Two years ago, documentary filmmakers Len and Georgia Morris arrived in Kenya, Africa, with a schedule, a cameraman and a translator. There to finish shooting an exposé on street children, they flew home to Martha’s Vineyard six weeks later with 600 hours of footage and a project thrown off the tracks by a conniving and obnoxious, but brilliant, street boy named Emmanuel.
The film they had been working on for years was changed forever. “We thought we were making an overview of street children and we ended up making a film about a boy,” Mrs. Morris said from her living room couch this week.
Len and Georgia Morris are partners in business, in marriage and in parenting. They live and work together under the same roof, running their film production company, Galen Films, out of a basement studio in their home. On a recent morning, the team took a break from the 60-plus hours they have been spending each week down in the mole hole, their affectionate nickname for the studio. Only a few days earlier, they had put the finishing touches on a final cut of their documentary, Rescuing Emmanuel.
“I am now completely deranged,” Mr. Morris said.
And yet, the scene at their Vineyard Haven home is far from bleak. There is one small window in the basement digs, so natural sunlight — and even some fresh air — can filter in. A pot of very strong coffee is ready for the taking in the upstairs kitchen, as is a cutting board loaded with bread and cheese, which by day’s end will be long gone. And the couple has help in the editing process. Downstairs, they are joined by their longtime co-producer, a technical advisor and, occasionally, their cat.
The Morrises have worked on over 20 films on topics as diverse as schizophrenia, Roman rulers and singing cowboys. Until a few years ago, they worked mainly to edit and create films for network television. “We grew tired of working for a year to two years on a piece that would air once,” said Mr. Morris.
“It was disposable,” Mrs. Morris said.
One day, a friend sent the couple footage of slave girls working a rock quarry in India. The girls were the same age as their daughter, Lily. “I’d been editing for 30 years, I’d seen a lot of horrific stuff, but this was breathtaking. It sucked the air out of the room. It was like an epiphany and we knew we wouldn’t be doing cowboys anymore,” said Mr. Morris.
In 2005, after seven years, the couple released their first social justice film, Stolen Childhoods, a documentary of child labor worldwide. Narrated by actress Meryl Streep, the film screened, among other places, at the United Nations.
The Morrises traveled to eight countries and worked for four years to capture the footage for the film. On their journey, they uncovered a second story, that of impoverished street children. “We found this whole other population we couldn’t put in Stolen Childhoods,” Mr. Morris said of the street kids. “They were not being exploited on the coffee plantations, but were being ignored by the entire population.”
Most of the footage in Rescuing Emmanuel the couple shot while filming Stolen Childhoods, but in 2006 they made one last trip to finish filming. They took their camera crew to the streets and slums of Nairobi and it was there that they met Emmanuel.
“He was totally annoying, high on glue,” Mr. Morris said.
“I didn’t find him unlikable,” Mrs. Morris quickly interjected. “He was bright, you could tell he was bright. He took every opportunity to speak English. Well, I was touched by how he was trying to communicate. It was obvious that he was trying to manipulate us,” she conceded, “but he was kind of endearing.”
There is a moment in the film where Emmanuel, surrounded by his street buddies, lovingly puts his arm around Mrs. Morris. In the next moment, he flashes a wide grin at the camera. “It was like the cat that swallowed the canary,” Mr. Morris said.
After interviewing Emmanuel, the Morrises boarded their van and drove across Kenya to continue filming. “As we were driving around for the next few weeks, Georgia kept asking me, ‘I wonder where Emmanuel is? I wonder what he’s doing now? Could we get him into school?’” Mr. Morris said. “I was just thinking, ‘Enough already! We’re not making a documentary anymore! We’re on a rescue mission for Emmanuel. But,” he continued, “we have this personal chemistry. When I start hearing things like that coming from Georgia, she really felt a connection to this boy.”
The couple returned to Nairobi to find him. It took four days and a team of social workers, but in the end, they succeeded. With the help of the Kenyan government, a few nonprofit organizations and a number of social workers, and with his consent, the Morrises enrolled Emmanuel at the Haruma Children’s Home. Mama Zipporah, a hefty African woman, runs the organization with her husband. The pair provides housing, schooling and a family to 152 abandoned African children.
“When you see a child living on the street, you know right away this child has nowhere to run,” Mrs. Morris said.
“But there’s not a lot of sympathy for them,” said Mr. Morris.
He was quick to list the statistics. Between 80 and 90 per cent of street children have lost their mothers, whether to AIDS, measles, through childbirth, or some other cause. Ten million children die each year from preventable poverty-related causes. That is 27,000 each day. To put the figure in context, Mrs. Morris pointed out, 3,000 American lives were lost when the World Trade Center towers went down in 2001.
When they took Emmanuel to Haruma, the Morrises did not think they were saving a life, but taking a small step to solve a large problem. “The idea behind what we do is that when you leave a country, you leave some capacity behind,” Mr. Morris said. “There is an existing infrastructure of people who care about these children. At a minimum what we can do, if we cannot correct this injustice right away, is we can do something in the short run by helping the people who help them.”
Nor did they think Emmanuel would change their film. “We were not thinking about it in terms of saving a childhood, we were not thinking that clearly,” said Mrs. Morris. “We were just grabbing the footage.”
But back on Martha’s Vineyard and back in the studio, they realized Emmanuel was the heart and soul of the story they wished to tell. It was also back on the Vineyard that they learned Emmanuel had left Haruma in the middle of the night, presumably to return to the streets. From across the globe, Mr. and Mrs. Morris launched a search campaign. One year later, they finally heard something. Emmanuel had enrolled in another school, they learned from a social worker in Nairobi. Neither they nor the social worker know the name of the school. They have not heard news of Emmanuel since.
But the couple remains hopeful. They believe their film carries a message of hope too. “He took it upon himself to get back into school. When you show a kid they’re worth something, they’ll try,” Mrs. Morris said. And the Morrises will continue to try as well. They are hoping to release Rescuing Emmanuel this fall and are currently at work on a third film titled The Same Heart about poverty alleviation efforts.
And, on the evening of March 16, the couple will host a harambee at the Chilmark Community Center to raise money for a group of African school children. The harambee, a traditional Kenyan community party, will feature a potluck dinner and live music from Island drummer Rick Bausman. The evening will be the third of the sort that the Morrises have hosted on the Island.
The couple held the first harambee in 2003 and raised $12,000 in a single evening. The money paid the cost for 31 Kenyan children to enroll in school. “The kids are succeeding,” reported Mr. Morris, who receives grade updates from the students and letters. All they ask of the community is for donations and a good time.
When asked why a middle-aged white couple from Martha’s Vineyard would spend nearly a decade fighting for the rights of children half a continent away, Mrs. Morris said it is a situation which cannot be ignored. “What’s happening is an emergency,” she said. “We have a tendency to think that a kid from another race or another culture is more forgettable than one of our own. We owe it to these children to give them a future.”
“American taxpayers are supposed to give a Kenyan child a future?” Mr. Morris asked his wife.
“Yes,” she said. “We owe them a future.”
All ages are welcome for a potluck dinner, music by Rick Bausman, film screening and community, at the harambee on Friday, May 16, at 6 p.m. at the Chilmark Community Center. Admission is free and donations are welcome. Anyone who cannot attend but wishes to donate can send checks c/o Galen Films, 110 Daggett avenue, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568. For more information, call 508-693-0752.