Filmed over seven years across seven countries, "Stolen Childhoods" examines the crisis of child labor—crisis, because a quarter of a billion children remain slaves to work.
Production on the 85-minute documentary was completed in December 2003, and it has been screening in various locales while seeking theatrical distribution. Its urgent message deserves a wide audience.
It begins by introducing child laborers in various places: a coffee farm in Kenya, a stone quarry in India, a fishing platform in the Sea of Sumatra.
"For 246 million children, life is nothing but work," says narrator Meryl Streep. She calls them "cogs in the global economy."
"Stolen Childhoods" uses moving and still images to powerful effect. It employs interviews with child laborers themselves and various world leaders: Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, Pharis Harvey of the International Labor Rights Fund and many others doing human rights work.
The documentary moves from locale to locale, telling stories of hopelessness as well as hope. For every dire situation, "Stolen Childhoods" presents a person or organization actively working to care for the children and reverse the spiral of poverty and forced labor.
We are thus taken inside Bal Ashram, a child labor rehabilitation center in India, and Casa Alianza, a refuge for kids on the street in Mexico. We learn about a Brazilian governmental scholarship program called Bolsa Escola that has helped the country reduce its child laborers from four to two million in seven years.
Two million, however, still astonishes the mind, and director Len Morris doesn't avoid the ugliness of child labor. One segment focuses on children forced to work looms making carpet. A foreman speaks candidly about beating disobedient children and tying others to the loom to prevent desertion.
A text crawl says one million children in India, Nepal and Pakistan help feed the $2.5 billion retail carpet industry in the United States and Europe. That's one way of several the documentary uses to show the interconnectedness of the global economy.
For example, Kenya's coffee farmers are enduring raw coffee prices at a 30-year low, while multinational roaster companies enjoy record profits. By the time coffee hits supermarket shelves, it's been marked up 4,000 percent, the documentary claims.
One way of dealing with this problem is buying "fair trade" coffee, which receives the label only by guaranteeing the coffee farmers behind it earn a living wage.
Another way of combating the problem is debt cancellation, which the documentary explores in the case of Kenya, saddled with a debt racked up by a corrupt government.
"Imagine … a world where businesses make an honest profit, but leave a living wage for families," Streep says, "where unreasonable debt is forgiven."
Yet another weapon against child labor—and perhaps the most effective, the documentary suggests—is education.
Bruce Harris, a human rights activist interviewed in the piece, claims that $8 billion would put unschooled children into primary school. For point of reference, Harris says we currently spend $40 billion annually on golf.
The stories in "Stolen Childhoods" are too numerous to mention and too mind-boggling to describe adequately, but each carries its own impact.
Because agriculture claims 70 percent of all child labor, the documentary team spends time in Nayarit, Mexico, where children work alongside parents in tobacco fields, risking illness from pesticides and nicotine poisoning. When parents don't make a living wage, their children must work so the family's pooled income will provide enough to live.
As one expert says, "If we were to take a cigarette apart, we would see it is made of the cancelled futures of these children." The children experience no childhood and receive no education.
"Stolen Childhood" can and should provoke outrage over the existence of child labor. Noticeable in the documentary is the difference between children performing forced labor versus those in schools and caring centers. That difference manifests itself in frowns versus smiles, exhaustion versus activity.
Produced in cooperation with the International Labor Rights Fund, "Stolen Childhoods" reclaims some space for children who often labor invisibly, and the noble men and women who struggle to care for "the least of these."
As one young man recounts surviving forced labor on an Indonesian fishing platform, he concludes, "I am still here, and that must mean God thinks I am still worth something."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer's Note: Though the subject is serious and the images moving, the documentary is suitable for most all ages.
Director: Len Morris
Writers: Len Morris, Georgia Searle Morris and Mark Jonathan Harris
Narrator: Meryl Streep
The movie's official Web site is here.
Click here to order the documentary.