As the credits roll on Chloe Ruthven’s documentary, The Do Gooders, we are left with a lot to think about. Charting the director’s personal journey to Palestine to learn more about the country where her grandparents lived and worked as aid workers, Ruthven bravely tackles a highly controversial topic and one that is rife with varied opinions, and indeed an opinion she is still working out for herself.
Inspired by a book written by her grandmother on her aid projects in Palestine, Ruthven begins to explore the effects of foreign aid and the potential damage the continued reliance may have for the future.
Enlisting the help of forthright Palestinian woman, Lubna, she finds not only her physical guide but a rare insight into the complex cultural and political issues all too often veiled by the more media friendly stories of food parcel deliveries and ribbon cutting at schools. But with Lubna, her opinions are never adulterated, speaking frankly of her distaste and distrust of Western aid, something that clearly lies uneasy with Ruthven as she seeks to find the lasting benefits of the work her grandparents supported.
Interspersed with archive footage of Ruthven’s grandparents picketing checkpoints, the opening scenes show posh gap year students, regaling their toils of their students being obsessed with them and their enrapturing Western ways and the difficulties of finding appropriate outfits. Learning that there are more volunteers per person in Palestine than anywhere else in the world, the truth behind the ‘do gooders’ begins to reveal itself. What was once a temporary, emergency measure to help a country in need is now a permanent fixture, with a year round industry catering to Westerners wanting to ‘made a change’. But it’s when Ruthven speaks to the professional aid workers, we learn that no such ‘change’ is being made and if anything, the situation is only getting worse.
What recurs as the main dilemma throughout the documentary is whether we’ll ever be able to differentiate between the humanitarian and the political cause. What do the Palestinian people need more – bags of flour and lentils, or an end to the political unrest and occupation that necessitates such efforts? But in the same breath, we have to consider what would happen if all foreign aid was withdrawn?
Far from a family history lesson, The Do Gooders is a hard-hitting and revealing documentary, exposing some hard truths about the aid we all think is benefiting those in need but in fact, seems to be corrupting the situation even more. Having now received its World Premiere, we can only hope it prompts more discussion around this complicated issue.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival, in partnership with American Express, takes place until 20 October 2013. View the programme online: www.bfi.org.uk/lff