The opening moments of Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink's The Rescue List are jarring, so simply yet vividly is the mission at hand portrayed that I initially found myself resisting the film and its powerful message.
Within minutes, however, I found myself glued to the screen and unable to turn away from The Rescue List, an official selection of the 2018 Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis and easily one of the festival's most rewarding cinematic experiences.
What is perhaps most jarring about The Rescue List is with how much normalcy it all unfolds, the world of child slavery a harrowing reality against the backdrop of the otherwise picturesque Lake Volta in Ghana. Grim yet never quite hopeless and heartbreaking yet somehow inspirational, The Rescue List is a remarkable activist doc centered around the organization Challenging Heights, a grassroots organization that is about as grassroots as an organization can be. Founded by James Kofi Annan, himself a survivor of childhood slavery, Challenging Heights enters, by just about any means necessary, the world of childhood slavery within the fishing industry around Ghana's Lake Volta, a man-made lake created in 1965 with the completion of the Akosombo Dam. Since 1965, traffickers have approached mostly poor families promising short-term employment for even the youngest of children. In many, perhaps most, cases the children never return to their families and estimates indicate around 10,000 children are working there at any given time. The treatment, as one might suspect, is often brutal with many enduring physical abuse, or other abuses, and drownings not a rare experience.
Challenging Heights functions as a sort of "rescue/rehab" operation. Despite the fact that it's estimated 1/3 of the nation's youth have experienced slave labor in some form, the Ghanaian government is of little help and provides little support to Challenging Heights. Instead, those who work with the non-profit, such as Stephen Kwame Addo, infiltrate the villages where the children are held and/or simply show up on the lake itself and rescue children who've been so brainwashed regarding the consequences if they try to escape that the children, at least initially, resist those who try to help them.
Challenging Heights keeps trying.
The Rescue List focuses on a small number of children, such as Peter, who was sold into slavery at age 3 and wasn't rescued until he'd nearly reached adulthood. Then, there's Edem, a young boy who initially resists and whose overwhelming pre-occupation is on returning to also rescue his best friend, Teye.
With stories as heartwrenching as those existing in The Rescue List, you'd be excused for finding the film surprisingly placid for a good majority of its running time. Co-directors Fedele and Fink trust the power of their stories and wisely avoid unnecessary histrionics or conveniently edited dramatic conflicts. Instead, they merely immerse themselves in the world of Challenging Heights and they allow the stories to unfold simply yet beautifully and with a quiet, unforgettable power.
Fink's lensing is beautiful to behold, yet it also possesses a tension appropriate for the subject matter and considering we're never quite sure how the children will respond or how Challenging Heights will be greeted once they arrive to rescue these children. William Ryan Fritch's original music is emotionally taut and involving, yet avoids the manipulative highs and pulse-pounding symphonics so often found in this kind of feature doc.
The Rescue List is one of those documentaries that sneaks up on you with its power and impact. It seems calm, almost normal, yet we become so involved in these young lives that if you're like me you'll find yourself thinking about the film long after the closing credits have rolled. You've seen this kind of documentary before, yet you've seldom seen it leave this kind of impact.
The Rescue List screens:
- Oct. 12th @ 12:30pm - AMC Castleton 14
- Oct. 13th @ 7:45 pm - AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
- Oct. 14th @ 3:00 pm - AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
For ticket information, visit the Heartland Film Festival website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic