It might seem a stretch to compare the Taliban to certain overly crunchy, free-range parents in, say, southern California. But when it comes to being anti-vaccination, filmmaker Tom Roberts sees little difference.
“It’s exactly the same thing,” said Roberts, whose “Every Last Child” – the story of an anti-polio campaign being waged in Pakistan against lethal Taliban resistance – opens in theaters Wednesday and holds an only slightly skewed mirror up to our own problems with inoculations and paranoia.
“The resistance to vaccinations is based in an intense distrust of central authority,” said the veteran filmmaker, who directed “Every Last Child” for the Abu Dhabi-based Image Nation. “They feel there’s some kind of conspiracy against them — religious, sociological, class. All vaccinations campaigns are fought by communities that are alienated from the central government. All those groups that fear or dislike or distrust central government resist the campaigns.”
And why would a seemingly altruistic operation like a child vaccination campaign incite suspicion, either in Pakistan or elsewhere?
“Maybe they’re working for Big Pharma,” Roberts said, citing one theory. “Or they’re working for the Jews. There’s some paranoia in the back of their minds.” The sequence in “Zero Dark Thirty” that portrayed the CIA launching an “anti-hepatitis”-cum-data-gathering operation, didn’t help the vaccination cause worldwide, Roberts said, although fundamentalists were already leery. “All ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ did was confirm the suspicion in their minds.”
In one scene in Roberts’ film, which involves Pakistani men discussing their distrust of the anti-polio campaign, one suggests that some NGO launch an “anti-drone campaign.” It’s hard to say he doesn’t have a point.
Buoyed by Ali Faisal Zaidi’s fluid photography and a propulsive score by Nitin Sawhney, “Every Last Child” focuses mainly on the work of the World Health Organization and volunteers who risk their lives and sometimes lose them. Roberts, whose company October Films (the UK version, not the American) at one point produced a large percentage of Channel 4’s documentary output, also directed the TV movie “Mandela: The Prison Years” and the 2008 POW drama “In Transit,” with Vera Farmiga and John Malkovich. He said he put together a production team in Pakistan “from scratch,” and couldn’t in fact be present for many scenes.
“What we realized early on was if I were seen going into a house I could put that family at risk,” he said. “Because of the way I look, someone could conclude I’m a CIA guy and could have gone in there and killed them. So I couldn’t be at a lot of locations because I’d put other people at risk, not just myself. But that’s not how you do observational anyway. The way to do it is you build a strong relationship with the characters and the cameraman is a partner in that relationship. What you’re trying to do is find powerful emotional moments and make sure there’s a camera there to get them.”
Roberts’ rapport with his subjects grew so intimate it even surprised him: One woman, whose relatives were killed during the polio campaign, got so comfortable she removed her hijab in front of his camera — an act that, culturally speaking, was almost as if she’d undressed in front of him.
The director said he had no interest or connection to polio until he made the film, but got totally sucked in, partly because of the perniciousness of the disease, which can leave a child crippled for life (“and is far more virulent than ebola”) and the ease with which it can be thwarted.
“Why should any child have to suffer a lifelong disability because for a ten-pence vaccine?” he asked, while conceding that price and availability can only do so much against ignorance, hate and suspicion. “There was one Taliban at a rally,” Roberts said, “who held up his daughter, who was crippled by polio, and called her a martyr. He said, ‘This is the price we must pay to keep this virus alive so we can re-export it to the West.’ There are some hard cases out there.”