Billy Field is a storyteller. He’s written scripts, made movies in Hollywood and knows the key to a powerful narrative. The ability to find the stories and the manner of presenting them is key, something his student Bailey Schoenberger learned firsthand when she and her team created a documentary about payday loans in the state of Alabama.
“Every person has a story, and it might not be what you expect it to be,” said Schoenberger, a junior psychology major. “It makes life a little more interesting if you can learn how to talk to people, how to get their stories and how to question things a little bit deeper.”
The format for telling that story is simple.
“The basis of any story is a problem,” Field said. “But, you add a person to it who wants to overcome that problem, you have part of a story. Add a person who encounters a problem and makes a decision to solve it, then you have more of a story.”
Mix in the obstacles and add in an underdog, Field said, and the story is complete.
Field brought this knowledge to The University of Alabama Honors College with his UH class, Documentary Filmmaking. Last spring, a group of students chose to shed light on the problem of the state’s predatory lending by making their own documentary titled, “Alabama: The State that Prays, or the State that Preys?”.
“Many people love the underdog, and the poor people in this story are the underdog,” Field said. “They’re not bums. They have jobs, but they get into a situation where they need money.”
For Honors students Olivia Nagy, Cole Pearson and Schoenberger, the filmmaking process began when they were presented with a list of ideas at the beginning of the semester. Ultimately, the team decided to focus on payday and title loans for the topic of their documentary because of its importance to the state.
“Title and payday loans are a really bad scheme people get very entrapped in,” Schoenberger said. “I thought that was a really important and interesting issue and also very prevalent in Alabama, so we decided that’s the one we wanted to do the documentary on.”
In Alabama, an individual can get a car loan with interest as low as 2.9 percent, and a cash loan with no collateral around 10 percent. A payday loan, however, is a different story. Intended to be a quick source of cash for those in a bind, a payday loan in the state of Alabama comes with an interest rate of 456 percent, one of the highest in the country, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
While many payday loan companies come from out of state to plant their roots in Alabama, the state’s religious fervor creates a dynamic that is difficult to justify or explain through this lens, Field said.
“Alabama has more churches per capita than any other state in the union,” Field said. “We also have more payday loan places per capita than any other state in the union. The Bible is clear on poor people, yet Alabama has these laws that allow businesses in our state to abuse poor people.”
Field said the predatory lending system creates a vicious cycle for those who borrow. Often, those who rely on payday loans simply need a means to make ends meet but then cannot pay the debt accrued on the original loan, or end up paying back far more than they originally borrowed.
For Schoenberger, this realization struck her during the filming process. These weren’t people borrowing irresponsibly, she explained, but people trying to survive everyday life.
“A lot of the time it was people going through daily life, something crazy would happen and they just all of a sudden needed money,” she said. “One lady worked at one of the sorority houses on campus. Her daughter had a disability, and she and her husband had split up. She needed money just to cover her daughter’s medical bills.”
The biggest key to making a difference, Field said, is spreading awareness and increasing interest in an issue. He said for those who have never experienced predatory lending, it’s easy to ignore the fact that corrupt practices are occurring in the state under the government’s watch, resulting in apathy.
“We say we’re Americans, and we say we stand up for what’s right, but if people don’t have a dog in the race, they’re not going to do anything,” Field said. “Most people who don’t have debt problems don’t know what they are. You tell them that this is abusing poor people, but they won’t do anything about it.”
The advice Field gives to students on how to truly gain the interest of an audience comes from his days in Hollywood.
“Go in through the heart, go out through the head,” he said. “Make the audience care about the characters and then they’ll start thinking about the issue.”
After the film was completed, it was shared with an organization seeking to change the regulations on payday and title loans to eliminate the practice of predatory lending in Alabama. The film gained traction on social media, Field said, and will be used in the future as a tool to continue the fight.
Jared Fuhrman, a teaching assistant who helped with the project, said there simply aren’t enough people leading the fight against the practices.The same theme occurred in the documentary he made while taking the class.
“The experience in this class shows how important it is to get involved in your community,” Fuhrman said. “These issues don’t just happen in other parts of the world or other parts of the country. They happen where you live too.”