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Documentary looks at 'rock star' of banking

| Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Banking doesn't have the best reputation right now, after decades of more and more complex and risky financial innovations collapsed into the Great Recession.

One innovation, however, seems to point to a different future for banking, by working with those who are typically excluded by the banking system entirely -- the very poor. Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank started lending small amounts of money in his native Bangladesh to poor women who had no collateral because they owned nothing.

This seemed to violate a core tenet of how banking is supposed to work. But 35 years later -- after millions of micro-credit loans and a Nobel Peace Prize (in 2006), Yunus decided to bring his concept of micro-lending to America by starting a branch of Grameen Bank in Queens, New York City.

Filmmaker Gayle Ferraro, originally from Allison Park, captured this project in her documentary "To Catch a Dollar: Muhummad Yunus Banks on America," which is screening Thursday night at theaters nationwide. The presentation includes a panel discussion with Yunus, Suze Orman, Robert DeNiro, Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, Russell Simmons, Kiva.org president Premal Shah, and many others, and is moderated by CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo.

Ferraro, who has made documentaries about sex trafficking in Burma ("Anonymously Yours") and poverty in rural Bangladesh ("Sixteen Decisions") heard about Yunus long before the Nobel Prize turned him into a sort of rock star of anti-poverty activism.

"Well, I came across the subject a good 13 years ago," Ferraro says. "I heard that there was this guy -- years before he won the Nobel -- helping poor women start their own businesses. I thought it was fascinating, and started connecting with people. Back then, it was the early days of the Internet, and it took me two weeks to finally get someone on the phone in Bangladesh. Once I did, within three weeks, I was in Bangladesh."

The central innovation of Grameen Bank is giving loans to the poor who don't have collateral. Yunus decided to focus on women, because money they earned tended to benefit the family as a whole, while increased money earned by a husband tended to primarily benefit him. What makes it all work, however, is that the women are organized into small, mutually supporting groups, who hold each other accountable.

"At this point, there's 8 1/2 million women in Bangladesh this minute who have microcredit loans, and over a 100 million worldwide. Not all-inclusive for 35 years, but this minute," Ferraro says. "And it all started by Muhammad Yunus walking down the street and starting to ask people how they were surviving during the famine. He found they were working all day every day for a couple of cents to buy a bag of rice.

"He thought that was crazy and gave them his own money, never thinking he'd get it back. There were 27 people who needed $42 in total. He never expected to see any of it back, and every one of them paid him back."

Yunus himself, though featured in the film, only appears in the panel discussion via video. He's currently in court in Bangladesh, trying to reverse the government's decision to make him step down from Grameen.

"It's really a shame what's going on with Yunus now in Bangladesh, with the government removing him as general manager of the bank he founded because he's 70 years old (the bank's retirement age is 60). He couldn't leave the country and come here to do 'Martha Stewart' and 'Good Morning America' and all this national media we had set up for the launch on the 31st. He was in court fighting it -- now for about three weeks," Ferraro says."

Differences between Yunus and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government began in December last year when Norwegian television reported misuse of aid to the lender. Grameen denied any wrongdoing. The attempt to remove Yunus prompted the United States to ask Bangladesh to resolve the crisis in order to avoid affecting relations between the two nations, according to Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, who visited Dhaka on March 22.

Grameen Bank branches have opened all over the developing world, but opening in America was a different kind of challenge. Queens -- the most ethnically diverse borough in the country -- posed specific challenges all its own.

"For the first four months, I really worried what was going to happen," Ferraro says. "It was very, very, very tough. I didn't know if it was going to catch on. I was going to film it either way. They had trouble recruiting the right staff, women, trouble explaining things. I'd say, six months in, it really turned a corner.

"There were so many cultures involved-- Bangladeshi, Indian, Mexican, Chilean,Tibetan, Dominican, black American women. Cultural differences kind of fell away. The one thing they all needed was money -- and they all knew that there was no way on earth they were getting $2 from a bank, much less $1,500 or $2,000 to start some dream project."

No single loan was to exceed $3,000, to start. One woman, an immigrant from Guyana, needed a commercial mixer to start her cake-baking business. Another struggled to grow her hairdressing business, even as she had to keep moving to cheaper apartments.

Ferraro hopes the unusual one-night screening across the country on Thursday helps build momentum for the film.

"After this one night, we're working on a more traditional theatrical (release) starting in New York and Los Angeles in mid-April. Hopefully it will continue to open in other cities. Then we'll start next fall at universities, rotary clubs, house parties."

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