Daniel Burmeister is an Argentine handyman turned filmmaker. Though good at unstopping toilets and repairing windows, he decided to change his path at middle age and make films. Small films. Local films. Free films. Love-infused films. Films that make you feel the joy he clearly manifests in doing them.
Daniel is a one-man film crew. When he needs a tracking shot, he hops on a bicycle and records with one hand while steering wobbly with the other. When he wants the effect of a panning shot, he places his subject on a sheet, which someone pulls from off camera, creating the appearance that the camera is panning the subject.
Beyond Daniel’s ingenuity, though, is a system. Burmeister would roll into the small towns of Argentina and pitch up first at the local mayor’s office. He would offer to make a film about the community, for the community and by the community. He’d do it in 30 days and all he asked was that the town provide him a place to sleep and food. He became a rallying force for the small communities. Residents would gather for the grand premier – the film projected on a large white sheet in a local school gymnasium. You can imagine the cheers as friends and neighbors saw themselves on the “big” screen. Within hours, Burmeister was gone, rolling along to the next town on the map.
I got to know Burmeister through El Ambulante, a 2009 documentary about him by Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Yurcovich. And here’s what I learned from Burmeister: what animates a person can sustain them. In fact, it’s the only thing that will. What makes someone come alive is a gift that they do not possess. This gift should be shared with as few constraints as possible. And when it is, the means to continue that sharing naturally follows. That is a rough approximation of what I think of as the working fundamentals of the “gift economy.”
There are many smart people poking, exploring and parsing this term, all the while giving it a growing cache and even making it a source of some intellectual argument. Argue on, but please, with a smile.
A smile is integral to the design of a gift economy. This is an emergent, irreverent, rule-breaking search for a new way to relate to the world, and each other. It is a playful subversion of the so-called “laws” of economics, no more evident than in the term itself, which puts “gift” first, thereby casting a new hue to the so-called gray science.
There are many permutations of the gift economy. But what binds them, I think, is a core motivation to be generous and the striving to put generosity first.
The economy as most of us experience it is a system of fixed and rigid exchanges. It is a transaction model built on the notion of knowing exactly what we are getting for what we are going to pay. The relationship between the parties is minimal or non-existent. The system is designed, above all, to be efficient. Producer and consumer get what they want. The value of the commodity is determined by the cost of producing it, narrowly defined as the materials and labor necessary to deliver it to the consumer. The exchange is objectified to the point where there need be only minimal trust. External costs, whatever those may be in terms of broader social impact, are mostly irrelevant and ignored. Also ignored are the potential internal dimensions of this interaction. A fixed price paid with an inanimate currency makes the transaction deliberately as impersonal as possible.
The gift economy begins to break down these pre-set arrangements. Born of a sense of generosity, service, or altruism, the gift economy practitioner is playing with a different motivation. Put simply, there is a thumb on the scale and it is in favor of giving rather than getting.
This changes everything. Yet it would be simplistic to say the change is monochromatic. For some, giving is an act of self-fulfillment. For some it is primarily to help others. And there are infinite gradations in between. People are often transformed as they practice the gift economy. Individuals begin to feel that by nominally helping others they are profoundly helping and transforming themselves.
Silas Hagerty is a gift economy filmmaker in Kezar Falls, Maine. His most recent work is Dakota 38, the moving story of the largest mass execution in US history - - that of 38 Lakota Indians in 1862. He spent years doing the film and had no hesitation in essentially giving it to the Native American community when it was done. It was a natural part of his evolution in doing gift economy projects over many years.
After graduating from film school, Silas was looking for the rungs on the ladder of a conventional film career but began to see his passion for filmmaking could be a gift to be put in the service of others. The shift was powerful. Here’s how Silas explains the change in the way he thought and acted: “If I come into the room and am basically asking ‘how can you help?’ it creates a certain kind of energy. What I challenged myself to do was to walk into every encounter and instead ask, ‘what can I do for you?' It’s a completely different energy. That basic structure started to change in me.”
This shift from a “me” to “you” – how can I serve you rather than how can you help me – is radical in today’s context, but really nothing terribly new. Anthropologists remind us that a communal sense has deeper roots than does our modern self-centric, individualistic social structures.
The gift economy is exciting because it is in the process of rediscovering some of this ancient wisdom. I am working on a book about what seems an emergent ethos of generosity and, for lack of a better term, the broadening desire of so many people and organizations to “do good in the world.” The appeal of the non-profit world to young job-seekers, the movement of social responsibility within the private sector, even the triple bottom line idea of balancing people, planet and profit all bespeak this general inclination.
Lest we not appear naïve, let’s stipulate that some of this is just an old system masquerading under a modern marketing sound bite. But what has been long held up as the model economic paradigm – the western, industrialized market system – is under fire, from Wall Street to Athens and beyond.
The gift economy is diverse.
The person who writes a check to their favorite charity or non-profit is breaking the bonds of transactional living. There is no quid pro quo, just a gesture of generosity to further the work of a worthy enterprise. This is a motivated by a desire to achieve some greater good and a willingness to act generously to that end.
For those seeking to help others, this is a logical way to go. A common presumption underlying this form of giving is that scale is important. Most non-profits spend lots of time fundraising because they believe their projects must be big to make a difference. Their donors are often drawn to the same equation: the larger the effort, the greater the outcome. The gift economy is at work here, though it is targeted mainly at external, broad social change and in that sense is bringing the generosity of the donor to the rather conventional economic formula of power in size and measurable outcomes.