Filmmaker Len Morris finds it shameful that a documentary on child labor is even possible in the 21st century. But it is, and Morris’ Galen Films, in conjunction with Romano Productions, spent years documenting a human rights abuse afflicting a quarter of a billion children.
The documentary, “Stolen Childhoods,” is an 86-minute look at the problem Morris calls “imminently eliminatable.” After spending seven years gathering more than 400 hours of footage from seven countries, Morris and company will see their film released theatrically in New York City May 20.
Already available on DVD and VHS, Morris hopes the feature documentary will find its way to individuals, churches, colleges and organizations who realize the moral gravity of child labor.
Morris, 58, recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com by phone from the Galen Films office at Martha’s Vineyard.
Genesis of the Documentary
“‘Stolen Childhoods’ started when we received a tape from my co-director and cameraman, Robin Romano, who was traveling in India,” said Morris. He had known Romano for 20 years, and they had collaborated on various projects.
Everyone in the office viewed the tape, which showed children laboring in gravel quarries and brick kilns.
“It was just so stunning and so shocking, just so prehistoric,” said Morris, who had worked in television and film for several decades and seen just about everything. “Because it involved children, it just made our jaws drop.”
Morris knew Romano was sending the tape to bait him into taking on the project, and it worked. The Galen Films team reached a consensus that very day in 1998 to make a documentary on child labor.
Morris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, taking a bachelor’s in theater from Westchester State Teachers College and a master’s in broadcasting from Boston University.
Morris worked at WUHY, a public radio station in Philadelphia, where he produced hundreds of programs to help put himself through college. That background in radio spurred the master’s in broadcasting and his interest “in trying to put some imagery with the audio work that I’d been doing for so many years.”
Along the way, he met and married his wife, Georgia. They’ll celebrate 35 years of marriage this June.
Len and Georgia eventually bought some film equipment and formed Galen Films, which takes its name from their names. They won an American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker Award in the late 1970s, which put them on a trajectory for New York City, where they lived and worked for a decade.
Morris worked at ABC News and “20/20” as a film editor and producer, then the Morris family, which had grown to include two children, moved to Martha’s Vineyard. Galen Films set up shop there, continuing to produce various types of programs.
Then Romano’s tape arrived in 1998. The project turned out to have relatively good timing; the subject matter benefited from more portable equipment made possible with newer technology.
Making the Documentary
“When you’re filming child labor, you’re not welcome,” said Morris. Thus, portable equipment is almost a necessity for getting in and out of a situation in one piece.
“You also never know where or when and in what circumstances you’ll find children working in this fashion,” he said.
Morris and Romano used Sony cameras costing between $3,000 and $5,000.
“These cameras get a signal and get an image that’s just remarkable,” said Morris, adding that their mini-DV format keeps them lightweight and portable.
“We had so many uncomfortable moments I would be at a loss to recount them,” said Morris, who added that while Romano was busy operating the camera, he (Morris) was often in a position to see men coming to run them off by various means.
“I felt like my adrenaline was going for about five years,” he said. When they were shooting kids forced to work in Mexico City’s prostitution market, he said he “felt quite justifiably we might take a bullet any minute.” Two days before, a cameraman had been shot dead.
When production wrapped, the filmmakers had lost about four cameras. While shooting at the gravel quarry and brick kiln, Morris said temperatures of 135 degrees-plus simply melted camera mechanisms. Such were and are the working conditions of the children.
Believing in Something
“Stolen Childhoods” features not only the horrors of child labor, but also the work of various individuals and organizations working to end the abuses. Morris said they knew from the project’s beginning they would include a hopeful side of the issue.
“I think there is some value to use the medium to draw attention to abuse at this level, obviously,” said Morris. “But I think it’s equally import to suggest as a practical matter what people can do or what’s being done.”
“Hope is very important,” he added. “Not just hope, but the practical application of effort to improve things and to eliminate this human rights blight.”
Morris also commented on the fact that hope—sometimes in a higher power—is what keeps these children hanging on.
“These children, who’ve had their trust violated, often will in fact turn to God,” he said. “That’s not something that can be stripped away from them.”
When Morris was shooting in Mexico City, he followed an extended family of street children down into their home, which was a manhole.
“When you go down into that hole,” he said, “they have The Last Supper up on the wall down there.”
Also on Mexico City’s streets, he met a boy addicted to sniffing glue. During the interview, the boy showed Morris the only thing he had in addition to his glue-sniffing paraphernalia: a comic book about the life of Jesus.
“It’s just not that uncommon an experience to see that when you strip everything away from these kids, they often still retain a very stubborn faith in something,” he said. “You have to believe in something.”
The Child Labor Issue
“People are shocked,” said Morris of people’s reactions to viewing the documentary. He’s screened it with first-graders, politicians, graduate students and many others. Their first response is always, “What can we do?”
Morris directs people to the “Stolen Childhoods” Web site, which offers a list of links and suggestions on how to help.
As the documentary suggests, a variety of solutions will deal with the problem of child labor. They include concrete acts—like making donations or buying fair-trade coffee—and structural changes—like making education a priority.
“There’s a moral component to this,” said Morris, who emphasized that child labor is not a partisan cause.
“This is not a red state-blue state issue,” he said. “George Bush didn’t invent child labor. This is a human right issue. This is about children.”
Morris also bemoaned the fact that the United States isn’t meeting its pledges for helping curtail poverty, which Morris said goes hand-in-hand with child labor.
“They’re bedfellows,” he said, adding that children who start at the bottom will stay at the bottom, continuing this horrible cycle of poverty and child labor.
“The children are, in fact, an opportunity in a world full of resentment and anger,” he concluded. That’s why, said Morris, “At the end of the day, first and foremost, this is a moral set of issues.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The Galen Films Web site is here.
The “Stolen Childhoods” Web site is here.