Left hungry on the street after his mother’s death, on the run from police and stoned on shoemaker’s glue, 13-year-old Emmanuel has meager expectations for life. He is simply looking for something to eat, a place to sleep and perhaps just a chance at a better life.
“I want to go school right now!” he defiantly shouts over and over to anyone who will listen.
In the end, Vineyard filmmakers Len and Georgia Morris listened, and the result is Rescuing Emmanuel, a film chronicling the life of this Nairobi street boy as he fights for survival in one of the world’s poorest cities.
Rescuing Emmanuel is a daring and uncompromising film, showing Emmanuel as both undocumented and essentially unwanted, a ghost living on the streets with no identification or proof of existence. He eats garbage and sniffs glue to cover his crippling hunger and provide what little comfort is possible in an otherwise miserable existence.
In a special screening of the film on Monday at the Capawock in Vineyard Haven, the Morrises explained that they had gone to Kenya intending to make a film about street children in general — and never intended to make a film focusing on one boy.
But Emmanuel had other plans.
“We didn’t realize it at the time, but Emmanuel was adopting us,” Mrs. Morris said.
Emmanuel quickly aligns himself with the crew, calling them simply ‘the whites,’ and tells them his harrowing story of being raped by the bigger boys, being swept off the street by police and sent to jail cells filled with dangerous adult offenders. Along the way, the filmmakers met a grown man named Bravo who raised himself on the street and now organizes Boy Scout troops of needy kids while helping them towards a better life.
The filmmakers leave Emmanuel in Nairobi, travelling to the countryside in search of the cause of the street kid’s poverty, visiting the remarkable home of Mama Zipporah and her husband Isaac, who have taken in 150 children as their own. When they return to Nairobi to reunite with Emmanuel, he is nowhere to be found. Street boys tell them that he has stolen a television set and is on the run.
The film culminates with a search, a rescue and a glimpse of a better life for Emmanuel. He is brought to a hospital to detox from the shoemaker’s glue where he is bathed and given new clothes. He is then given a chance at the school he desperately demanded when he first met the filmmakers. But there is no happy ending for young Emmanuel — this, after all, is real life, where fairy-tale endings rarely come true.
“This is the story of one boy, but it is really the story of millions of boys,” Mr. Morris explained after Monday’s screening. “You never want to look at a human life as being a statistic, but the statistics are overwhelming.”
The film ends on a note both heartbreaking and hopeful. Emmanuel returns to the streets, but has not fallen off the Morrises radar entirely. Mrs. Morris said they still track Emmanuel, and recently received word he was spotted in a village with a school.
“I went to Google maps to locate it, and I found the [village] . . . it had no real buildings, more mud huts. It was very elemental. But we are hoping things are going to change for Emmanuel soon when the movie comes out. He is going to be in the movies and in the newspapers . . . I am hoping at the least his family sees this film and recognizes him,” Mrs. Morris said.
Although the heart of the film is the plight of Emmanuel and his emerging relationship with the filmmakers, it is ostensibly a film about the plague of street children around the world. The Morrises travel to Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia even the U.S. in the film to talk with street children and put a human face on what is now a worldwide epidemic. A recent study from UNICEF found that approximately 10 million children around the world die each year from hunger, or about 30,000 per day or 1 every three seconds.
The Morrises independent film company Galen Films has produced numerous award-winning documentaries on subjects ranging from schizophrenia, environmental justice, the apartheid era in South Africa and the American Western. But over the past ten years, the Morris’ have shifted their focus to making films detailing poverty around the world — particularly the plight of street children.
“These experiences have changed what we are doing. We used to make cowboy movies, but this is what we do now. We are making films about kids now and we hope we can make a difference . . . I know for the first 50 years of my life all I did was look out for me and my family — but the last ten years have really changed my life,” he said.
Making Rescuing Emmanuel was no easy task. The crew was harassed by police almost constantly, Mr. Morris said, and members had to think on their toes to get out of many situations. “When you have an inexperienced 17-year-old policeman with a submachine gun pointed your way; you learn quick you have only one shot to talk your way out of it,” Mr. Morris said.
But after visiting several countries with less-than-helpful police and government officials, Mr. Morris has learned a few tricks. They would hire older street boys to protect them and keep cops away. And they would buy french fries and give them out to street kids, at times monopolizing the vendors as four or five kiosks turned out as many as 100 orders at once.
Mr. Morris said finding an audience may be as difficult as making the movie itself. “We know this is no Batman or Bruce Willis movie. But we are hopeful people will want to know more about these children’s lives . . . of course, we are completely crazy,” he said.
The film has already been screened at the Santa Barbara Independent Film Festival to a positive response, and the Morrises hope the film will be shown in schools or even theaters in major cities. They are optimistic that the story of Emmanuel can reach an audience and effect some change in the world.
The Web site for the film, rescuingemmanuel.com, has a variety of links to charitable organizations.
That giving spirit is perhaps best articulated by Emmanuel himself, who, before returning to the streets, demands that those left behind also be helped. “I will always remember them,” a remarkably selfless statement from someone who has fended for himself his whole life.