I sat down with Lorenzo Benitez ’19, who is a staff writer for The Sun, on an unusually bright Sunday morning to talk about his documentary, Six Months to Salvation. His directorial debut follows seven young Australian volunteers, including Benitez himself, throughout their volunteering experience as English teachers in rural Thailand.
The film was initially envisioned in October 2014, when Benitez and a couple of his friends decided to take a gap year after high school. At the time, criticisms around “voluntourism” were starting to surface and he figured that a journalistic piece of evidence could only serve to clarify and enlighten.
The spread of English in developing countries often raises questions about westernization and colonialism. When asked if the Thai people are “coerced by the increasingly globalized society” to learn English, Callum Ryan, a featured character, talks about how he sees globalization as ultimately beneficial, and English as a bridge to connect cultures and open gates.
“Even assuming that it’s good to teach them English, the question then becomes ‘are we the best people to teach them English?’” asked Benitez. It has become common for privileged high schoolers to visit developing countries via all kinds of “voluntourism” programs.
I was one of those high schoolers. My friends were trying to get me to come with them to this orphanage in Cambodia. “It will be a lot of fun,” they said, “and life-changing too!” In fact, the film opened with a surprisingly similar moment, when Benitez laughs at a program description that reads “the teens’ lives were changed forever.” But why is it about us, teenagers that don’t know much but are privileged enough to pay an enormous amount of money to experience hardship?
Throughout the film, we see how these well-intended yet admittedly naive high school finds struggle in chaotic classrooms where they have no control at all, partly due to the language barrier and partly inexperience as teachers. In its essence, however, the film is not dismissive or disparaging. Benitez mentioned how the school administration were supportive of the program since the foreign volunteers, however inexperienced, are the best available resources for the generally underfunded and understaffed schools in the Karen community.
The journey did end up life-changing for Benitez and his friends, only in different and unanticipated ways.
I asked Benitez about his secret in making a film with minimal budget. To start with, the trio had a few thousands which were used to buy the camera and everything that went with it; after the filming was done, they sold the camera on eBay and used the money to buy a computer and monitor and other equipments for editing; finally, the editing equipment was sold to make money for marketing, distribution and festival submissions. Only three people were behind the making of this film, and the other two remained in Australia during Benitez’s time in Thailand. Since Salvation is a project that was mostly shaped in the editing room, the two outsiders were crucial in providing an objective view and steer the film to the right direction in the editing process. The Australian filmmaking collective has been working on a narrative film called An Unscripted Earth recently, which again focuses on the aimlessness and confusion of young adults as they navigate the world.
There is a free showing of Six Months to Salvation at Cornell Cinema in Willard Straight Hall Monday night at 5 p.m.
Lorenzo Benitez, the director of Six Months to Salvation, is a writer and columnist for the Arts and Opinion sections of The Cornell Daily Sun. He was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.
Ruby Que is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].