala in a fairly realistic way. They scrimp and ration, go hungry, and come to appreciate the small things, like having enough to include bananas in their diet. They learn some valuable tricks from friendly locals, like how to increase their caloric intake by adding lard to their rice and beans. They attempt to take out a loan from a traditional bank and fail, using that as an opportunity to talk about the role of community support and microfinance through Grameen Bank.

About two or three weeks into their stay, a local boy invites them to come and visit his school. Here we see the guys absolutely light up as they talk, laugh, and play with the local kids. But back at their house in the village, it leads to a hard discussion about why some of the kids don’t go to school. One local boy who befriends them is Chino, a 12-year-old whose family cannot afford to send him to school and whose labor is needed to support his family. In many parts of the world, children are only educated if their family can afford the required school fees, supplies, and sometimes uniforms. Families often have to choose which of their kids to educate, if they can afford to send any. This lack of educational opportunity stunts economic development in families, communities, and nations.

I risk giving away too much, so I’ll stop here. But do see this movie. It’s only an hour long, it’s free to watch on YouTube, and it’s a great story of more than poverty and problems; it’s about people, community, and opportunity.

Have you seen Living on One Dollar? Share your thoughts in the comments!