Culture  And when they leave?

Documentary presents the varied consequences of charity mission

In the isolated community of Los Pereyra in northern Argentina, a powerful story emerges from the contradictory nature of charity work in poor communities. In his debut film A Place Called Los Pereyra, Andrés Livov presents a hopeful yet chilling documentary centred on the village’s school children as they await for the anticipated arrival of their “Godmothers.” Regarded with mystical reverence, the so-called Godmothers are young women from urban private schools that sponsor annual week-long charity missions for poor rural villages, providing supplies, education, and perhaps the villagers’ realization of their own poverty.

The venture began five years ago when Livov first came up with the idea of telling a story about the sponsoring of schools and communities, a common practice in his native country of Argentina. Lacking adequate funding – an all too common problem for independent filmmakers – Livov decided to go through with filming the project and deal with financial issues later. “Later” became three years of scrambling for sponsors and donations so the film could finally be completed.

The film turned out quite differently from what Livov had originally expected, as he struggled to capture the complexity of the charity issue from the perspective of those being helped. Capturing both sides of these young women’s work, the film rips the viewer from any commonly-held beliefs about the absolute good of charity efforts. On the one hand, the girls help by encouraging the children to learn, providing supplies for schools and food for families, yet they also create a cycle of dependence which only reinforces the barriers between the privileged and the poor.

As producer Hugh Gibson wrote in an email, he hopes the documentary gets people to “consider the topic of charity and the notion of inherent colonialism.” Despite their good intentions, the privileged status of the Godmothers contrasts markedly with the community of Los Pereyras. The film documents the community’s harsh realization of their own isolation and poverty compared to the wealth of the seemingly mythic land from which these Godmothers hail.

The community comes to rely on their annual visitors in order to sustain them throughout the year, granting the women an elevated status for the gifts they bring and the fact that they are from the city. In subtly provocative ways, the film forces the viewer to ask oneself compelling questions about the consequences of such well-intended actions.

When it was screened for the first time at the Montreal RIDM Festival in November of 2009, Livov realized that the story he had captured was not unique to the remote Argentinean community thousands of miles away. “I chose Los Pereyra because it was so isolated, but while screening the film in different parts of the world I came to learn that sponsoring is more of a universal thing,” he told The Daily in an interview. “Here in Canada, many schools also send their students to Africa, Costa Rica, Nicaragua… I realized it was more of a universal story, a local story with universal repercussions.”

Of course, during the time Livov and his crew spent filming in Los Pereyra, the Godmothers weren’t the only interruption into the quiet lives of the community members. “There’s no such thing as a harmless camera, but we tried to work in a way so that they would get used to me, the camera, sound crew,” explained Livov. “But of course I fall into the same trap as the girls, because I go and I make this film and I also affect the people, and then I leave and also never go back.”

The producer of the documentary, Hugh Gibson has seen a mixed range of emotions in reaction to the story, from laughter and tears to complete outrage. The film has upset some people by shattering the foundation of the strongly held belief that charity work is a pure and noble act. “Enormous amounts of foreign aid are committed to developing nations, vast resources are put in motion, and Canada is one of the most charitable nations,” said Gibson. “It’s uncomfortable to question the effectiveness of that charity, or the existing mechanisms or methodology, yet it’s an extremely important global topic to address.”

A Place Called Los Pereyra screens at Cinéma Parallèle, 3536 St. Laurent, March 11 to 17, 5 p.m. $8.50 for students with I.D.