When creating documentaries about problems, ‘provide some avenue for action’

Documentary filmmaker Len Morris has spent decades raising public awareness about the plight of working children around the globe. A 2010 ivoh Award of Appreciation winner, Morris has edited, produced, and directed documentary films broadcast on Home Box Office, NBC, and other major networks in the U.S. and internationally. He began his television journalism career at ABC’s 20/20 and has independently produced documentaries through his production company, Galen Films, for many years.

In 1990, Morris directed the one-hour special “Africa On the Move” for the Global Hunger Project. From 1998 to 2005, he produced and directed “Stolen Childhoods,” a feature documentary on global child labor, shot in eight countries. These two projects were instrumental in defining human rights and children’s issues and paved the pathway for Morris’ future work.

In 2009, Morris founded Media Voices for Children, a nonprofit news agency about children’s rights. He serves as editorial director and writes a weekly column. We took some time to catch up with Morris as part of our new series that looks at past award winners and where they are now. Here is our edited email exchange with him:

Meredith Porte: Can you tell us about any new work or projects that you have been involved in since you received the ivoh Award of Appreciation in 2010?

Len Morris: I am just completing the third film in a trilogy on children’s human rights that began with “Stolen Childhoods” (2005) about global child labor; “Rescuing Emmanuel” (2009) about street children; and “The Same Heart” (2015), about the impacts of inequality on children. I expect we will release “The Same Heart” in June. We are getting clearances for music and preparing to mix the final soundtrack.

“The Same Heart” includes interviews with seven Nobel Peace Laureates, economists, ethicist Peter Singer, community organizers, and many children discussing our obligations to children. It looks at how we have fared in meeting our financial pledges for development aid, how our aid system actually functions, and what steps can be taken to provide more funding for food, education, sanitation and health care for children in the U.S. (where 17 million children live in poverty) — and around the world. The film supports a financial transaction tax, also called The Robin Hood Tax, to generate consistent annual revenues to help alleviate the impact of chronic poverty on children.

In what ways did the award and your experience at the ivoh summit influence how you think about yourself in the media and/or the media itself?

I have always considered it irresponsible to make a documentary about a problem and not provide some avenue for action. It’s actually destructive to simply show what needs fixing and not provide some actionable direction and hope for the audience. So my feelings are in line with ivoh’s mission, and I’ve drawn strength and encouragement from your work in highlighting the efforts of other individuals concerned with human rights, justice, and simple fairness.

The ivoh summit was a chance to meet others and share my work. It reduced the sense of isolation that sometimes washes over me when I’m in the fifth year working on a film. “Stolen Childhoods” took seven years and involved filming in eight countries. These projects test faith. I am fortunate to work in a small company where my co-producer, Petra Lent, has been with me for 31 years, my editor Chris Mara for 23 years, office manager Barbara Dupree for 26 years, and my wife and production partner Georgia for 45 amazing years. So, there are checks and balances in place to my “mission from God” Type A personality.

Can you share any experience or memorable moments you might have had while you were at the summit, either at the awards ceremony or any other time?

I was deeply honored to receive the ivoh award from such a thoughtful group of people. As I explained when I accepted the award, I never felt it would be appropriate for me to even attend the summit, let alone accept an award. This is because my nature is rather aggressive; I work from a center of anger when I make these films. Seeing children being worked like animals or going without food or medicine makes me angry. I have learned over the years to harness and use this anger as best I can, but it still manages to make me seem rather blunt when I speak to groups. I’m not saying it’s the best way to approach things, but anger enables me to retain focus on the problems. It also is a driving force in working to find and document solutions.

The awards are intended to recognize media that acts as a force for good. Along those lines, how do you think media can be an agent of change and world benefit?

I think ivoh has emerged as a leader in examining and promoting the impacts of positive storytelling and narratives. I think the mass media in general is in a deplorable state, but I’m heartened by the talent and commitment of young people who approach journalism with a new global ethical framework. They are combining an open heart and mind with ethics, commitment, and today’s remarkable digital tools and their films, websites, blogs, and work are growing exponentially. It’s a new time and I remain hopeful for the future.


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