Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Where There Is Despair

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Where There Is Despair

Article excerpt

It's a long way from Hollywood to the slums of Brazil, Peru, and the Philippines. But filmmaker Gerard Straub traded producing television shows, including the successful soap operas General Hospital and The Doctors, for a far more fulfilling life among the poorest of the poor.

During a recent visit to Wheaton College to premiere a rough version of his latest documentary, Poverty and Prayer, this thoughtful 58-year-old Californian told students about how his conversion gradually led him to a deep understanding of Christ's love for the poor. He's made six films, each of which is filled with graphic images of global poverty in Brazil, Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, India, Jamaica, the Philippines, Kenya, and the United States. His journeys have exposed him to poverty on a scale he had never imagined, and some of the most dramatic segments in his films are of those who live on garbage dumps in the Philippines, Jamaica, and Mexico, earning their livelihood by picking through other people's waste. They are the poorest of the poor, and, as Straub reminds his listeners, "scripture tells us that to forget the poor is to forger God."

His films--part documentary and part spiritual reflection--are designed to be challenging, to make people think and to reflect on their own lives. "I want you to see Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor," Straub says. "Global poverty is the result of selfishness that stems from a lack of authentic love of God and of our neighbor." For Straub, setting oneself as higher than others is a form of blasphemy, and consuming more than we need is a form of stealing. "Justice requires that people have a place to sleep, enough food to eat, and work that makes them feel worthwhile," he says.

This message, delivered in Straub's quiet, thoughtful manner, resonates among his audiences. "My films are demanding, yet people are watching them and being transformed," he says.

Straub takes an incarnational approach to each of his films by building relationships with those he hopes to film. For Endless Exodus, his film about undocumented migrants, he spent a week living with one of the families in El Salvador whose story he tells. "I don't want to take pictures," says Straub. "I want to receive pictures, so I try to enter into some kind of relationship." In that film he tells the tragic story of Moses, a small Salvadoran boy who suffers from an incurable disease that has left his little body covered with scabs. "All the suffering in the world is for me embodied in this one small, fragile boy. Moses is, without a doubt, the saddest person I have ever seen," Straub says. The story of Moses humanizes the suffering of the poor in villages throughout Central America that forces many of them to make the dangerous journey to the United States in search of work.

We're introduced to Loretta in Rescue Me, a film about the estimated 10,000 homeless people living on Los Angeles' skid row. When Straub first meets her, she has only recently become homeless and is still filled with hope. Nine months later, she is visibly beaten down from the hardships of life on the streets, yet still speaks of her desire to find work. This personal encounter allows us to see how homelessness takes its toll on those who are forced to live in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk.

Stylistically, Straub's films are unique, unlike what one might expect in documentaries about poverty. …

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