Can TV make a difference?

A new documentary from the makers of The Dying Rooms exposes one of the unacknowledged realities of globalisation: the slave trade. But will it have any effect?

Drissa takes off his T-shirt. His numerous wounds are deep and open - down to the bone. If it weren't for the maggots that have nested in his skin, he would surely have succumbed to gangrene.

Drissa takes off his T-shirt. His numerous wounds are deep and open - down to the bone. If it weren't for the maggots that have nested in his skin, he would surely have succumbed to gangrene.

Drissa was a slave on an Ivory Coast cocoa plantation. Forced to work for 18 hours a day on little or no food, and locked in a small room with his fellow captives at night, he was regularly, systematically, brutally beaten. It is scarcely credible that such cruelty and disregard for human life should be employed in the production of a chocolate bar.

Film-makers Kate Blewett and Brian Woods are perhaps best known for their first collaboration, The Dying Rooms, in which we witnessed the appalling neglect of baby girls in China's orphanages. They have subsequently turned their gaze on the suffering and abuse of children worldwide ( Innocents Lost) and at home ( Eyes of a Child), and this week their 90-minute documentary Slavery airs on Channel 4.

It investigates three areas of contemporary enslavement: the Ivory Coast's cocoa production; the children of India's Northern Bihar region who are abducted from their villages, hidden from their families, and forced to make rugs; and the imprisonment and degradation of domestic workers both in the US and here in Britain. Blewett and Woods make no bones about it: this is a campaigning film, made to help to bring about change.

There was a time, of course, that hard-hitting documentaries designed to expose injustice at home and abroad were an integral part of what made British television so proud of itself. Now that the market has fragmented, however, the tough stuff has become part of "event television": long, one-off specials dotted around the schedules. They still pick up swathes of awards, but there is no doubt that they are ever scarcer on the ground.

"An awful lot of people who go into television," says Woods, "do so because they want to make a difference. But hardly anyone ever gets the chance, because the vast majority of programming is entertainment and there is very little room for anything else."

Blewett and Woods are also fortunate enough to be in demand: "We have been lucky to get a reputation for this kind of film, and so we've been pigeon-holed as campaigning film-makers," Woods concurs. "But others with great ideas wouldn't be given a chance because they've already been labelled as something else."

Campaigning, politicised film-making is now most often presented as a personal quest for justice, with the subject matter as the film-maker/presenter's subjective point of view: John Pilger reports on Iraq; Fergal Keane investigates the state of Britain; the makers of The Dying Rooms uncover a contemporary slave trade.

Adam Barker commissioned Slavery for C4, and was keen that it should fall into the channel's category of authored, "signature" documentaries: "It was an opportunity to bring Brian and Kate's skills as humanitarian film-makers to look at the flip side of what globalisation really means," he explains. "That would be very hard - and quite dry - if put across in a way that wasn't made into such a collective experience. Brian and Kate's on-screen presence provides the viewers with an emotional connection and is a valuable method of weaving a number of complex stories together."

He expects a big response: "After Maggie O'Kane's The Face of Death, the channel received 10,000 calls. I would imagine similar numbers after Slavery screens on Thursday night."

Motivating the viewers to respond is what it's all about. Blewett and Woods have teamed up with Anti-Slavery International to produce a companion information pamphlet, and the pressure group will also be sending out information packs to schools. By switching to Fair Trade chocolate and lobbying the other manufacturers to insist on non-slave labour-produced cocoa, and making sure our fashionable Indian rugs bear the Rugmark stamp (which guarantees an ethical production standard) we could dramatically improve the lives of many. The responsibility of getting that message across is at the core of Blewett and Woods's work.

"This is how change begins," says Blewett. "If a certain number of viewers write to the chocolate manufacturers, and a few thorns get stuck in their corporate sides, then one chocolate company announces that they will no longer accept cocoa produced through slavery - and makes a big deal out of the fact - then the others will be forced to follow suit."

"You have to be careful of attributing specific effects as a consequence of journalism," veteran campaigning film-maker John Pilger tells me. "But the power of television is undisputed. The only problem is that it is too seldom exploited."

He holds no truck with the notion of "compassion fatigue": "I think it's nonsense; if anyone is suffering from it, it's the journalists, not the public. After my film on East Timor, Death of a Nation, went out, BT logged 4,000 calls per minute. People wrote to the Government and their MPs - the assault of public opinion certainly surprised the Foreign Office." He does recognise, however, that raising awareness is only the first step: "Television can shine a spotlight very quickly and effectively on human rights abuses, but the awareness it raises is always in danger of dissipating just as fast."

Another campaigning film-maker, Tom Roberts, is responsible for a number of documentaries with a political and social agenda; Mother Russia's Children looked at the terrible experience of that nation's young homeless; Staying Lost forced us to acknowledge the pain and suffering experienced by our own street kids.

What effect does he believe television can have? "It's impossible to quantify the impact, and information now comes in so many forms, no one has a dominant voice. It's hard to imagine, for example, an impact equivalent to that of Cathy Come Home occurring today.

"That's not an argument against doing it," he is quick to stress. "We need more campaigning films, not less: there are as many prejudices out there as there ever were, and we must always seek to redress the balance. The most important thing about our work is to make people look, and to make them realise that tiny voices have power when they refuse to look away."

Those compelled to act by this screening of Slavery will be directed to the pressure group Anti-Slavery International. Its director, Mike Dotteridge, is in no doubt of the film's potential; "Most people do not realise that slavery exists in the 21st century, and it is only through knowledge of its continued existence that it can be defeated. If the public are inspired to make the effort, they can make a real difference."

In Slavery, Drissa, the young man in the Ivory Coast, is asked what he would say to the public in Britain about the chocolate they eat. He replies: "They enjoy something that I suffered to make. I worked hard for them, but saw no benefit. When they eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh."

'Slavery', C4, tomorrow, 9pm. Anti-Slavery International is on 020-7501 8920 or at

Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Digital Project Manager / Web Project Manager

£45-50k (DOE) + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced ...

Account Manager

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Account Manager to join ...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home