The cost of sending one Brazilian child to school instead of work: $10 a day. The cost of sending the world's 250 million child laborers to school for one year: $8 billion. The cost of ending child labor: priceless. For perspective, $8 billion is less than one-half of one percent of the U.S. budget, and a fraction of the combined budgets of the G-8, the most economically developed countries in the world. International organizations that advocate for children, those that study economic development and that provide aid, the United Nations included, are unequivocal in their opinion that preventing child labor is not simply a humanitarian gesture but a necessary step toward the eradication of poverty in underdeveloped countries. Stolen Childhoods depicts the quest for that goal, and introduces us to some children for whom life is work.
Filmmakers Len Morris and Robin Romano outline child-labor practices in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the United States-where there are an estimated 800,000 working children, mostly migrant farm workers-but their documentary is marred by its blatant promotion of advocacy groups, Rugmark among them. (Rugmark places a seal on rugs that are not produced through child labor.) In fact, a Rugmark board member served as a consultant on Stolen Childhoods. Although there are no moral arguments in favor of child labor, there is a journalistic imperative to tell the stories of the brigands who employ children if only to chronicle our greed-the developed countries are the largest consumers of products, such as coffee, picked by children in the chemical killing fields of Africa and Latin America. Unlike excellent documentaries such as Starkiss: The Circus Girls of India, (2003), which provides a full account of the cultural and social milieu that perpetuates the enslavement of children, Stolen Childhoods tells you how to be politically correct.
Brief conversations with children employed in rug-making, farming, fishing, stone quarrying and prostitution are interspersed with interviews with experts including 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and Senator Tom Harkin (D, Iowa). Harkin states what is now a commonly accepted truth, that poverty and its frequent byproduct, child labor, serve as breeding grounds for terrorists; more interestingly, he speaks about sponsoring federal legislation which would ban the import of goods made with child labor. Dr. Maathai is more eloquent in her expression of the global nature of the problem: She points to the devastating effect of the debt service paid by Third World countries to the World Bank and the IMF, which leads to economic failure and unfair labor practices.
Meryl Streep narrates Stolen Childhoods, and her voice, so exacting in its inflections, emphatically expresses every emotion experienced by the viewer. That's unfortunate, because as the documentary progresses the narrative voice entirely usurps those feelings, dulling our reactions to the iniquities of child labor and to the wonderful programs, such as Brazil's Bolsa Escola, that seek to eradicate it. Add the pedantic aims of the filmmakers-look for the Rugmark label-and the result is an infomercial rather than a film. One can only hope that the release of Stolen Childhoods is an indication that the horrors of child labor have finally entered the zeitgeist.