Tom Nazario is the founder and president of The Forgotten International, a nonprofit organization that does poverty alleviation work in several parts of the world, as well as an attorney, child advocate, and law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. His expertise in children's rights has led him all over the world documenting human rights violations involving women and children, as well as working with inner-city kids in the San Francisco Bay area for over thirty-five years. Nazario’s expertise lies in the area of Children’s Rights as well as issues related to global poverty.
In 2017, Nazario produced and directed "Living on a Dollar a Day" - Festigious Best Documentary winner (September 2017).
This documentary is based on the making of the award-winning book, Living on a Dollar a Day. It follows the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Renée C. Byer as she explores the personal experiences of women, children, and families who live in extreme poverty in ten countries around the world. Her acclaimed images, along with the book’s author, Professor Tom Nazario’s knowledge of the causes and effects of poverty, as well as other experts in their respective fields, help tell the stories of the daily lives of the poor.
The film also highlights the efforts of everyday heroes around the world who work hard to help bring hope to some of those in the greatest need. This film is a must see for everyone who cares about global issues. Bay Area videographer George Rosenfeld accompanied Byer to four continents to capture the stories, the film was edited by Los Angeles-based four-time Emmy Award-winning video editor, Karlo Gharabegian.
It captures the work the extreme poor do in order to simply survive and speaks to their often-unrealized hopes and dreams. It brings into focus the daily struggles of one-sixth of the world’s people who are often forgotten and live on less than a dollar a day.
In the following interview, Nazario takes us behind the scenes of this thought provoking project, and shares his thoughts about storytelling and humanity.
Tom, tell us about your background. When and how did you become involved with poverty alleviation work? What made you passionate about it?
I grew up in NYC, an area called Spanish Harlem. At the time I was surrounded by poor people but didn’t know it because I was just a kid. I had never seen rich people, so I could not make any kind of comparison. Much later when I grew up and attended college and traveled, I realized that in the U.S., there were people with a great amount of wealth and there were people with almost nothing. This side of reality always troubled me for I knew that there was much unfairness associated with the acquisition of wealth, while the effects of poverty are almost always devastating. Also, at that time I began to realize that we were spending far too much time, in the media and elsewhere, highlighting the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful, but not bringing enough attention to the bulk of the world’s population, those who have so little and often suffer so much. Hence, law, the defense of human rights, the plight of children, and poverty alleviation, have become part of my life’s work.
Can you talk about your work with The Forgotten International, the wonderful organization you founded, and its mission?
The Forgotten International is a foundation I put together some ten years ago. Many friends have helped me since, particularly those who have realized that they have far more than they need and wish to share their good fortune with others; not necessarily to simply do good, but also to bring some meaning to their lives. Our mission is simple—to lift as many women and children out of poverty as we can as they are among the most vulnerable in any society. Most of our work is done abroad for we can get much more done with our limited resources in the developing world, and the truth is, that all human lives are of equal worth to us.
The documentary Living on a Dollar a Day is based on the making of the award-winning book you published, by the same name. It follows the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Renee C.Byer, as she explores the personal experiences of women, children, and families who live in extreme poverty in many different countries. The movie recently won BEST DOCUMENTARY at Festigious! Congratulations! Let's roll back to the beginning.... How did you become familiar with the work of Renee C.Byer, when did this collaboration start, and why did you decide to make this film?
When I decided to write a book about the world’s poor, I wanted to tell their stories in both words and pictures. When I was a child, I read very poorly, so I always loved picture books, and I grew to believe that pictures do, in fact, say a thousand words. Renée C. Byer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, responded to our call for a photographer who could travel to several countries to capture the stories of the world’s poor. Renée is, indeed, a great photojournalist. Her greatness lies within her skills, tenacity, and imagination. Once I realized that, I knew she was perfect for our project, and she clearly had a history of telling important stories with her camera. It was because of her that we created an award-winning book and a pretty good documentary. We owe her much.
Photo: Renée C. Byer
Let's talk about the documentary filmmaking process. You shot the film in so many different locations across four continents: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Peru and more. What were some of the challenges you faced during this international production?
Travelling to 10 countries on four continents was a big job. We had to find guides, translators, arrange for transportation, housing, and of course, equipment. Renée also has a full-time job at the Sacramento Bee, and they were supportive in giving her the time off to travel. Gathering all the stories took almost two years, most of which is not captured in the documentary. Nevertheless, in editing what we shot, I tried to focus on how the poor made enough money to survive each day within different environments and with different challenges. It helps, I believe, informing most of us about the rest of the world and those who live there.
What were some of the most memorable moments for you in the process of filming Living on a Dollar a Day?
There were many memorable moments, but I guess what stood out the most was the stories of the people we were able to help at least in a small way before we left. The child being starved on purpose, the blind girl begging on the street, the family searching through recyclables to live another day, and the children living on the electronic waste dumpsite who would likely die if they continued to live in such toxic environment. All of these people I will never forget.
Who are the key crew members who helped you bring your cinematic vision to life? How did videographer George Rosenfeld come on board? Can you tell us about your collaboration with four-time Emmy award winner, Karlo Gharabegian (the editor)?
Our videographer, George Rosenfeld, is a longtime friend. I first worked with him at an event with the Dalai Lama. I think in making this film, we changed his life for he saw things and met people that he would otherwise never have met. Our editor, Karlo Gharabegian, was a gift from God, a friend of a friend who worked tirelessly evenings and weekends on our project around his day job. He felt inspired to help this project because he found it meaningful. He is simply a great guy.
Were you influenced by other documentary or narrative filmmakers? If so, who would you say influenced your cinematic style?
I have always loved films, and I always loved learning through documentaries. This, however, was my first shot at film making, and I just tried to tell a story the best way I could. The hardest part was trying to decide what stories to tell when there were so many to choose from.
If you could make any changes to the film right now, what would they be?
I think the only thing I would like to add at this point is maybe a story or two that we captured out of Eastern Europe. The reason is that when most people think of the poor, they think of people of color, but the truth is that there are an extraordinary number of white poor people in this world, not only in Eastern Europe, where we collected stories for our book, but also here in the U. S.
How long did it take from the minute you decided to make the movie up to the first screening?
From the start of the making of the book, which of course is what the movie is based on, to the first screening, it took almost five years, so, quite a while. It was certainly a labor of love, and as we continue to receive some recognition, hopefully more and more people will see the film. It has certainly been worth it.
What is the most important lesson you've learned from this process? What is your biggest takeaway?
I guess my biggest takeaway is the fact that there is so much to do to help those in need around the world and that it’s easy to be overwhelmed, not only with the size and scope of the world’s poor, but also with all the other problems that we are facing today. None of this, however, should paralyze us. We all need to do a little, and the truth is that even helping one person, one school, or one village is so worthwhile in the larger scheme of things. If everyone did a little bit of good every day, the world would change for better.
Photo: Renée C. Byer
How do you feel about the film's success so far? How was it received?
As of today, the film has received 11 awards which we are grateful for. We have still quite a few festivals to hear from, but in the long term, the true success of the film will depend on the number of people who see it and are moved to make the world a better place.
Did you keep in touch with any of the film's subjects?
I wish we were still in contact with all of the people and families we feature in the film and those profiled in the book. We have only been able to keep in touch with maybe a dozen. The truth is that some people are probably no longer alive; poverty kills more people on this planet than anything else. Nevertheless, those we do keep in touch with are doing well, and hopefully will continue to thrive.
Alongside your work with the Forgotten International and your work at USF School of Law, you're also the host of the Dalai Lama when His Holiness visits California. How did you first meet him, and what is it like to be in his presence? Can you tell us about your special relationship with him?
I am a lawyer and have been a law professor for over 30 years. These days I only teach part time for my work at my foundation keeps me quite busy. Also true is that I have been lucky enough to befriend the Dalai Lama, and have helped from time to time when he has visited California. We met in 1999 when I was asked to write a report on the treatment of the Tibetan children by the Chinese government. In doing so, I spent some time with him, and I have learned much from him over the years; not only through conversations, but also from seeing how he treats all those around him. He is truly kind and demonstrates compassion in all that he does.
What's next for you?
I’m presently working on a screen play which has the working title of “A Meaningful Life”. It’s about some transitions or transformations that some of us go through as we grow and learn about what’s important in life. The film, if it ever gets made, carries an important message, but for now it’s still on the drawing board.
Is there anything you wish to add?
In closing, I always say, if there’s anyone out there who maybe reading this and willing to help me with my work, please contact me, for as we all know, no one can get much done alone. Thank you for caring.
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