Capitalism has taken a pounding as of late, from Michael Moore’s invigorated documentary takedown to just the general feeling floating out there in the air, where you might have a random conversation with someone at a supermarket about the financial difficulties facing them and their family, that America’s economic system no longer has at its heart the lasting interests of the common person. But against this backdrop of equal parts skepticism and populist anger arrives The New Recruits, a nonfiction film about a battalion of jet-setting
business students armed with a radical plan to help end global poverty:
to actually charge poor people for goods and services.
Produced and directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel Miller and Jeremy Newberger, and narrated sparingly by Rainn Wilson, this hour-long title focuses on three recent business school graduates tapped for the Acumen Fund‘s prestigious year-long fellows program, which encourages social entrepreneurship by placing apprentices with upstart enterprises around the world, intending to help poor people by treating them as customers rather than just the needy recipients of charity. It’s an intriguing idea, certainly — the notion that the free market has more of a vested interest in a certain baseline equitability because they will stick around longer, for reasons of profit. A shame, then, that The New Recruits — while succeeding rather smashingly as a piece of personality-driven entertainment — doesn’t really ask the tough lurking questions of its subjects when their headstrong faith in capitalism begins to somewhat wane, challenged by the choppy waters of an uneducated and/or uninterested consumer base.
The trio of subjects hail from Mumbai, California and Alabama, and after some set-up and biographical noodling with each — including a bit of uncomfortable Christianist proselytizing by the Alabama kid, with Senator Richard Shelby in the audience — we follow their year-long journeys. One is assigned to Ecotact, a company supposedly serving Kenya’s poor by building pay toilets in slums; another is sent to India to work with D.light Design, a company which manufactures solar-powered LED lights for the rural population to use instead of kerosene; the Alabama kid is sent to Pakistan and assigned to Micro Drip, a company that sells drip irrigation systems to poor farmers, and tries to wean them off of wasteful flood-irrigation. Each encounters all sorts of cultural hurdles, naturally, along with a healthy pinch of sexism (a billboard in India actually exclaims “I Hate Working Women!”) and, quite frankly, sales teams that come across as under-motivated.
It’s interesting to see these youngsters — bright, resourceful, ambitious and to varying degrees idealistic, if at times hamstrung by their own inflated egos — confront real world challenges in business environments that aren’t exactly Fortune 500-type situations. The eye-opener of the entire film — perhaps unintentionally, given the degree to which its makers try to sidestep any sense of conclusions drawn — is that for all the talk about freedom of economic choice, workable solutions mean nothing to a population that cannot grasp or be convinced of the potential for positive impact on their lives. And, of course, the hearty embrace of free markets as a silver bullet in developing nations means even less when, unlike here, it’s just about sneakers or soda pop instead of sustainable sanitation, drinking water, energy costs and the like. Don’t tell Sarah Palin, though.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case and presented in solid 16×9 widescreen transfer with an English stereo track, The New Recruits comes to DVD unfortunately devoid of supplemental features, apart from a separate menu screen touting material available on the eponymous PBS web site. To order a copy of The New Recruits, Roads to Memphis or any other PBS
title, call (800) PLAY-PBS or click here. To purchase
DVDs with public performance rights, meanwhile, click here. Finally, if Amazon is totally your thing, click here. B+ (Movie) D (Disc)