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?
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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