Documentaries like Stolen Childhoods present an uncomfortable dilemma for anyone who cares how movies are made: They have virtually no aesthetic value, but compensate with unimpeachable social worth. Normally, they're limited to screenings at human-rights or documentary-film festivals, or at best, an airing on PBS, but when one of them slips out into theaters, it's like a spoonful of medicine. Narrated by Meryl Streep, Stolen Childhoods visits numerous impoverished areas around the world and reveals a small sampling of the 246 million kids who are doing slave labor for pitiful wages and without the chance for an education. A few of the individual stories are compelling, but mostly, it's just an earnest barrage of information and statistics over images of sad-eyed urchins looking straight into the camera. At no point does an 800 number appear at the bottom of the screen, but clearly the movie is a call to action.
Director Len Morris spent seven years in eight countries gathering footage for the documentary, and he succeeds at the very least in putting a human face behind the global specter of child labor. The most harrowing segment comes at the beginning of the film, in Indonesia, where a 15-year-old recalls his enslavement on an offshore-fishing platform, where he was forced to work long hours for months without ever seeing a dime. After the desperate kid smashes the foreman over the head with a mallet, takes his wages, and swims seven hours to safety, he's convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison. In another startling scene, the owner of an illegal street-side carpet manufacturer in India openly admits to charging kids for mistakes and tying them down and beating them in order to keep his business in line. Other vignettes uncover the underage sex industry in Mexico, coffee fields where over four million Kenyan children work for next to nothing, and Texas border towns where migrants are pulled out of school to pick vegetables alongside their parents.
What can you do to help? Stolen Childhoods warns conscientious consumers in developed nations that many of the products they unknowingly purchase were made by child laborers, so alternative thinkers may want to check those rugs for a "Rugmark" stamp or buy Fair Trade-certified coffee or vote for Senator Tom Harkin. Morris passes the blame around to several different culprits, including corrupt governments who fail to enforce the law and international investors determined to keep prices down no matter the human cost. He also takes time to praise innovative social programs designed to keep young people enrolled in school and the charitable organizations that rescue and rehabilitate street kids who would otherwise not get a second chance. What he doesn't do is make his well-meaning lecture compelling as cinema, but given the subject matter, that was probably the least of his concerns.