THE BLOG

'Every Last Child,' or Ways to Mistrust America

06/06/2015 01:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2016

Thankfully, we have documentaries, such as Every Last Child, to open a window on what's going on in the world, beyond Kardashians and Cait Jenner. Just when you thought it couldn't get any nastier out there, here's a movie about the drive to eradicate polio in Pakistan, home to the planet's most cases -- and lo, the Taliban issues a ban against the vaccination program, gunning down health workers.

Admittedly grim, the film is compelling because documentarian Tom Roberts, a sophisticated craftsman, plays the story for suspense: Will the medical personnel striving to stamp out polio succeed in the face of the Taliban's murderous opposition? Roberts infuses his account with human interest by focusing on the dramas of several individuals affected by Pakistan's current polio crisis. And, in infiltrating Karachi's gathering places -- at what feels like considerable risk -- Roberts really gets the story's full dimensions by presenting the side of the anti-vaccinators.

Everyone has their reasons, as Renoir has famously remarked. And though the Taliban's actions are beyond despicable, in this film, their muddled reasons become somewhat understandable. Not only do they implicate America in this health crisis -- they bring into sharp focus the double-edged role and image of this country across the world.

The human interest stories Roberts teases out spotlight the daily travails of a badly crippled beggar, struck by polio in childhood and painfully navigating the streets on a hand-wheeled bike (by film's end, mercifully, he receives a new motorized one), a devastated father whose toddler gets fitted for leg braces, and a family struggling to come to terms with two women relatives who were shot by the Taliban for distributing drops to immunize the country's children.

At the center of the crisis is a medical specialist from the World Health Organization, confounded at finding himself in the crosshairs of politics, bloodshed and misinformation designed to frighten the masses (such as Taliban propaganda labeling the vaccine a sinister conspiracy by the West that could cause, among other afflictions, impotence).

Child gives human contours to a country little understood in the West. The words of Habib Mehsud, the crippled beggar reflecting on his fate could be something out of Tolstoy in his Christian phase.

And lenser Ali Faisal Zaidi hauntingly captures dusty playing fields, colorful fabrics, watery byways and the beautiful faces of the country's at-risk children. In its portrait of human forbearance Child resembles The Salt of the Earth, a must-see doc, currently in theaters, about the great humanist photographer Sebastaio Salgado.

The most illuminating takeaway from Child, however, might be the suspicion in many quarters of anything with an American or a Western imprimatur, even a vaccine to prevent polio. As one Pakistani remarks in a café: How can you trust a country that one moment dispenses medicine, and the next kills our people with drones?