Lorenzo Benitez, a filmmaker and student at Cornell University, investigated the controversial topic of voluntourism with his recent feature-length documentary, “Six Months to Salvation.” The film follows seven students on their trip to rural Thailand to teach English to a community of Karen people. The volunteers find their idealism eroding over the course of the film as they face difficulties and moral ambiguity in their work. “Six Months to Salvation” grapples with questions about the colonialist implications of voluntourism and globalization. Last week, Benitez talked to The Crimson about the making of the film.
The Harvard Crimson: How did you first conceive of this film? Did you start out with an angle of criticizing “voluntourism” in mind, or were you pretty optimistic about volunteering in the beginning?
Lorenzo Benitez: Personally I was more just curious.… When I walked in I didn’t know if it would be critical of voluntourism documentary or something that celebrated the good work that people do abroad. Initially I signed up with a bit of optimism. Before I went on the trip I’d been exposed to other people who’d had negative things to say about these voluntourist trips, and that’s what prompted me to make a film about it, because there’s an issue that there [are] two conflicting sides that don’t necessarily have a lot of evidence other than anecdotal hearsay. So I thought: What’s more concrete evidence to enlighten the evidence on either side than if you have a journalistic piece of evidence about voluntourism itself?
THC: What is the significance of the title “Six Months to Salvation”?
LB: It wasn’t me who made up the title, it was one of my co-editors. It was literally six months, and as for the “salvation” part, we originally [thought] it would have more heavy implications about religion in Thailand since we were traveling with a religious organization, and the communities we lived in were Christian in an otherwise incredibly Buddhist country. Even though we lost the religious component, we thought the word salvation was still good enough to keep because the question becomes who are the people we’re trying to find salvation for—mostly the poor people of the Karen hill tribe, or primarily for the voluntourist? Let’s be honest. Are we doing this mostly for ourselves?
THC: It was interesting to hear Fr Vinai Boonlue, the Karen priest and anthropologist, argue that the Western anxiety about cultures being “erased” is like the impulse to put “other” people’s culture in museums, and treat them as static. He also argued that English language and culture are simply becoming integrated into the constantly evolving culture of the Karen people, and that it is better to share new knowledge and open up new options that now exist. How do you feel about this issue?
LB: Well, I hope that it’s the case in the film that my opinion doesn’t necessarily dictate. I was just trying to purely express it without either endorsing or condoning the idea. It’s been actually more than a year and a half since I finished editing this film, so it’s been some time. I’d probably say that now that I think about it, his argument has a lot of merit. I think the interesting thing that he notices about how a lot of other people are critical of the loss of culture like that [is that] it’s almost like condescending or patronizing to say to people “You can’t advance or play games in the capitalistic system in which you will inevitably be exposed to by the forces of globalization. You have to preserve your own little quaint culture.” That argument bothers me, and I think Vinai is correct to identify that that’s the nature of the world. Sadly it’s the case that you no longer go to Japan today [and see] the Japan of the Meiji dynasty. What these other cultures are going through is that they also want to speak English in addition to speaking their original language, if they want to become employable, or if they want to position themselves as competitive players in the services market. And so it’s a Karen person’s right to do that, because you can’t say to them that there’s a culture that they have that has to be preserved.... If they’ve made their own moral choice to do it, then why not? I guess you lose with globalization that authenticity that once existed eons ago, but you gain so much.… Being exposed to multiple cultures in your life is a great thing.