In the summer of 2009, Dan Parris, now 29, Rob Lehr, now 31, and David Peterka, now 26, challenged themselves to try to experience extreme poverty by living on $1.25 a day and journeyed across three continents to experience poverty in each country, documenting the experience for a film.
Parris and Lehr subsisted on $1.25 for 30 days, until they were in a plane crash that killed the pilot and co-pilot, and caused Parris to be hospitalized and require surgery.
Peterka continued for three-and-a-half more months.
Their journey and the experiences of the people they met along their path from America to Europe to Africa are chronicled in a feature-length documentary titled "What Matters?" [previously titled "Give a Damn?"], showing in Burbank at the AMC Burbank Town Center 6 for one day only on March 13.
"We just wanted to experience [poverty] ourselves and along the way we met with experts to really learn what the average person could do about fighting extreme poverty and how to care for the people on the ground," said Parris, producer and director of the film.
His original vision for "What Matters?" was inspired by a trip to Africa in 2005, and his desire to introduce the issues to Lehr, who was skeptical about the ability to shrink poverty and their responsibility to do so.
"In the end, the film's storyline was flipped upside down, literally and figuratively, through a deadly plane crash, causing the film to have so much more depth than originally imagined," Parris said in a press statement.
It was in June 2009 that the St. Louis-natives, who had met in church after high school, started their project, hitchhiking from their hometown to New York, and from there flying to Europe, then Africa.
They had three rules for the project: one was living on just $1.25 a day which, in America, they could spend on food, lodging and transportation.
In Europe, they had to take transportation out of the $1.25 budget due to the inability to hitch rides, but traveled by Eurorail and as cheaply as possible, said Peterka.
Their second rule was that they could keep items they already had, like cellphones and camping gear. And lastly, if it was offered to them, they could accept only one free meal per day.
"We wanted to make the situation difficult for ourselves, but also to take the opportunity to let people help us," he said.
It was while they were in Africa in August of 2009 that Parris and Lehr were in a plane crash on a 30-minute, four-passenger plane while trying to capture aerial footage of the slums in Kiberia that they were visiting.
The two missionary pilots died — one on impact due to head trauma, and one a week later from injuries sustained from the crash. Parris, who had to be cut out of the plane, fractured his L3 vertebrate and damaged his intestines so he was unable to consume solid food for about nine months.
Lehr suffered less physical injury than emotional trauma, Parris said. He was the one who helped the pilot, co-pilot and Parris out of the plane.
Peterka, who continued on $1.25 for three-and-a-half months after Parris and Lehr returned to America, lost about 27 pounds, subsisting sometimes just on dirt sticks — known as pemba in Tanzania, Parris said.
Still, Parris says the injuries weren't the biggest challenge.
"The physical part wasn't nearly as hard as getting along with three guys when you're hungry," Parris said.
Another challenge the trio faced, which they document in the film, was what many of the experts on poverty they came across echoed: There was no way to really authentically recreate extreme poverty.
"We had families to go back to, we had our credit cards in case of any emergencies and insurance," Parris said. "Even in America, we had access to clean water, so to try to recreate poverty was nearly impossible."
Around March 2010, after Parris recovered from surgery, he began editing the 150 hours of footage they'd captured. They began screening the film and entering it in festivals in October 2011.
The film's budget was about $50,000, collected from fundraisers in 2008 and 2009, primarily with donations from family and friends. But the film's goal is not to raise money.
"Our message is that we'd like people to see our film and ask themselves two questions: what breaks their heart? And what makes them come alive?" Parris said. "Our real goal is not to ask for money to build a well or anything, but really to challenge people to think about their purpose."
In addition to hearing from those living in poverty, the film features a number of well-known activists, including New York Times best-selling author Katie Davis, who adopted 14 Ugandan orphans by age 22 and founded of Amazima Ministries; and Paul Rusesabagina — whose personal story was the basis for the film "Hotel Rwanda"; as well as the founders of Invisible Children.
Following the Burbank screening, "What Matters?" will continue on to Colorado, Missouri and Illinois as part of its 80-plus theatrical, community and campus screenings nationwide in order to build awareness for their upcoming iTunes/VOD release in April.
Follow Sameea Kamal on Twitter: @SameeaKamal.