Island Filmmakers: Debuting Here, a Documentary on Lost Youth

By JESSIE ROYCE HILL

He handles the direction and production. She, a playwright, tends to the script. Together, Len and Georgia Morris of Galen Films have made dozens of award-winning documentary films from their studio in Vineyard Haven.

Now they will offer the Island the premiere of their latest, Stolen Childhoods, in a free showing at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center Jan. 31. It is a feature-length documentary on global child labor. It is a film of wrenching footage and interviews with some of the children who fuel the global economy at its most fundamental level.

Photo

The film delivers images of children around the world, at work. They balance baskets of rocks atop their heads at a stone quarry in India; they pick beans at a coffee plantation in Kenya, the chemicals burning their hands and faces; they salt fish without pay on a remote fishing platform off the Indonesian coast.

The narration is by Meryl Streep, in her firm and maternal voice: "For 246 million children, life is nothing but work."

Filmed in seven countries, the feature was written, produced and edited here by the Morrises, full-time Islanders. Vineyard children who speak English translations of the children's words are among more than 40 local people who participated in the production.

"Everyone keeps asking us how the film's going, when can we see it?" said Mr. Morris, 56, at his studio, which doubles as home. The couple moved to the Island from New York with two young children 17 years ago to see if they could make a life here. They named their film company Galen (a combination of their first names) and in the years since have made dozens of documentaries for cable and international television on topics as diverse as schizophrenia, hunger in Africa and singing cowboys.

Though frequented by media moguls in the summer, the Vineyard is not known as a haven for filmmakers. Yet here are two professional documentarians who have continued to run a successful film studio since their arrival.

"Some people thought we were crazy to leave New York and expect to continue [making films]," said Mr. Morris. "It's not always easy on an island, but I have the network from 20 years of doing this. I leave to meet the people and film them, and I come back here to work."

The Morrises began work on Stolen Childhoods two years ago after their filmmaking partner, Robin Romano, sent them rough footage he'd shot in India, asking if they wanted to get involved.

The answer was yes. "The stone quarry where the girls were working looked like the surface of the moon," said Ms. Morris. "It seemed medieval." Partnering with the International Labor Relief Fund, a not for profit based in Washington, D.C., the Morrises planned shoots in several countries which fostered child labor.

Photo

Given the grim topic of the film, the team wanted to balance the bleakness with a sense of hope. They sought out programs in each country which are taking substantive measures to remove poor children from the workforce and place them in schools. These efforts are chronicled in the film.

The clandestine nature of the child labor force made several of the filming expeditions dangerous, especially for a small crew with limited funds and protection. From the loom factories of India where children squat weaving rugs to the streets of Mexico where barely adolescent girls sell their bodies, the team struggled to gain access to the children and document their work on film.

"They were a bunch of white guys in a van with cameras," said Ms. Morris. "They looked suspicious to the local establishment."

"There's a war on for control of these spaces," Mr. Morris added, speaking of the shadowy forces - both civilian and law enforcement - who patrol the areas where children are pressed into unrelenting labor. There are many with a vested interest in keeping the exploitation of children from public view.

"They do it with motor scooters and cell phones," said Mr. Morris. "Whether we were filming the dump children in Brazil or the girls on the street in Mexico, they'd ride ahead of us, spreading the word of our arrival. We'd watch the children peel away one by one."

One harrowing episode Mr. Morris recounts took place on a Kenyan coffee farm. Having secured permission from the parents of the children working there, the crew, which on that trip included his 19-year-old son Sam, along as sound recorder, began filming among the plants. Suddenly a mob of angry men descended upon them with clubs and machetes. Ironically, the guide who had been instructed by the government to monitor the crew's activities saved them, putting himself between the groups and demanding peace.

Back on the Vineyard, Ms. Morris kept a diary of the e-mails her husband sent home at the end of each day of filming. On the ninth day of filming in Kenya he wrote:

"I can't remember from one day to the next what I've written. This is a haze of sleep deprivation, malaria drugs, filming and breathing pesticides everywhere. Silvia's leg wound has had two dressings. We returned Saturday for her. When we arrive she beams. We treated another line-up. Filmed so many children working."

Photo

Each shoot lasted from two to six weeks. The crew simultaneously shot footage of street children for a second film planned. Mr. Morris calibrated his approach to the individual circumstances of each country. They went equipped with cameras hidden in sunglasses when it was necessary. But mostly, Mr. Morris said, the crew's strategy was to find good drivers who knew the town, zero in on the workplaces of children, and ask them the questions they'd often never been asked: What are you thinking? How are you feeling?

Back home the Morrises faced more challenges, in post-production. As tends to happen in the world of documentary film, they had run low on funding, despite various grants and partnerships. Then Peter Farrelly, a seasonal resident and maker of a decidedly different kind of films, popped in.

"He came by last summer with Woody Harrelson to watch a cut," said Mr. Morris. "It was still really long at that point, and hot in the editing room. But he watched 98 minutes and didn't blink. He came out and asked me how he could help."

One answer was Meryl Streep, whom the Morrises had had difficulty reaching. Mr. Farrelly, who knows Ms. Streep, sent a copy of the film to her home and she immediately agreed to donate her time to narrate it. He also helped put together a fundraising party to help Galen Films in the final stretch.

The Morrises' goal with the film is to elicit a strong response from audiences who will, they hope, feel called to action. Screenings are planned at universities around the country, and wider North American distribution, including television, is in the works.