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Film Review: Bonsai People - The Vision of Muhammad Yunus

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"Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus" (2012)
Documentary directed by Holly Mosher
Available now on DVD

In "Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus," Holly Mosher’s new documentary about the microcredit loan pioneer Muhammad Yunus, Mosher uses a clever method to tell her story. She follows an idealistic young Grameen employee, Sumon, as he opens a new bank branch in a flood-ravaged region near the Indian border. There we are introduced to several borrowers: Melancho, a petite young woman with an impish smile who becomes the local Grameen chairwoman; Aroti, a tall, charismatic go-getter whose Grameen connections help her land a spot as the only woman on the village council; Surjobano, an elderly widow shunned by her family for begging; and Shahnaj, whose son's recent death is quickly overshadowed by her existential concerns.

While Mosher makes no pretense toward objectivity - her film is a tribute rather than a critique - she does not manipulate with tricky editing. One is struck by the simplicity of her technique, which possesses a quiet beauty that mirrors her subject's lives. As villagers bathe livestock in picturesque rural scenes, children back-flip off oxen into a pond, women congregate in the village square to discuss their loans, they appear happy. Compared with the complexities of life in the developed world, their basic existences almost seem appealing. Gradually, however, their brutal realities become clear, especially the stifled lives of the women.

Mosher's advocacy of Yunus, in fact, has as much to do with his empowerment of women as his attempts to alleviate poverty. Her film focuses on women because Yunus does: they compose 97 percent of Grameen borrowers. Why such a large percentage? Yunus says that women spend the microcredit loans more wisely than men do. This has thrust them - most of them Muslim - into leadership roles within the family and the community. While empowering them, it has also created religious rifts, and Yunus has faced death threats and been accused of "destroying Islam."

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The struggle between religion and women's rights is embodied by Aroti. The most successful borrower in the film, Aroti is extremely pious. Mosher appears to connect her strong work ethic to her piety. She is filmed reciting scripture and saying things like, "God doesn't like lazy people." As the only woman on the village council, however, Aroti complains that her views are routinely disregarded. She denounces the restrictions placed upon women, and speaks about the importance of changing societal norms. "Women were behind a curtain and slowly we are advancing," she says, flashing the proud smile of someone who’s helped pull that curtain back.

Stories like Aroti's are moving, and Mosher convinces us that Yunus’s ideas can accomplish wonders. By taking a "worm's eye" view of microcredit loans, Mosher engages us in the needs of the poor in a way that taking a broader view could not. Microcredit has been abused by loan sharks (200 Indian farmers were thought to have committed suicide because of high-interest microloans), attacked as a phony panacea, and Yunus has been denigrated by his own prime minister. But "Bonsai People" leaves us believing that if practiced according to Yunus's strictures, its ancillary benefits alone - empowering women, strengthening community bonds, providing education - make it worthy of high praise.

At the end of her film, Mosher returns to Bangladesh a year later. With one exception, every borrower's life has improved. Shahnaj finally replaced her straw roof with tin, and her daughter received a Grameen scholarship. Surjobano, the former beggar, has been successful repaying her loans and saved money to repair her walls. Melancho, who used her first loan to buy a cow, says that her family is no longer hungry. Aroti, already a landlord, erected a modern new house that contains indoor plumbing. "My husband sees me in a new light," she says, as he sits beaming by her side. "My family loves me very much."