Phnom Penh street vendor Moa Bora counts out the earnings from his day selling mam, fermented papaya, which he sells from his bicycle.
Eighty thousand riel ($20) minus his expenses leaves him with 5,000 riels a day. “Even if I work 10 years I won’t be able to afford a four-by-four tire,” he reflects in the seven-minute film Minister for Papaya.
“Someday I would like to sell my products on a cart with windows … I would like to recruit five or six boys and give them costumes from the French Protectorate period: some shorts, a white shirt with braces…”
Mam cook, salesman, innovator and bon vivant, Bora is the first subject in the new global film project One Dollar. Launched by the Bophana Centre last month, the web-based documentary project wants to lend a different focus to the oft-quoted extreme poverty indicator of one dollar a day.
This time it will be voices of the developing world, doing the talking, says production manager Damien Sueur.
Calling out to emerging filmmakers and students in developing countries across the world, the project wants video portraits of real characters living on the below-poverty line income of $1 a day. Like the Minister for Papaya pilot documentary by local filmmaker Roeun Narith, the film needs to show the balance between home life and work, what the subjects can afford on so little and – crucially – their desire for change. The project was initiated by the film director Rithy Panh, whom Sueur, a 27-year-old Frenchman, met while working for a production company in Paris.
“He wanted me to work on people working on one dollar a day and [manage] a web documentary on it.”
At the same time, in Europe, the looming Greek financial crisis sparked questions about the tangible relationship between money and work.
“We were hearing about speculation and million dollar deficits … We wanted to come back to [the idea of] the concrete value of one dollar. What kind of work does one have to do to get one dollar a day?”
The subject of everyday hardship needed to be told with a sense of hope rather than futility – and to Westerners, says Seur.
In Cambodia, 22.8 per cent of the population live on $1 or less a day, according to figures from 2008.
Cambodia’s rising generation of documentary filmmakers may mean the seven-minute-long documentary challenge will pique the interest of students and “media activists” in the country, he adds.
“The young generation … is passionate about audiovisual, always creating things for YouTube, with smartphones, new media. They know a bit about film editing [too].”
One filmmaker who is already planning her short film is 23-year-old Ngoeum Phally. A media and communications graduate working at Bophana, Phally will film her One Dollar tale about a young temple guide in Siem Reap.
Among the questions she’ll ask her subject is his thoughts on being poor in Cambodia.
“These types of kids are very active and they get used to talking to adults – to persuade 29,000 foreigners to buy things. I think they’re more open to ideas than other kids.
“It’s important for us to show the problems don’t happen just with adults and older people but with children as well. Why don’t we give them a voice too?”
On its interactive website, One Dollar includes a map, where filmmakers in Africa can click to find partner organisations in their country, that may be able to help with equipment loans or technical advice.
Next year promises more digital democratising: a One Dollar app for tablets and smartphones. The technology is out of the reach of many of those whose stories are being told but within the grasp of the people who can do something about it.
Submissions for One Dollar are due June 30. For more information see www.onedollar.bophana.org/project