Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Kailash - As a young man, Kailash Satyarthi promised himself that he would end child slavery in his lifetime. In the decades since, he has rescued more than 80,000 children and built a global movement. This intimate and suspenseful film follows one man’s journey to do what many believed was impossible.
"There is also no mistaking the challenge to us, the viewers, regarding our own awareness of where products come from and our, albeit unwitting, culpability in child exploitation." | Photo: Derek Doneen

It seems incredible that almost 150 years after the death of Charles Dickens, the world is still dogged by so many of the social issues that populate his books, not least the subject of child labour - although, of course, slavery is a more appropriate term. In India, Kailash Satyarthi was inspired as a child to try to do something about it.

"It was a shock for me that some people are born to work at the cost of their childhood," he explains at the beginning of Derek Doneen's thorough and engaging documentary, which won the US Documentary Competition prize at Sundance this year. Deciding to found a movement against child slavery, Satyarthi has since gone on to rescue more than 80,000 kids - although as this film shows, that is only the tip of the iceberg of his global work to clamp down on exploitation.

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Doneen's film takes a three-prong approach - looking at Satyarthi's life and work, tracking a sting operation involving traffickers and following the rehabilitation of children who have been freed. Providing a through line are the experiences of a group of kids we see rescued from a sweatshop in the first few minutes of the film. This structure serves the film well, as chunks of information about the life and work of Satyarthi are broken up with the more emotional elements involving the youngsters being helped to overcome their trauma at his ashrams. It is there they take the first tentative steps towards being children again and where they often hope to be reunited with their families.

Animation by Jason Carpenter (who previously animated sequences for He Named Me Malala), evokes Satyarthi's early life. Although a lot of ground is being covered, Doneen doesn't neglect to dig around at some of the root causes of exploitation, highlighting the way that many impoverished families are tricked into selling their children off but also showing the steps being taken to make sure that the situation isn't repeated if the kids go home. There is also no mistaking the challenge to us, the viewers, regarding our own awareness of where products come from and our, albeit unwitting, culpability in child exploitation. This is underlined by a series of facts that run over the credits - and sadly missed by many exiting the cinema at the Sundance screening I attended - highlighting among other issues, that the US is now the only country in the world not to ratify the UN convention on the Rights of the Child.

Although Satyarthi's dedication and achievements speak for themselves, this is not a glossy hagiography, largely because he himself is acutely aware of the sacrifices made by his own family for the greater good. But as he puts it "sacrifice is what builds the foundations of hope" - like much of this film, something for us all to think about.

Reviewed on: 05 Feb 2018
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Portrait of Kailash Satyarthi, who has made it his life's work to end child slavery and exploitation.

Director: Derek Doneen

Year: 2018

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

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