After Mario Villalba, ’10, graduates, he’ll spend a year traveling through Peru screening the documentary he and four friends produced, hoping to encourage discourse about the need for greater individual representation in the world’s democracies.

The film, "Treading on Sand," was funded through a $10,000 Projects For Peace grant, and studies the effects that laws passed in Peru mandating participatory budgeting have had on three generations of women. Participatory budgeting gives ordinary residents the power to decide how to allocate part of a municipal budget, encouraging citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects.

“The documentary follows a 21-year-old Peruvian college student we featured who views participatory budgeting with great hope,” Villalba said. “We also portray Marisa, a 45-year-old community activist living in the slums, who found funding for a project through participatory budgeting. We also worked with Griselda, a 75-year-old community leader who tried to fund a project for seven years, but had never heard of participatory budgeting.”

The film was shot during the summer of 2008 in Lima, Peru and also features interviews with politicians, economists and local legislators.

In March, Villalba pre-screened the film on campus in Weinstein Hall’s Brown-Alley Room accompanied by his four co-collaborators on the project, faring from Duke University, Macalester College and Skidmore College. Afterward, the group opened up discussion to the approximately 50 audience members on topics ranging from effective governing methods to the transparency of democracy.

“We want to raise awareness and create discussions about how truly representative and how truly participatory our democracies are,” he said. “We think of democracy as the rule of the people, but how much say do we really have? Is democracy just about casting a ballot, or something else?”

Villalba draws a great deal of inspiration from his childhood spent in Paraguay. Born in Asuncion in 1985, 31 years into the rule of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and just four years before he would be deposed, he saw first-hand the obstacles facing a nation struggling to establish democracy. He also saw that the transition didn’t solve all of Paraguay’s problems.

“It’s been a process in Paraguay since 1989,” Villalba said. “And while people are now voting for their representatives, there’s still not a lot transparency in the government. There are a lot of problems with what the representatives do after you vote for them. There is no way of monitoring that.”

Observing his nation’s attempt to rebuild its civic society motivated Villalba to see more of the world, and find out how he could affect the most positive change in it.

And so when he was 17, Villalba applied and was accepted into the International Baccalaureate program. He received a scholarship to attend the Red Cross United World College in Flekke, Norway where he studied political philosophy and human rights with students from more than 80 different nations.

“Before that experience, I wanted to be a doctor,” Villalba said. “But I realized my passion was in the social sciences and humanities. From then on, I wanted to study the ‘social diseases,’ such as inequality, injustice and discrimination.”

Villalba says that he was excited to keep exploring the world, so he decided to apply to schools in the United States that had excellent social science and international education programs. Richmond was a perfect fit.

Though the filming for "Treading on Sand" was completed the summer after his sophomore year, the documentary wouldn’t be finished until the spring of his senior year. It took nearly two years to pare down the more than 23 hours of footage they had gathered into a scant 30 minutes and dub it into English. Complicating the situation further was the fact that the group was scattered throughout the country, and, at times, the world.

During the nearly two years it took for the film to be completed, Villalba spent a semester studying political science in Taiwan — another nation struggling to establish a democracy.

“Taiwan attracted me because Paraguay chooses to recognize it as an independent country, while so many other nations instead support communist China,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful culture. I fell in love with it.”

Villalba returned from his travels with renewed passion for the project. While he spends the next year screening the film in the villages they visited during the summer of 2008, the rest of the team will enter the film into festivals. The group also plans to set up a Web site where the film can be viewed, expanding the scope of the discussion to the rest of the world.

Villalba says that it’s a discussion that’s relevant to every nation.

“I’ve studied on four different continents now, and I’ve seen that most people are represented by a vote, but not represented in the everyday,” he said. “I want to raise awareness and create discussions about how truly participatory our democracies are.”

Villalba plans to attend graduate school and would eventually like to work in urban planning, helping to design cities that are “inclusive, sustainable and participatory in every way,” incorporating the best of each culture he’s experienced into the plan.