The butler and the ragged children


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Category: Reflections Date: 25 Nov 99

Context is all. The bigger your context, the more clearly you can see detail. If there is one thing I have discovered from watching movies is that you need to look through the world with a wide-angled lens followed by a long lens, and only then does the close-up shot make any sense. We need the panorama shot to put the close-up into perspective.


Let me see if I can make any sense. So I take up the film camera on my shoulder, you carry lights and tripod, extra batteries, and tapes - not because I can lay claim to being a bona fide camerawoman but because I am writing this piece so in this case I call the shots.


Next thing you know, I’ll get illusions of grandeur strutting around like a bitch in high heels snapping orders to a crew of 100 like a female version of Stephen Speilberg. Just kidding. Trying to establish a rapport with you. Dream big or not at all. In reality, all we’re doing is making a short experimental two-part imaginary documentary (based on fact) about context lasting no more than about 10 minutes in all.


The Script


Part 1

Shots and notes

1. Various close-up shots of newly-trained butler after the fashion of Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day serving coffee to highbrow couple in uptown New York. (Pay attention to the way the light glints on the silver, the perfect tilt of manicured hands reaching out to hold the gold-rimmed china.)


2. Notes from a report in the Washington Post: “Though famously averse to bowing and scraping, Americans, it seems, have developed a craze for employing butlers. With the nation’s economy booming, there is no shortage of eager clients; and, with salaries of US$100,000 on offer, no shortage of would-be butlers.”

Shots of ragged children playing in the Bronx, jumping on a bed covered with a ragged duvet; in the middle of a wasteland, an enormous garbage-playing dump. Notes from journalist Matin Kettle who does a Washington diary for the UK Guardian:

“For many non-Americans, the scale of poverty in the country is unthinkable. The booms of the 1980s and late 1990s, however, have not reduced inequality, but increased it. From the end of World War II until the mid-1970s, most Americans experienced rapidly rising real incomes. But, after 1973, average wages stabilised or declined. Inequality increased rapidly, because the richest got richer in real and in relative terms.

“Though the pace of rising equality has slowed in the past three years, the top five per cent of Americans have increased their income since 1975 by an amount larger than the entire income of the bottom 20 per cent. Poverty is not just a class issue, but one of race.

“Poverty rates are much higher among blacks and Hispanics than they are for non-Hispanic whites. The rate among blacks is 26.1 per cent or 9.1 million people while the rate among Hispanics is 25.6 per cent, or 8.1 million people.”

Now hand me that wide lens, please.


3. Shots of Kevin Watkins, a policy adviser at OXFAM as he sits hunched over a report, with a half-drunk cup of coffee in front of him. It is, he informs us, as we circle him, shooting from this angle and that, a forerunner to the launch of the “millennium round” of trade talks under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation.

(Hold that tripod straight please, this is not the time to go to the bathroom just because it sounds technical. Remember, we are trying to find a context for the butler and the children of the Bronx. In the end, context affects each one of us - you holding that baby, and you thinking of what lime to go on this evening, and you concerned about that contract. So, hold that bladder.)

Notes from extracts of his report which Watkins is to hand in for publication:

“The world’s 48 poorest countries account for only 0.4 per cent of world trade, and their share is shrinking. For developing countries as a whole (camerawoman’s notes: that includes us in T&T) export earnings could rise by $700 billion a year if rich countries opened their markets. This is about 10 times what the developing world receives in aid. Unlike aid, trade generates the self-reliant growth, employment and investment needed to reduce agriculture. (Now we get to the important part).

“While rich countries may preach the free trade gospel, they remain staunch protectionists. They cut their tariffs by less than poor countries during the Uruguay round of trade negotiations in 1993.

“Tariffs facing developing countries are about a third higher than those facing industrialised countries. Ever more elaborate ways have been found to exclude Third World imports. The United States has been particularly adroit in slapping anti-dumping duties on imports deemed ‘too cheap’.”

Script: There is a connection between the butler serving coffee uptown and the children in the Bronx making a garbage dump their playground. A connection between them and Third World Trade Ministers watching helplessly as richer, more powerful countries beat them down with trade negotiations.

The world is not randomly ordered. The rich have, in short, taken charge with little regard to their moral responsibility. Be they individuals or leaders, they continue to ruthlessly exploit the poor, couching their action with words of free trade, liberalisation, equal opportunity under capitalism.

(Camerawoman’s notes: But let’s remember context. At the end of the day the wide, long vast state of the world - like the weather - affects the smallest of us everywhere. We need several more shots to prove this point. Let’s move closer to home.)


Part 2

Close up shots of several people greedily swallowing the front- page news report which gives us the interesting, relevant and shocking news that a government minister drove or had driven (the reports vary) his car into a canal.


Notes: We have gone so close to personalities and maco reporting that we forget our major role as journalists is that of watchdog. If we don’t start questioning them about their real role, which is about improving the conditions of the people of the country over which they preside, and focus instead on the superficial sensationalism, parties, races and personalities, how on earth can we as journalists do our bit for development? News for news sake is as dumb as playing a mindless video game: entertainment which does not educate or empower our people.

Close-up shots of a small army of men, women and children who live in the garbage disposal dump in the Beetham emerging from a day’s scavenging. The women find their way to a regular spot to prostitute themselves for money, which is needed to buy things not available in the dump; the children (some of whom are HIV-positive like their mothers and fathers) to beg. The men, to terrorise and hold up and steal.


Notes: We shun these people, not realising the line between poverty and disease and health and a decent standard of living is a thin line. Just one person from a middle income household needs to contract AIDS, lose their job, pass on the virus to the spouse and there you have it - crossing to poverty. What they do not need is a Christmas hamper. I find them patronising, distasteful and more self-promoting than anything else. They don’t need band-aid. They need rehabilitation skills. A safety net, which allows them to eventually help themselves.


Shots inside the new social sciences building at UWI, St Augustine, where a bright young economist using a laptop and slides gives a highly technical and competent lecture on a hypothesis on interest rates and monetary policy.

Notes: Take cutaway shots of the question and answer session. There is much academic sparring and scoring of points - the thrill of challenge is here. But there was one question no one could answer. How was any of this going to be one day relevant to the dirty malnourished boy in the Beetham when there is no way any of her hypothesis (which in order to be relevant needs to be tested) will ever be tested since there is practically no relationship between the policy makers who implement and the academics who hypothesise in an air-conditioned room?


Script: Now, we have the panorama. Despite the way words such as democracy is bandied about, even in the land of the brave and free, the majority of the world’s population is as exploited as it was when it was run by plantation owners, monarchists and dictators. Except that while they made no bones about openly exploiting, it’s now dangerously couched with words such as opportunity, choice and free trade by the people who are in a position to made a difference. It is criminal for academics, businessmen, politicians and media houses to serve their own advancement while getting a payroll on the basis that they are doing something in the wasteland about them. Unconscionable and criminal.

Context is all.


End of script. Roll credits.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur