Living on a Dollar: Review

Living on a Dollar had been on my Netflix queue for ages. We finally got a chance to watch it. I love documentaries about how people in other parts of the world live.

This is a documentary about living in rural Guatemala where many people live on less than two dollars a day–and sometimes only one. Four college students, Chris Temple, Zach Ingrasci, Sean Leonard, and Ryan Christofferson, combined their skills and education in economics and film making and took on the challenge to see if they could each live on one dollar a day for 56 days.

I was enthralled with these young men that they’d be willing to risk hunger, disease, illness, and the unknown. We’re all a little fearless at that age, but I was impressed nonetheless. It’s not easy to leave the comfort of a soft bed and ready-made food for the rough life of a villager in a third world nation.

The documentary is beautifully filmed and edited to record life as it came to them. They made some serious mistakes, but that was mostly due to their youth and inexperience. Anybody who’s been around a while know more about keeping body and soul together than four twenty-year-olds. Nonetheless, they did remarkably well, learning from their mistakes quickly, and trying to make forward strides when they could.

The first thing you take away from this film is the generosity and the positive attitude of even the poorest people. Water was dirty, fleas were everywhere, and firewood was astonishingly expensive. Still I don’t remember anyone complaining.

The firewood situation is what surprised me the most. You would think in the jungle, there’d be plenty of broken branches and downed trees for fuel. Chino, a 12-year old Guatemalan boy was filmed carrying a huge bundle of firewood. For whatever reason, buying firewood at the market came with sticker shock.

Living on One Dollar a Day hearkens back to my review about Victorian Slum House. Like the Victorians of 1840, the villagers in Guatemala are being held back from lack of education and skills. Unlike the Victorians, they manage by living with the land.

I noticed beds were up high. The college kids slept on the floor and paid for it dearly when they awoke with countless flea bites. This reminded me of our own experience when we moved to Texas. We didn’t have a problem with ticks, but fleas were everywhere. We (like the college boys) learned our lesson the hard way. It killed me to have to use poisons but it was the only way to eradicate the problem.

Food was a huge obstacle for the boys. They learned from the villagers that lard was their friend and cooked everything with it. Again, I was surprised that getting enough calories was so difficult in a jungle. They did terrace their gardens to get more garden space, but apparently it’s barely enough.

Generosity and kindness was everywhere among the people. It was the very fabric of their society. They looked out for one another. They cared. I know that’s not the case in many societies, which makes this one all the more special.

There was a quick mention about how institutions throw money at poverty without fixing it, but the film makers also went on to say that it’s the partial solutions that seem to work best.

The film focused on several women who received micro loans. Many of them started their own businesses, giving them an added income and self sufficiency. It’s empowering to be able to do something for yourself. All they needed was a chance.

There is a small amount of staging for effect, but I’m probably the only one who noticed. For example in the segment where they talk about bad water, it was Chris who actually got sick (very sick, poor kid), but the film steers itself to “what if Carlos got sick?”. Carlos (a young boy) did not get sick but they made a big to do of what if. I’d rather they had just stuck to actual documentary events.

I can highly recommend Living on One Dollar. It’s easy to watch. There’s no moral finger waving or judgmental narratives. It seemed to be very honest documentation of life in rural Guatemala. It makes you appreciate the tenacity of human beings and their resourcefulness.

Kudos too to Chris, Zach, Sean, and Ryan. Good job, guys!

Have you watched Living on One Dollar a Day? Were these college students naive or brave to try out this experiment? Or maybe both?








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  1. I haven’t seen this, but it does sound interesting. I have to give them credit for trying to see if they could live on a dollar a day. They were young and hopefully recovered quickly from their ailments and lack of the best of food. Could never live on a dollar a day here with the air conditioner running all the time; the electricity bills far outweigh that 🙂


    • Betty: Weird! I could’ve sworn I replied to your comment. I must’ve lost my connection when I hit the submit button.

      re: A/C
      I hear you on the a/c. We try not to run it all the time, but we’re sweltering out here.

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