Finance conversations during the first weekend of the Sundance Film Festival tend to center around distribution deals and the price of heeled boots, so discussions about economic motivators to end domestic poverty are particularly refreshing. The premiere of the documentary To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America about the first women recipients of Grameen America bank's microloans was notable not just for its stories about low-income Queens residents but for the larger themes it's bringing to Park City conversations this week.
Before the screening introduced by producer/director/cinematographer Gayle Ferraro (whose first film Sixteen Decisions followed the story of a borrower in Bangladesh, where the bank first began operating in 1976), founder Dr. Muhammad Yunus spoke about inspiring business ingenuity in potential entrepreneurs. Along with two other Sundance film selection subjects, Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada (of Waiting for Superman) and environmentalist Lester Brown (Climate Refugees), the Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist said he is eager for a time when people don't have to consider taking work that's either in pursuit of profit-making or social aims only.
His bank has managed to focus on the latter while expanding, but its introduction to the United States hasn't been a seamless one. A young Grameen employee who advises groups of five borrowers in Jackson Heights -- and whose simultaneous patience and frustration are the focus of much of the film -- finds that her clients are less likely to be engaged with weekly group meetings than their Bangladeshi counterparts. Her expression of joking concern when she reads from a bank manual about livestock trading value (when the women she's working with primarily work in clothing and hair extension sale) provides calm as the bank struggles to earn $6 million to set up a legal banking structure in the States, largely through Yunus' nearly-constant speaking engagements.
In moderating the "Can't Be Done" pre-film discussion, Skoll Foundation CEO Sally Osberg said that the film demonstrates the need for social businesses to allow adaptations and be flexible in bringing their community programs to new locations. Direct transfer of methodology and practices isn't realistic if growing organizations are to succeed, she said.
It's a lesson that is deftly presented in director Gerraro's hands. Even after spending months capturing borrowers' experiences and hardships in Grameen's original country, it took her nearly two years and 400 hours of shooting Yunus' outreach efforts to convince him to allow the bank's expansion to be made into a feature film. His ultimate acceptance, along with grants from the Skoll Foundation and Sundance and news of the crash of the global finance system, allowed her to do so. The result of her perseverance -- especially in trying to finance an independent film -- is a thought-provoking look at Grameen America's efforts to help thousands of women find financial stability for themselves and their families, and entrepreneurial mothers aren't the only ones who stand to gain.