TV Review: Innocents Lost
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Wednesday 10 December 1997
Nobody could blame you if you didn't watch Innocents Lost (C4), which is all part of the problem, I suppose. There was a small boy at the start of the first of the two-part programme. Aged about three, he just sat there with wide eyes, clapping and smiling. A normal child. Except that you knew that it would not be any time at all before he was just like the rest. The others around him, aged from five upwards, had eyes which stared unnaturally. Their arms swung wildly. Their walk was a grotesque gavotte of insanity. And all of them carried small screw-topped jars, with holes in the lids, and a brown layer of glue across the bottom. They were the street children of Guatemala city, but they could have been from any other Latin American country where 40 million of the world's 100 million homeless children live.
They turn to glue as a matter of course to deaden the hunger and the blackness which assaults them every day. So many talked, with slurred diction, about the deliverance of death they waited for. It did not seem an exaggerated response. One after another they came, in an unrelenting catalogue of misery. Then came the still photographs of kids with their eyes gouged out or their heads blown off. The local police "tidy" the streets of these children who beg and steal and litter the place with their presence - until respectable folk turn their backs when four policemen descend upon a child in public and kick him to death. If a sense of hopelessness overcame us, it seemed to overtake the programme makers, too. Kate Blewett and Brian Woods, the team who produced The Dying Rooms, the expose of orphanages in China two years ago, cast around for someone to blame and lighted upon the American multinational which makes the country's most popular glue. It seemed unfair. Quite what the firm could do to make a difference was unclear.
But Blewett and Woods were looking for someone to blame, I suspect, to assuage their own sense of responsibility. In a Greek mental hospital they filmed whimpering children tied to beds or caged, snarling, in padlocked cots in wards. In Greece, it seems, parents dump handicapped children in such places to avoid damaging the marriage prospects of their siblings. They remain for life, often never examined after the day they are admitted. Those who aren't mad to start with are made so. Yet when the camera confronted the authorities, it was hard to blame the unhappy officials who, despite a 10-year fight, weren't allowed the funding even for a physiotherapist for the bed-bound.
In a Russian gulag for 14- to 18-year-olds - where boys from Moscow got three years for shoplifting - it was the same grim parade of unredeemed tragedy. It was no expose - the Kirovgrad camp commandant had invited the camera in the forlorn hope of receiving Western aid. It was a heart- rending account of man's inhumanity to children. The harrowing scenes were interspersed with a pathetic litany of children reciting from the articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which had been ratified by most of the 31 countries the programme visited. Where the first programme focused on neglect, the second, last night, looked at exploitation - from the dull despair of 10-year-old domestic servants in Togo to the lifelong bondage of temple prostitutes in Ghana and three- year-olds kidnapped from Bangladesh to train as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates.
Only one thing saved it all from a sense of terrible voyeurism. Blewett and Woods kept appearing in their own film and it was as if their pain purged us of our complicity. They stayed with a rocking child in a Greek cot until the movement stopped and a tentative smile appeared. They sat in devastated silence with a boy in the gulag, and made us share that silence too. Among the child prostitutes of Costa Rica - who crayon colouring books between clients - they met one girl whose life of sex had begun when she was raped, aged seven. They stayed with her at length and made us stay too. We stared until the tears of shame filled her eyes. She turned away, and we looked on still.
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