Throughout Every Last Child, voices stay hushed until they are shouting — in pain, in worry, in command. Set largely in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, Tom Roberts’s urgent, tender documentary has the pulse of a noir film as it follows families and healthcare workers scrambling to vaccinate their children against polio, though the Taliban has forbidden it.
Polio is a potentially fatal disease, and leaves even its survivors irrevocably altered, their limbs stiff or shriveled, immobile. Meanwhile, the Taliban will kill those they find disobeying the ban on vaccinations. The Taliban, whom we in the West tend to hear more about than the civilians whose lives are affected by their power, can seem mythic. That’s part of what makes this film so powerful: its humanity, its smallness, its search for beauty and kindness in the face of death. Roberts opens with a band of men strapping on weapons, facing a speaker who reminds them that their work is a jihad, a holy struggle to save lives.
Amid the cacophony of hospitals and call centers, the film finds its rhythm in sweeping shots of empty streets in early morning, fog rising — beauty in the ordinary. Of the many dedicated workers interviewed, most compelling is a calm and insightful man who lost the use of his legs due to polio and pulls himself along, either in a wheeled conveyance or by his hands. He refuses to give up, while acknowledging how difficult polio has made his life. In a long tracking shot, we see him wheeling across empty train tracks. This film is a wakeup call in the best sense: urgent, clear, understated. The World Health Organization called Pakistan’s polio epidemic a global health crisis, and it is — but it’s also a crisis of humanity, and it’s through humanity that we survive.