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Invisible Hands

Year: 2018
Production Co: Circus Road Films
Director: Shraysi Tandon
Producer: Shraysi Tandon
Writer: Shraysi Tandon

You expect this documentary about child labour to be fairly dry and statistical, maybe delivered with shots of bemused kids staring out of grimy sweatshops or mines as white-skinned people point cameras at them.

But the opening scene seems to be a statement about the tone. An Indian man who runs an activist foundation to find and extract children from abusive labour swoops on a factory, rounding a clutch of children up who seem to be as young as six, the police helping him herd them outside and start to identify them.

A few scenes later, his camera crew are in a car waiting for him to return to them when a mob descends, running after him, tripping him and kicking the shit out of him before he can struggle to his feet and reach the car. There are a lot of vested interests who want child labour to continue and a dimension of violence inherent in the system that's a lot dirtier and more tactile in the film than just kids denied a childhood.

But Invisible Hands is about more than countries with dodgy labour infrastructure far from the eyes of Western consumers (exemplified by the African farmer who employs virtual child slave labour and is so unaware of the reasons against it he barely bats an eyelid about doing it when interviewed). For one thing it makes you complicit, because you'll look at every iPhone, piece of fruit or item of jewellery you buy from now on and wonder who suffered so you could get it so cheap.

Second, it's separated roughly into chapters that investigate certain countries. After India you expect the film to move to China, Bangladesh or The Congo, but you certainly don't expect the next title card to read 'The United States', where the filmmakers then talk to several teenagers (almost all of them minorities, tellingly) who talk about the depravation, abuse, abysmal conditions and overwork they face working on farms across America.

Subsequent sections do move onto other parts of the world like the coltan mines of the DRC, and it proves just how little you know about the topic when China – of all places – gets a much better report card than you imagine, the burgeoning economy and increased scrutiny by intergoverment organisations and NGOs making a real difference. Ironically the group the section about China focuses on are college-age students told they'll get valuable work experience over their summer break before they're press ganged into repetitive and soul-crushing manufacturing work they have to stick with to get passing scores.

But the overarching theme of Invisible Hands is one in which nobody is immune from some blame. As long as we demand ultra-cheap consumer goods, the multinational conglomerates who provide them will cut any corners they can, and the structure of the big business world lets them effectively shield themselves from any involvement.

The layers of supply chain obfuscation between your box of chocolates and a five year old kid down in a hole full of filthy water somewhere in Africa let them (and us) turn a completely blind eye until someone throws an ugly scene on their doorstep – leaving some expensive PR to try to explain it away with boilerplate and bullshit about internal investigations, like some Nestlé flack does at one point.

If you have any kind of social conscience you'll know the politics/finance behind the topic already, but like Wikileaks or Ed Snowden did, it puts concrete and vivid examples in front of you that you can't ignore, and you'll be surprised how affected and angry it makes you that this goes on.

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