'Invisible Hands': Film Review

Courtesy of First Run Features
A no-nonsense doc about an infuriating phenomenon.
11/23/2018

TV journalist Shraysi Tandon digs into the global tragedy of child labor and slavery.

A deep dive into one of the many moral nightmares arising in the age of multinational corporations and global supply chains, Shraysi Tandon's Invisible Hands shows how far we are from eradicating child labor — not just in the developing world, but in America as well. Modest in aesthetic terms but more jounalistically serious than many low-budget advocacy docs, the film will be an eye-opener for some, and should add to pressure on executives to stop pretending they're innocent of the crimes contractors commit on their behalf.

Though it will move from industry to industry, the doc begins with a familiar scene, of children locked in stifling rooms to make fashion accessories. We're in Northern India, where we soon meet an adult who has taken the law into his own hands: Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who conducts surprise raids of such sweatshops whether or not the police care to join him. He has been beaten for his efforts, and colleagues have died; we watch as an angry mob beats one in the street while he tries to reach their getaway van.

Soon we're in what would seem to be less likely settings. A boy is chiseling something out of a mine's walls, with a full-size flashlight strapped awkwardly to his head where a real miner's headlamp would be. Children mine cobalt in the Congo, an ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries required by practically every gizmo we own.

In the Indonesian rain forest, workers who are saddled with unmeetable harvest quotas bring their children to help harvest palm oil. Since these kids aren't officially employed, they don't get the protective gear real employees should; they're exposed to hazardous pesticides and the like as they work for an agriculture company that supplies Unilever, Nestle and the makers of just about every candy your child ate on Halloween. When Tandon goes to ask Nestle PR head Christian Frutiger about this, he says the company has no knowledge of its suppliers' human rights violations. But violations don't seem nearly as rare as Frutiger claims, and the company's professed ignorance makes its website's boasts of "responsible sourcing" look like a feel-good lie.

The filmmaker interviews children who've been working since the age of six, highlights a couple of other activists trying to end their labor (including the colorful Anas Aremeyaw Anas, a Ghanaian investigative journalist who always wears disguises) and meets some of the grown-ups who oversee teams of kids. Then she goes on some stings of her own.

With hidden cameras and helpful locals, Tandon gets footage of traffickers in Ghana who sell children into periods of forced labor. On their second visit — the one where they have cops waiting outside — children go for an average of US $34 a piece.

That's a rare case of justice being done in a film whose crimes are buried in so many layers of willful ignorance. From Philip Morris cigarettes and Hershey's kisses to cellphones and (of course!) Axe body spray, Tandon claims unacknowledged child labor is part of the production of most of the cheap goods the modern world demands. And since, in this world, governments are increasingly unable or unwilling to control corporations whose power rivals their own, the only path to change seems to be public shaming, boycotts and an insistence on real, third-party verification of a supply chain's responsibility.

Production company: Tandon Media
Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Shraysi Tandon
Screenwriters: Shraysi Tandon, Chad Beck
Producers: Shraysi Tandon, Charles Ferguson
Executive producers: Christina Weiss Lurie, Todd Dagres, Jane Wilf, Mark Wilf
Directors of photography: Yuanchen Liu, Erik Shirai, Selase Kove Seyram
Editor: Chad Beck
Composer: Sofia Hultquist

73 minutes