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Every Last Child, a documentary about the World Health Organization’s campaign to vaccinate Pakistani children against polio, has a lot of statistics, a little drama, and a few personal stories. But a cohesive film doesn’t result as a sum of those parts.
It’s hard to decide which of director Tom Roberts’ missteps is the worst: There’s a lack of organization in his storytelling, yes, but he also makes the terribly distracting choice of throwing text—lots and lots of text—on the screen, in different spots, and in rather thin letters, while an often drama-filled or sympathy-evoking scene simultaneously demands the viewer’s attention.
The notes are there to get viewers up to speed with the polio situation in Pakistan, one of only three countries in which the virus still exists. (In fact, Pakistan hosts 80 percent of polio cases worldwide.) So the WHO launched a 12-week campaign to help eradicate the disease, with volunteers going door to door to vaccinate children.
The Taliban banned the vaccine, however, and began killing volunteers daily. At the campaign’s launch, policemen referred to the effort as the “Holy War.” Dr. Elias Durry, WHO’s head of polio containment in Pakistan, sees it differently when his workers start to fall: “It’s not supposed to be a war.”
Despite the abundance of stats strewn across the screen—some of which you’re sure to miss because of their bouncing placement—any viewer will grasp that the campaign is dangerous. But individual stories are presented without context and come off as heavily directed. There’s one family of mostly women who visit a beach and talk about how it’s their first time at the spot without two family members who have died. They mention it more than once, and the subsequent conversation is not natural. You can almost hear Roberts asking, “Can you reminisce a bit more? Include a detail from your last visit? Mention the deceased again?” Later, they’re shown mourning on the anniversary of their relatives’ deaths, and it feels just as staged: “Now, linger over these photos a while.” It’s not until the very end of the film that we learn exactly what happened to these women, information that would have made the previous scenes less puzzling.
The most surprising and frustrating factor of the health organization’s efforts is that several Pakistanis refuse the vaccinations, saying it’s a “huge conspiracy” by the U.S. and Europe-funded WHO. The shot “makes boys impotent,” they say, in a strategy to control the Muslim population. When their talk turns to drones, though, you can almost see their point: Children are being killed in acts of war, yet the same countries that attack them want to ensure their children’s health? Someone jokes, semi-seriously, that if Pakistan is to be polio-free, it should be drone-free, too.
Of course, there’s heartbreak here that no amount of filmic messiness can obscure. Watching a paralyzed toddler wiggle and wail as he’s fitted for leg braces is agonizing, as is following a polio-struck 31-year-old man who gets around on a hand-cranked bike and drags himself across sidewalks and floors. “I console myself knowing that life is temporary,” he says, with an attitude and fortitude you can’t imagine.
Pakistanis aren’t the only citizens of the world who distrust vaccines—cough Jenny McCarthy cough—but the country’s dilapidated infrastructure and unclean drinking water (polio is water-borne) make it even more important to convince its residents otherwise. Durry and other WHO execs brainstormed a smart plan to downplay the vaccine and instead include it as part of a rebranded “Justice for Health” package. So far, it’s working.
Every Last Child opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.