Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Stolen Children

I saw the documentary Nepal's Stolen Children on CNN, which featured Demi Moore in virtually every shot. Part of CNN's "Freedom Project", which is committed, brace yourself, to ending modern-day slavery, it was ostensibly about the efforts of CNN's 2010 Hero of the Year Maiti Nepal, who rescues Nepalese women, an estimated 35,000 of which work in Delhi's brothels, from human traffickers and educates Nepalese villagers about the hazards facing them.

Not to be confused with the recent British film on Palestinian children, Stolen Children, Stolen Lives, the title of Nepal's Stolen Children is also somewhat misleading. Stolen Women would've been more accurate, but then it would've reminded people of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1956), which incorporates the historical account of the Roman's rape of the Sabine women.

The Demi Moore documentary also reminded me of a similar one in which Ashley Judd visited the slums and brothels of Mumbai. Celebrities like Moore and Judd affix their names on social causes of one sort or another for all kinds of reasons, not all of which are altruistic. They are welcomed by charities because of their star power - their ability to attract publicity. Even Mother Teresa was capable of it. But the superimposition of a celebrity's face on the problem is, to put it mildly, confusing. I saw the suffering victims of sex trafficking, and then I saw Demi's suffering, as she turned away from the girls (and towards the camera) and wiped away a tear.

Stolen Children just happens to be the title of a 1992 Italian fiction film by Gianni Amelio. originally called Il Ladro di Bambini, or "The Thief of Children", it follows an eleven year old girl whose mother is arrested for selling her for sex - since she was just nine. She and her little brother are escorted from Milan by Antonio, a young carabiniere (similar to a national guardsman), to a children's home. The home refuses to take the girl, so Antonio decides to take the children himself to Sicily, where they were born.

To its great credit, the film avoids making either the children (Valentina Scalici and Giuseppe Ieracitano) or Antonio (Enrico Lo Verso) sympathetic. The boy is at first a virtual zombie and never speaks and the girl is often insufferable and inexplicably defensive. She is clearly the victim of a monstrous crime, but society doesn't know what to do with her. Antonio only volunteered for the onerous job to help a friend, and becomes incensed when nothing goes as planned.

With utterly disarming subtlety, Amelio's film, from an original script, shows us the difficulties that the victims, too, must face when they are "returned to society". By exposing the pettiness of that society when it has to deal with the victims of an unspeakable crime, the film brings out the incipient humanity in Antonio, who pays an exacting price from his superiors for trying to do the right thing.

The final shot, of the two children sitting by the roadside in the early morning, as Antonio looks on from his car, is an image that speaks volumes about a society in such headlong pursuit of success that it is oblivious of its momentary failures.

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