Rescuing Emmanuel (Len Morris, 2008): USA

Reviewed by Linda Schad. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Stolen Childhoods is the first of a three part documentary series, in which a husband and wife team, made up of Len and Georgia Morris, turns their cameras on the devastating effect of poverty on the world’s children.  Traveling all over the globe to countries such as Mexico, India, Brazil, Romania, and even the United States, they attempt to give voice to the abandoned, forgotten and frequently exploited children of the streets.

Rescuing Emmanuel is the second in this series. In it, the Morris team continues to focus upon this planet’s poorest and most vulnerable: the abandoned and habitually exploited children of the streets.

The Morrises, joining forces with director of photography, Ian Ellerby, travel this time to Kenya, where they intend to film the street kids in and around the slums of Nairobi, as well as to travel out to the rural region surrounding Kisumu, near Lake Victoria, where AIDS and malaria have taken a heavy toll upon the local population, leaving many of its children without caretakers.

However, during initial shooting in Nairobi, the Morrises’ original plans are quickly turned upside down when one of the young street boys, a wily and mature beyond his 13-years youth by the name of Emmanuel (whose name ironically means “God Is With Us”) “hijacks” the film crew with his broad smile and irrepressible personality.

Dressed in ragged, filthy clothes, obviously reeking from a lack of hygiene, Emmanuel is initially seen picking through garbage, looking for his next meal. Upon observing the film crew, Emmanuel quickly seizes this once in a lifetime opportunity to plead his case directly into the camera, stating insistently that all he wants is clean clothes, a home, and most of all, to return to school.

According to the voice-over narration by Len and Georgia Morris, “Every time we would begin shooting, Emmanuel would mysteriously show up, take center stage and dominate the frame.” Unable to get any footage without Emmanuel’s intrusions, the film crew finally decided to make Emmanuel the central thread of this documentary. Ms. Morris states, “Emmanuel is representative of 100 million street children the world over.”

As the film crew turns their attention upon Emmanuel, he begins to share heart-wrenching tales about how he left home following his mother’s death, how sniffing glue enables the kids to stave off hunger, and how he was raped by older boys and police while in jail.

The film crew also meets “Bravo,” an admirable young man named John Mbugua, who works closely with these Nairobi street boys. Wearing his crisp Boy Scout leader uniform, he functions like an older, loving brother, and their guardian angel. Bravo not only organizes and runs slum Olympics, but is also the founder of Nairobi’s Street and Initiative Programme–an organization that endeavors to call attention to the plight of these impoverished children.

Later, traveling to the Huruma Children’s Home in Ngong, Kenya, the film crew meets Mama Zipporah, who with the help of her husband, Dad Isaac Kamau, has taken in 150 abused and abandoned children, raising them lovingly as if they were her own. She has even built a schoolhouse on her property in order to educate them. (Unfortunately, in a post-script at the end of the film, we learn that Mr. Kamau died not long after this documentary was filmed.)

The film crew decides this might be just the place for Emmanuel, and when Mama Zipporah agrees to take on one more child, they hurry back to Nairobi to tell the boy. But now, for the first time since their arrival in Kenya, Emmanuel is nowhere to be found. The remainder of the documentary is spent trying to locate Emmanuel, until at long last they finally discover “God Is With Us.”

Although the main thrust of this documentary is focused upon the riveting story of this central youth, Rescuing Emmanuel also includes inspirational interviews with and messages from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nobel Laureate Dr. Wangari Massthal, who each address the global scope of this ongoing problem. Making it all the more real, the filmmakers have also included hidden camera footage captured inside a Nairobi jail, where small boys are locked up with hardened criminals, and inside urban nightclubs, where young girls are forced to sell their tiny bodies for small bits of food.

Hopefully, Rescuing Emmanuel will get the wide distribution it so richly deserves. Only by the work of such people as Len and Georgia Morris, Mama Zipporah, and countless others can we get this important information before the eyes of the world. This is a poignant tale that needs to be told, and told often . . . lest we forget.

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