In his new book, “Planet of Slums,” the American urban historian Mike Davis paints a bleak picture of a world in which the poorest have become so marginalized that they have dropped off the economic radar. Over the past 20 years or so, globalization and the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund have conspired to drive peasants subsisting off their land into cities that can’t absorb them. The bottom line is something like a billion people living hand-to-mouth on a daily basis.
Davis makes his points through economic theory and lots of statistics. He avoids examples at the individual level where sentiment can overwhelm his argument, but usually the poor are presented to the not-poor in sentimental fashion. We see the runny-nosed children, the nursing teenage mother, the ruddy laborer in his coarse shack, and we’re asked to help them by donating money or becoming a “foster parent” from afar. We do so and we feel better, but as Davis shows: The problem gets worse because it’s a result of economic policies that we in the developed world directly or indirectly support.
Well-meaning media accounts of abject poverty often avoid source problems altogether. Fuji TV has been broadcasting an annual special for the past three years called “If the World Were a Village of 100 People,” which is the title of a popular children’s book that attempts to make the Earth’s 6.2 billion people more comprehensible by reducing their various lifestyles to that of a village of 100 residents.
This year’s special was broadcast two weeks ago. A group of celebrities sitting in a studio watched reports about four children in stunned amazement. In the first, a 12-year-old Filipino girl supports her ill mother and two younger brothers by sifting through mountains of garbage for recyclables in the outskirts of Manila. The family lives in a makeshift hovel and once every three days eats a meal of watery rice gruel. The girl makes about 30 yen a day, part of which she has to spend on medicine for her mother.
The girl’s situation is appalling, but the celebrities limit their comments to tearful commiserations and clueless questions. “Why doesn’t she look for work somewhere else?” asks a former boxer, as if it were all a matter of personal choice, but in any case the program makes no attempt to explain the socioeconomic circumstances that keeps this family where it is.
As a documentary, the reports might have some educational value, but the way they are presented raises troubling questions about their intent. The show’s second report was a continuation of the story of an abandoned 13-year-old Argentine girl who was a subject on last year’s special. In that segment, she was pregnant. Now, her son has been born and she has to struggle even more to feed him.
The camera follows her as she tries to secure housekeeping jobs. It also follows her to a free clinic where a doctor scolds her because she stopped breast-feeding her baby too early. It even follows her when she tries to sell blood, but is rejected because she is too young. All this up-close-and-personal camerawork can’t help but beg the question: Did the crew just watch this girl go about her demeaning existence and do nothing to help her or her baby? This is, of course, the basic moral problem that many documentarians face, but the Fuji TV program doesn’t even address it, nor do the celebrities in the studio.
In the voiceover narration, actor Ken Watanabe says, “We should think about [these children’s] situation together. Their strength helps us understand how to live better lives.” In other words, we are meant to be inspired by these children’s struggles.
As far as helping them goes, the show offers a telephone number for UNICEF but, as a call to UNICEF reveals, there is no way one can donate money directly to the children depicted. Contributions go into a fund that helps needy children in general.
Exploiting poor kids for the sake of greater awareness of their plight is not a bad thing in and of itself, but Fuji TV’s purpose is to evoke pity, which has no lasting effect since it doesn’t make people think about the cause of the problem. The emotion that needs to be stimulated is anger.
In that regard, the Brazilian documentary “Bus 174,” which opens in Tokyo next week, is provocative because it shows the structural mechanisms that prevent the indigent poor from escaping their situation. Detailing a Rio de Janeiro bus hijacking that took place in 2001, the film not only analyzes the crisis itself, which became a media circus of ridiculous and tragic proportions, but also the events that led up to the incident.
The gunman, Sandro do Nascimento, had lived on the street since he was a child and as a teenager witnessed the notorious Candeleria Cathedral massacre, in which police shot and killed seven homeless kids who were sleeping in a church. The shooting was apparently part of local efforts to “clean up” the streets. Sandro spent years in juvenile facilities and did a stint in Brazil’s notoriously cramped and filthy prisons. He tried repeatedly to gain legitimate employment, but was always confounded by a system that already considered him refuse.
“Bus 174” presents a clear, specific example of the kind of circumstances that Davis explains from a macroeconomic viewpoint in his book. It perfectly illustrates his contention that we are now in the midst of “an incipient world war between rich and poor,” as shown in places like Gaza, Karachi and Nairobi. The children in the Fuji TV specials are also victims of this war, but they are presented as unlucky waifs simply doing the best they can. The real tragedy is that their best will never be enough.