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Does your donation really help the poor? A new Singaporean documentary looks for answers

SINGAPORE — In 2004, Mak Chun Kit found himself at the foothills of Mount Meru in the African nation of Tanzania. But he wasn’t there on a mere holiday — for four months, the Singaporean documentary film-maker was a volunteer at an orphanage. It didn’t have running water or electricity, but its young residents would leave an indelible mark on him.

SINGAPORE — In 2004, Mak Chun Kit found himself at the foothills of Mount Meru in the African nation of Tanzania. But he wasn’t there on a mere holiday — for four months, the Singaporean documentary film-maker was a volunteer at an orphanage. It didn’t have running water or electricity, but its young residents would leave an indelible mark on him.

However, when Mak, 38, returned there 11 years later, he was dismayed to find out nothing had changed for his new friends, many of whom were still struggling in life.

The revelation proved to be the impetus for his latest project titled Buying Happiness. It’s a documentary with a twist: He is helping to raise money for projects that his now-grown-up orphan friends have proposed to help their lives. And for the next five years, he will simultaneously be documenting the results, to see whether donations impact the lives of the poor — if at all.

“I had backpacked a fair bit by 2004 and was hungrier than ever to explore the world. I was looking for a new challenge that could provide more depth to my travels, and volunteering seemed like the perfect option,” recalled Mak, who is currently in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, where he is beginning principal photography for the film.

His volunteer stint at Huruma Children’s Trust, where he had met orphans between the ages of four and 21, had been “a very intense experience”. On weekdays, he would teach English at the village primary school, where the orphans went. In the afternoons and evenings, he would also conduct English lessons or play sports with them.

“The rest of the time would be spent hanging out with them — fetching water, cooking, doing laundry by the river, drawing, telling stories — and just trying to be an older-brother-figure,” he recalled.

BITTERSWEET REUNION

But last year’s reunion with the children — many of whom were already in their 20s — proved to be bittersweet.

“After I had left in 2004, one of the brightest children there ended up living on the street for years and ran into trouble with the law. When we met up in 2015, we hugged and he cried on my shoulder for 15 minutes. I was heartbroken to learn that my fears came true. But I was equally inspired and determined to find a way to help,” he said.

Today, which incidentally happens to be Mak’s birthday, marks the start of the most important aspect of Buying Happiness: The launch of a 45-day crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, where he hopes to raise US$55,000 (S$75,419) to support the orphans’ proposed projects.

“The funds will first go to the projects of the orphans. The team has waived all fees until funding comes from a commercial partner — a TV broadcaster, foundation or grant — so all contributions would be spent on only what is absolutely necessary to move the film forward,” he said.

And it’s a wide range of projects too, from US$50 to buy a charcoal oven to start a baking business for one of the orphans, Jackie, who has a two-year-old child, to US$5,000 for Samwel, who wants to pursue a university degree.

There’s also Bahati, who had been separated from his mother when he was young and now wants to track down his birth parents, and John, who wants to take a driving course to find stable work as a driver. (The latter, incidentally, was the one who had broken down and cried on Mak’s shoulder during their reunion last year.)

All in all, 10 orphans’ projects will be financed.

SELDOM-HEARD VOICES

Buying Happiness is Mak’s most complex project to date, but certainly not the only one that has given voice to people in the fringes.

In 2012, the TV documentary filmmaker veteran released the documentary The World’s Most Fashionable Prison. The film followed the adventures of a fashion designer who taught his trade to some of the unlikeliest fellows: Inmates at a maximum security prison in the Philippines (which culminated in a runway show).

In 2014, he released Little People Big Dreams, which followed the lives of the employees at the controversial Chinese theme park Dwarf Empire.

Both films have been screened internationally and have garnered awards.

“Inmates, dwarves and African orphans are all easy labels. I’ve always been drawn to communities that are under-represented or whose voices are seldom heard in the media. And I’ve come to realise that they offer powerful stories that reflect important issues facing society today. Themes of prejudice, discrimination and morality intrigue me deeply and I’ve developed a love of exploring their complexities through my films,” said Mak. He added that since Buying Happiness is a long-term project, he’s also working on another documentary in Mexico City, where he is now based.

“It deals with a very important and emotionally challenging topic,” he said, without getting into the details to protect his subject. “Being able to shift between projects allows me to get distance and perspective. Being able to get in and out of the mental and physical spaces of my projects is both a luxury and a necessity.”

DOES IT REALLY PAY TO HELP?

While there’s the deeply personal, human aspect to Buying Happiness, the film is also looking at the broader issue of crowdfunding and charities. What is Mak’s take on the latter? After all, the global aid industry runs into the billions a year.

Does he think, at this point of making the film, that donations do help the needy? Mak seems to believe that they do.

“We are keenly aware of how complex the issues surrounding the aid industry are. And it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to make any judgements on the effectiveness of charity institutions. What we really want to do is to challenge the belief that one should not give the poor cash as they would likely squander or mismanage them and become dependent on aid.”

He continued: “I strongly believe that there are pivotal moments in our lives when all we need is a little help to turn things around. For the less privileged, even a small financial assistance can make a world of a difference in determining the trajectory of their lives. I’m a pessimist in believing that we can’t always make it on our own. And I suppose I’m also an optimist in trusting that forces beyond us can turn our tides.”

Buying Happiness’ Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign is at https://igg.me/at/buyinghappiness. For more info, visit http://www.buyinghappinessfilm.com

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