In Tom Roberts’ timely Pakistan-set documentary “Every Last Child,” courageous volunteers, the World Health Organization and local police join forces to combat the Taliban’s murderous opposition to polio immunization — a problem that has led to a serious resurgence of the incurable disease that threatens to go global. Roberts examines the situation through the different perspectives of a polio-crippled beggar, the father of an afflicted toddler, a key WHO official and a family of vaccinators. Ali Faisal Zaidi’s vibrant lensing unites these disparate elements, vividly foregrounding the country and its at-risk children, and extending the film’s appeal beyond the merely informational.
The lifelong damage polio causes — particularly in a country like Pakistan, with few dispensations for the disabled — plays out graphically midway through the film as the camera tracks Habib Mehsud as he navigates the streets with enormous difficulty on a hand-wheeled bike, bemoaning his fate and finding hope only in the afterlife. Devastated father Zabih Ullah carries his afflicted baby son, whom he sees get fitted for leg braces that may help him achieve a measure of mobility and avoid a future as a beggar.
Roberts also highlights the work of Gulnaz Shesazi, who saw her niece and her sister-in-law shot to death by Taliban fanatics during a door-to-door vaccination drive, but who perseveres despite the danger. Roberts cuts back to her with other female relatives at various reprises: on an expedition to the beach, mourning at the tombs of her dead, mentoring other nieces in vaccination protocol. Her dedication and bravery register strongly, as does her matter-of-fact, completely natural approach, which cuts through any veiled exoticism that might mark her as “other.” Yet these qualities fail to fully justify the extended, somewhat disproportionate time Roberts allots to her.
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The bulk of “Every Last Child” focuses on the larger ongoing vaccination effort as it seeks to deal with the murders of inoculating volunteers by Taliban militants, reports of which flood TV news screens. The film opens in medias res as armed police are given a pep talk and sent out to protect vaccinators. Buses are regularly stopped at checkpoints so vaccine can be administered to the children on board, affording Roberts multiple occasions for affecting closeups of kids.
Meanwhile, at WHO headquarters, Dr. Elias Durry, head of polio eradication in Pakistan, and his adviser, Babar bin Atta, spend frustrating hours on phones, struggling to come up with a solution to the continued Taliban attacks. One of the most fascinating aspects of Roberts’ documentary concerns the extent to which both sides of the conflict deploy weapons that seem almost stereotypical in their ideological strategy.
The Taliban exploits the somewhat understandable paranoia arising from suspicion of the West, sustained by the initial connection between AIDS and polio vaccine, and newly fueled by drone attacks. It adds to that flat-out lies based on cultural fears, stating that inoculation leads to premature maturity in girls and sterility in boys. Finally, the Taliban finishes off its arguments with summary executions.
The West-centered anti-polio initiative counters with political maneuvering, tying itself to popular local politicians. It also completely revamps its image by “rebranding,” dropping all references to foreign organizations and eliminating the word “polio,” presenting itself instead as the dispenser of a health kit against nine diseases (polio included). Well-protected one-day campaigns replace the longer drives, and Pakistan soon sees a significant drop in polio cases. Impressive though the results of the WHO’s campaign to eradicate polio may be, it is Zaidi’s lensing of the streets, waterways and people of Pakistan that lingers in the mind.