Most reality TV shows rely on scripted confessionals and spoiled, fame-hungry contestants keen to accomplish their esteemed celebrity status by doing very little. “The Project: Guatemala” is different.
It may initially look the same, with its cast of privileged 20-somethings who believe they’re embarking on a six-week trip to paradise, but the show soon changes when the pampered participants discover they are heading to rural Guatemala to build a community center for orphaned and abandoned children.
“They were shocked to say the least,” said the show’s host, Canadian adventurer Ray Zahab. “Let’s face it, this group of young people did not see this coming – it was out of their landscape of thought.”
Nine Canadians traveled with Zahab to Tecpán, 50 kilometers northwest of Guatemala City, to Project Somos, a Canadian nongovernmental organization that works with Guatemalan children in need.
“They could leave whenever they wanted to – this wasn’t about voting anyone out. But they had to want to stay and work hard,” Zahab said. “It was very real and very difficult for many of them.”
Struggling to understand the poverty and customs of the people around them, the contestants swapped their cellphones for shovels and embarked on a mission that had the potential to improve not only their neighbors’ lives, but also their own.
It’s a journey of self-discovery for the privileged youths, whose long-term goals range from “none” to “make a lot of money” and have “a few marriages.” Not without drama, the six one-hour episodes show the tantrums, tensions and frustrations that being outside your comfort zone can bring.
Culture shock takes many forms, and the failure to comprehend the “no shorts, no cleavage” rule on the construction site is just one example that illustrates the disparity between the two worlds that collide in “The Project: Guatemala.”
“It was hoped that they would be transformed from egotistical, self-centered individuals of entitlement into an unselfish, hard-working group that cared about the welfare of someone else,” said Greg Kemp, project manager at Project Somos. “That’s a tall order for 42 days, but that is the goal and premise of the show.”
The program’s distributor hopes this new style of reality TV will connect with a younger generation who have become disengaged from traditional television and are looking to make a difference in the world.
During an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sean Buckley, executive producer at the indie company that produced the show, Buck Productions, said: “We want to capitalize on the power of television to send a message to our viewers, and for them to walk away entertained and educated about another part of the world and, hopefully, themselves.”
But do the participants become more educated? Although they may have had good intentions to stay and build a community center, it will take longer than six weeks to see whether the experience will permeate their self-centered outlook and deliver lasting change.
“Some of the most difficult challenges we face in life provide the greatest rewards. The group came into this committed to something they had no idea would be so difficult. But through their perseverance and resilience they came to know they could do something extraordinary with their lives,” Zahab said.