Like my own good intentions to attend several screenings at the Human Rights Film Festival in New York this year, but only really making it to one, the film Good Fortune is about good intentions that are don't quite come to fruition. This documentary painfully illustrates the lack of voice aid organizations give to the very communities they are there to assist. For the most part it seems as though these organizations mean well, but of course that's not enough.
If anyone out there is like me, you give monthly to several not for profits claiming to make a different in some far off land with the help of your pocket book. And if you're like me, you always wonder how much of that monthly contribution goes directly to those who need it and in way that is sustainably helpful. Do those funds get tied up in the complications of bureaucracy? From what this films says, politics, red tape and lack of trust and communication gets in the way.
One of the filmmakers Landon Van Soest spent a year shooting in Kenya and around 6 years total working on the production. Good Fortune follows two situations and eloquently moves between each character's story. One is about a man named Jackson. Jackson is a country farmer who's land, home and animals are literally washed away and killed by a wealthy western rice farmer. Dominion Farms builds a dam to control its massive rice crops and in the process floods other local's property. The Dominion Group founder, Calvin Burgess tells the filmmakers that the people of this countryside can now turn to fishing as a livelihood, so the flooding he's created is actually a big plus. The American thinks (or puts up a front that he does) he's helping pull the surrounding community out of poverty by building his farms in Kenya, but instead is destroying the people and it's environment.Another story takes place in Africa's largest slum, Kibera. A woman named Silva, who works as a midwife, is displaced along with the rest of the area's residents. Their make-shift homes and open market are completely destroyed due to a United Nation's intentions to upgrade the impoverished area. The government moves them out by force, there are riots, guns, death and bulldozers - all in the name of development and progress. Silva says she knows it isn't the United Nations so much as it is the Kenyan government. Apparently the government stipulates foreign aid go through them first. The people in Kibera have had many years of hope and disappointment. Their tin shacks are surrounded by apartment complexes from various previous efforts no one has benefited from due to government corruption. Residents believe the U.N. doesn't listen to their concerns and the Kenyan politicians are full of false promises and ulterior motives. After seeing this documentary, you can't blame them.
The two situations that Jackson and Silva's community finds themselves in are complicated and there are no easy answers, as the speakers and filmmakers following the screening admit. There are a lot of organizations over there, but as one of the panelists said, development is about human freedom and many of these aid groups aren't listening. The problems there are overwhelming and human dignity is getting lost in the mess.
In the post screening discussion there was a lot of talk about the importance of accountability and taking a look at what is working and what isn't. The hopeful part of this is that the definition of aid is gradually changing. The idea of communicating directly with those who need aid and finding out what would help them as opposed to what organizations think an individual or community needs is essential to success. This isn't supposed to be charity, this should be a cooperative relationship. The unfortunate part of the story is that is it a very slow change and in the meantime there are many unfathomable human rights and environmental violations that go on without having to answer to anyone.
I would have liked to hear more from the filmmakers Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine, but the moderator focused more on the representative from The Fledgling Fund (the film was presented in association with The Fledgling Fund and IFP) and an associate professor from Columbia University, who were important to the discussion but being an editor I could have used some more film talk.
President Obama is in the midst of re-writing the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and that could make a huge difference amongst all the groups that have free reign in these countries. Nevertheless that's still not enough. I think that's why we need to see films like this that take you there and make it personal. Good Fortune is disheartening but at the same time to you get to witness the strength of the human spirit. As Jackson says (paraphrasing), ...this is war, and if I die, this will be my son's war. We will not give up...
Check out Landon Von Soest and Jeremy Levine's production company, Transient Pictures for more information and a beautiful 10 minute trailer.