To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America -- Film Review



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PARK CITY -- It might be rubbing salt in a wound, but many fest auds will wish they could force every failed banker and credit-default-swapper in America to sit down with "To Catch A Dollar," in which a former professor from Bangladesh shows how to lend money responsibly.

Production values may not be best suited for the big screen, but the film's hot-button topic and timely, inspiring social messages will ensure a positive reaction from viewers who see it on cable or disc.

The doc finds the Grameen Bank, a mammoth microfinance effort launched in 1976 by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, as it opens its first American branch. The site is Jackson Heights, Queens, where Grameen targets poor immigrants who haven't enrolled in welfare and thus don't present red-tape hurdles for the bank's lending approach: Applicants, exclusively women, are given between $500 and $3,000 to fund small entrepreneurial efforts; loan recipients are organized into small "centers," with each member encouraging the others and making sure they stick with repayment schedules.

Filmmaker Gayle Ferraro introduces viewers to the Grameen way of business -- which in its 30-plus years has loaned nearly $9 billion to around 8 million people around the world, enjoying a repayment rate of over 96% -- and to its tireless founder Muhammad
Yunus, who is said, unbelievably, to attend an average of 15 events a day in support of the bank's mission.

But she spends more time observing the day-to-day reality of Grameen's entry into the U.S. and following one young employee in particular, meeting a few recipients -- hairdressers dreaming of their own salons, a baker who by the end of the film has gone from working in her basement to renting a storefront -- and noting how much diligence is necessary to make this kind of program work.

Yunus takes a matter-of-fact view of his invention, refusing to accept the idea that the poor can't be helped out of poverty. (He's contemptuous of the idea that people are poor for lack of gumption: "If you look at the poor case-by-case," he notes, "they work very hard.") Adapting to the differences in American social life that make the "center" scheme difficult to manage here, he says "when something is not's the fault of the people who designed the system," and sets out to modify it. He must be doing something right, as the American branch has loaned out over $4 million and has a repayment rate of 99%.

Ending with a succession of smiling women holding $1,200 and $2,500 checks, and with a greeting from the freshly-opened Omaha branch of Grameen, the film leaves viewers praying that there may be hope for banking in America after all -- even if it comes in the form of aid from the "Third World."

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production company: Aerial Productions
Director: Gayle Ferraro
Producer: Gayle Ferraro
Director of photography: Bill Megalos
Music: Claudio Regazzi
Editor: Keiko Deguchi
Sales Agent: Diana Holtzberg, Films Transit
No MPAA rating, 85 minutes