Monday, November 10, 2014

DOC NYC ’14: Every Last Child

It is a subject that the Taliban and Jenny McCarthy agree on. They both oppose vaccinations. Of course, the Taliban take it a bit further. In 2012, they declared war on the public health workers conducting Pakistan’s Polio vaccination campaign—and lo and behold, Polio contraction skyrocketed among Pakistani children. Threatened health official try to reverse the tide in Tom Roberts’ Every Last Child (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

There is no excuse for the volume of Polio cases sweeping Pakistan, but there is an explanation. Claiming it sterilizes boys and hastens the maturation of girls, the Taliban launched a perverse misinformation campaign against the national Polio vaccination program, finding an all too receptive audience amid the drone-obsessed fundamentalist population. As a result, Pakistan became an incubator of Polio, spreading the water-borne disease to neighboring countries through contaminated rivers.

Roberts takes the observational approach throughout ELC, so he rarely challenges anyone directly. It would be nice to see him confront smug vaccination opponents with the fruits of their demagoguery, but he presumably wanted to live. However, he never shies away from documenting the catastrophic repercussions. We watch an anguished father taking his Polio-stricken son for physical therapy and witness the vaccination volunteer mourning her assassinated sister and niece.

There is no shortage of galling human tragedy in ELC, but some of the most compelling sequences capture the World Health Organization point man’s attempts at crisis management. In a mind-boggling turn of events, they decide to drop the “discredited” word Polio, re-branding their campaign “Justice for Health,” which might be a winning strategy, but represents a crime against syntax.

The Pakistani and NGO health workers are remarkably brave and dedicated, but it would be nice to hear just one of them state the obvious: Islamist ideology is dangerous to public health. Despite the hopeful conclusion, the underlying dogma that precipitated the crisis has not gone away. In a way, Roberts focuses on a particularly problematic symptom rather than the disease. Still, it is a timely reminder why all children should be vaccinated (that’s something we shouldn’t need in contemporary America, but apparently we do). Recommended on balance for those concerned about anti-vaccination hysteria, Every Last Child screens this Friday (11/14) as part of DOC NYC 2014.