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Making a Film to Give People Hope

Justin de Leon with children in the PhilippinesJustin de Leon with children in the Philippines Just recently, Treasures of Wonderment had the opportunity to converse with filmmaker and Director Justin de Leon; who is, along with assistance from Noel Chacha, embarking on a full length documentary film. Being a student of poverty and conflict, Justin de Leon constantly asks himself: What can I do to positively affect the lives of those in need? How best can I be an agent of change?

Looking for ways to impact those around the world while living here in the United States has been a challenge for Justin who believes that he is not the only one wrestling with the same question. The topic of charitable giving and foreign aid to Africa has long raised controversy, pitting skeptics against idealists and pairing rock stars with politicians, creating images both true and inaccurate. The chief question that will underscore this film will be how we here in the US most effectively help improve the lives of those in Africa.  The film will also shine a light on the misperceptions of charitable giving and foreign aid while offering people hope and exploring pathways for success.

Justin de Leon working with street kids in India.Justin de Leon working with street kids in India.Sitting down with Justin de Leon is quite an experience.  You are impressed with his energy and strength and his great passion for life.  Sharing his thoughts, he explains “a friend of mine once said that if we were walking down the street and saw a little boy drowning in a pool, we would not hesitate for a moment to jump in and save the boy with little regard for the type of shoes or watch we might be wearing.  We would do it because it was the right thing to do, not because we were trying to be a hero or live a noble life. Great things are happening despite what we hear and see on television.  A danger, in any environment filled with deadlines and devices that keep our minds occupied, is that the concept of charity can begin to segment and separate itself from our everyday being.  Charity can become an event that is performed only at food kitchens, churches, and 5k’s on the weekends.  Not to discredit these meaningful efforts, but by defining charity as big events then performing acts of charity within every day life becomes more and more daunting and impractical.  Within this context, feelings of hopeless and helplessness can set in; which ultimately leads to inaction and indifference.

“What can we do? …Justin looks away and gestures with his hands, How do we end world hunger? How do we put a stop to the injustices that have plagued the African continent, I suggest that there are two ways to start.

The first step would be to reframe how we view these issues.  If poverty, hunger, and war are seen as merely statistics then the true nature of these issues can be easily lost.  When a Kenyan mother is put in a position to have to choose between providing shelter or providing food for her son she doesn’t think to herself that her child must be the one of the twelve million children who die before the age of five because of hunger related issues every year (more than the total number of deaths each year of World War II).  Hunger is having to tell your emaciated son who just asked for a small bit of food that you have nothing to feed him.  War is a Sudanese father who dreams at night, away from the safety and comfort of his own home, what type of woman his eight year old daughter would have been if she wasn’t raped and killed by men dressed in military clothing.  Hunger is helplessness, poverty is uncertainty, and war is sorrow.  By reframing these issues the true nature of these injustices speak to us in more tangible ways.

Justin de Leon working with homeless families in Florida.Justin de Leon working with homeless families in Florida.The second step would be to seek out a better understanding about the current factors that are causing these injustices.  When we start to understand that extreme poverty, starvation and famine, and the displacement of millions are man-made phenomena then we also start to understand how they can be solved.  For example, Ethiopia by 1985 saw 300,000 people die because of a horrific drought that plagued the entire region.  Upon further examination, it’s revealed that because of Ethiopia’s size (twice the size of Texas) only 30% of the country’s farmland was affected, the rest of the country was producing along at the same abundant rate as before the drought.  Of greater impact was the fact that Ethiopia was warring against Somalia since 1978.

Noel Chacha on the left page and Justin de Leon with Chris Gates on the right.Noel Chacha on the left page and Justin de Leon with Chris Gates on the right.Trying to quell separatist uprisings from a 1974 government overthrow, Ethiopia imported over $2 billion of Soviet weapons causing the US to take notice.  The US immediately armed the Somali neighbors and a protracted conflict ensued.  In 1985, nearly one million peasants were relocated due to the conflict while 300,000 able bodied men (a majority of whom were farmers) were conscripted to join the Ethiopian army. Of the thirty one countries that were affected by the drought, only five countries experienced famine; to no surprise, all the occurrences of famine were found in countries at war.  For another example, let’s examine the assertion that there are just too many people, too many mouths to feed.  It seems to make sense to link growing world population with the static nature of world food resources.  This caused a Cornell University sociologist team to examine the link between population growth and food consumption in nearly one-hundred developing countries.  What they found was that there was no evidence that population growth causes hunger; rather, they found that hunger was most pronounced in the countries where the wealth disparity was the greatest.  This team revealed that its not population but poverty and inequality that cause hunger; again, not a natural phenomenon but a man-made occurrence.

We asked Justin de Leon how the film project would present this. Justin responded that their intention is to take an honest, candid look at the injustices in the African continent.  And in this search for truth, the filmmakers have assembled a group of amazing individuals who have dedicated their lives to finding answers to questions about hunger, poverty, justice, and happiness.  Some of the individuals who will share their experiences in the film are NYU Senior and soon-to-be-graduate Chris Gates, who while in high school witnessed an injustice and knew he had to do something about it.  By the time he was 19 he opened up an orphanage in Tanzania for female children victimized by rape.

Justin de Leon working with children in a Filipino slum.Justin de Leon working with children in a Filipino slum.Moving to the region this month after his graduation, Gates now cares for over forty girls and hopes to expand significantly over the next few years. Another, is Right Livelihood Award winner and world renown ecologist and social justice advocate Vandana Shiva who has been fighting for the rights of marginalized people for decades and has written dozens of papers, given hundreds of talks, and supported countless movements and initiatives to address extreme poverty and injustice throughout the world.  Another featured individual is Berkeley professor and one of the foremost authorities on the study of the psychology of compassion Dacher Keltner.  In his most recent work, he sets out to prove that human nature is good and what he finds is that human beings are not only called to be compassionate, but are also genetically structured to perform acts of compassion.  When we do so, we are nourishing that basic human need and live a more meaningful life.

Noel Chacha in the blue and Chris Gates in the dark blue.Noel Chacha in the blue and Chris Gates in the dark blue.Additionally, psychologist Michael Penn who has done extensive studies on the conditions of hope and hopelessness; African inspired band Toubab Krewe who are throwing a benefit concert for African issues; economist Stephen O’Connell; Pastor Jon Thomas who is involved in international missionary work; Tanzanian born African trade specialist Richard Msomba; Executive Director of the Tahirih Justice Center Layli Miller who works on behalf of families seeking refuge from gender based violence; Patrick Bergin, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation who is intimately involved in issues of philanthropic giving; consumption specialist Michael Maniates; CEO Peter Greer of Hope International, a microfinancing non-profit have all agreed to be interviewed for the project.

Justin de Leon with friendsJustin de Leon with friendsDe Leon hopes that the audience through a deeper understanding of structural injustices, human happiness, and potential pathways of solution along with witnessing individual inspiring stories of action and determination will be encouraged and emboldened to embark on their own journey for justice. Assessing what talents we have and how we can use them for the betterment of the peoples of the world is a challenge that we are all called to face.  The purpose of this film is to give people hope and attempt to dispel the ever-present feelings of hopelessness that one may feel when encountering such large global issues. He hopes to spur an honest dialogue about the benefits, meanings, and efficacy of charity and foreign aid.

Justin de Leon and Noel Chacha’s website:

If you wish to make a contribution toward the production of this film, please click here.

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