“What makes your heart break? What makes you come alive?”
Ramapo College students were asked to consider these questions after viewing the documentary “Give A Damn?” last Thursday night in Friends Hall.
“Give A Damn?” follows three friends, Dan Parris, Rob Lehr and David Peterka, as they travel to Africa and confront the extreme poverty found there and elsewhere in the world.
Hosted by the College Programming Board (CPB), the event featured a screening of the feature-length documentary and a subsequent question and answer session with the three filmmakers.
CPB had first heard about the documentary when it was showcased at a National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) conference.
“We really enjoyed their quick 10 minute presentation, and we all agreed we wanted to experience the entire thing,” CPB president Emily Egner explained. “We also thought it would be great opportunity for students at Ramapo, not only for CEC, but just to open their minds to real world problems Americans don’t think about every day.”
The genesis for this film dates all the way back to 2005, when Parris traveled with a church group to Kibera, the Nairobi, Kenyan slum that is the second largest in all of Africa, where the average person lives on $1.25 a day. Wanting to make a film about what he’d seen, Parris invited his friends Lehr and Peterka to join him on a trip across Africa to learn more about poverty and some of its potential solutions.
Unfortunately, the film and its subjects hit a few stumbling blocks along the way. After two years and 36 fundraisers, the trio still didn’t have enough money to finance their trip.
“We talked to people about it and they were like, ‘Well, we can’t give you any money to make the movie, but when you make the movie come back, let’s see how it goes, and then we’ll give you some money.’ And we’re like, ‘I don’t think you understand how this works,'” Lehr explained.
Instead of giving up, Parris, Lehr and Peterka decided to cut their expenditures by hitchhiking across the United States and began their voyage to Africa in July of 2009. Not only did this save them money, but it also allowed them to experience poverty in the United States and later across Europe and Africa.
Despite vowing to live on $1.25 a day, like those in Kibera, the travelers were surprised to learn that it was actually difficult to recreate that level of poverty while in the U.S.
As a friend in the film explained, “You’re so blessed you can’t even recreate this situation.”
Although the filmmakers intended to make the film both funny and inspirational, their journey took a decidedly tragic turn when Parris and Lehr survived a deadly plane crash in Africa. Peterka and his brother Tim continued traveling and documenting the continent while Lehr and Parris returned home to deal with PTSD and other crash-related complications.
Nonetheless, all three filmmakers described their experience as transformative and positive.
“I didn’t care about any of this crap before I started filming the movie,” Lehr said during the question and answer session. “I just didn’t really think it was my responsibility. And afterwards I found out that I can make a difference in a small way.”
Peterka hopes that the film and other awareness movements will help in the fight to eradicate extreme poverty.
“One thing that I’m just really curious about… is if poverty and the eradication of poverty will be something that we are known for in our generation. In the last 30 years, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half, so it’s very realistic and possible for extreme poverty to be eradicated in our world,” Peterka explained.
But Parris understands that, while most young Americans have good intentions, many don’t know how to get involved.
“I think that a lot people go through different stages of getting involved. They may go through that denial stage; they don’t know if something’s going on. Then they go through the angry activist stage when they make everybody feel bad about everything they do, or the apathetic stage,” he said.
“I only have so much time, so much money, so many skills, that I should ask myself first, what really breaks my heart–what is the specific issue that reaches me? And then, what makes me come alive–what do I just love doing? And figure out a way to put those things together,” Parris said.
That message seemed to resonate with the screening’s attendees.
“I knew I always wanted to make a difference, but I feel like their experience gave me hope [that] I can do it,” freshman Cynthia Martinez said after the event. “I obviously shed a few tears here and there during the movie. But I think it really affected me in a way and it inspired me and I’m really glad I came.”
Sophomore Grace Pasquali was particularly moved by the film’s call to action.
“You wish you were there helping them at the same time instead of just sitting here watching other people do it,” Pasquali said.
Parris, Lehr and Peterka have high hopes for the film beyond college campus screenings and plan to distribute it through outlets like Netflix. Mostly, however, the three have spent their post-trip time following the advice of humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina. Rusesabagina, whose experience as a hotel manager during the Rwandan genocide became the basis for the film “Hotel Rwanda,” gave the filmmakers simple instructions: “Go, see, learn, come back, teach others.”