Last Thursday the film director Ken Loach was at a London multiplex for the third public screening of a documentary so off-message its investors wanted it destroyed. In 1969, the UK charity Save the Children commissioned Loach to shoot a film for its 50th anniversary. It’s easy to imagine what they might have been hoping for: a gentle portrait, thin on analysis, heavy on praise.
Instead, Loach delivered an aggressive critique of charity and race and class divisions in a capitalist society. In Africa, as in the UK, Save the Children is dismissed by Loach as a remedy for the conscience of the affluent west. He ridicules the idea of aid dependency and cites socialism as an alternative. Save the Children promptly took out an injunction against the film being screened publicly, and it languished in the British Film Institute’s archive for 40 years.
The film’s focus initially falls on a Save the Children “holiday home” for deprived kids in the Essex countryside. Surrogate parents Uncle Chris and Auntie Lena are charged with teaching the children basic manners and personal hygiene. “Slum children” have “animal instincts”, Auntie complains, and their parents are “born lazy”. Next Loach takes his camera to a school in Kenya run by Save the Children for homeless boys from Nairobi. In the searing heat students wear shirts and blazers, read quaint English books, such as PG Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves, and march in step to military-style brass bands. Two young Kenyan activists appear in the film, one of whom says he can’t think of another school in the world where traditional clothing and the mother tongue aren’t allowed. “It’s ripping Africa out of the children,” he says.
Beyond the charity’s work, we glimpse what life is like for British expatriates in Kenya. Juxtaposed with scenes of skin-and-bones Kenyan women begging in the street, rich ladies in sunglasses boast about the lavish pool parties they attend. Despite the country’s poverty, Kenyans are “happy in their own way” says one. “Kenya is working very well.”
Loach refers to the film as a “rough cut” – there are no credits or titles – and it is a world away from what many would consider “responsible” documentary-making. There is no attempt to include a balancing viewpoint, and no recognition that Save the Children may have been doing its best to alleviate poverty.
And yet the 53-minute film remains pertinent today. Many people continue to feel uneasy about patronage relationships cultivated by philanthropy, the limits of aid and the after-effects of colonialism. If it is ever released to the public, Loach scholars may see the documentary as an early masterpiece, unashamedly angry and derisive.