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Kelpie Wilson: Children of Men

Children of Men

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Thursday 22 February 2007

I am disappointed that one of my favorite films of 2006, Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, failed to attract an Oscar best picture nomination, though it is in the running for the awards for best film editing, best cinematography and best screen adaptation.

If nothing else, Children of Men really ought to win the screen adaptation prize. I went to see the film because I had read the book years ago when it first came out, and was surprised to find the film was much more satisfying on every level than the P.D. James novel had been. I read the novel on the basis of a review, primarily because I was interested in the theme: 'what would happen if all of a sudden human fertility ended and no more babies could be born?'

P.D. James made use of this theme to explore the inner psychology of her characters more than anything else. Early in the novel, we learn that Theo, the protagonist played by Clive Owen in the movie, was divorced by his wife after he accidentally ran over and killed their young daughter, one of the last children to be born. All of the social and political events of the novel then revert to become background to Theo's personal anguish.

The film, on the other hand, attributes the death of Theo's child to a global flu pandemic, thus broadening the impact of the catastrophe to all humanity, and allowing the film to probe our collective psychology around the issues of population, pollution, immigration and war. As a result, the film shines with sparkling relevance to the deepest, most difficult dilemmas that humans face.

Perusing various film sites and reading reviews and viewer comments, I find that I am not the only one deeply affected by Children of Men. The movie has struck a chord, as you can see from these comments that I found at the web site:

Chels Mon, Jan 22, 2007 at 02:39 PM EST

Sing it! I loved this brilliant, beautifully filmed, well-acted film. Clive Owen is amazing and Cuaron's evocation of a world not so far from our own left me thinking well after the credits rolled. I am still digesting it weeks later and I can't believe such lyrical and graceful filmmaking would be ignored by Oscar!

Steve Mon, Jan 22, 2007 at 12:13 PM EST

I don't normally watch this kind of movie (I don't like to pay to be depressed) but this movie shook me to my core. It is the most realistic look at a bleak future I have ever seen.

The central premise, that humanity suddenly becomes completely infertile, is actually not terribly realistic, yet as a symbol for our other failures, it holds a real emotional truth.

But, this is not to say that a dramatic reduction in human fertility could never happen. Endocrine disrupting chemicals like phthalates that are widespread in cosmetics and all kinds of plastic goods are known to reduce sperm counts. Recently, researchers found that bisphenol A, a chemical used in polycarbonate food containers, causes the female fetuses of pregnant mice to develop abnormal egg cells. This opens the possibility that toxic pollution is a time bomb that could drastically reduce the fertility of future generations. The movie explicitly references these threats with shots of polluted waterways and comments from the old hippie activist character, Jasper, played by Michael Caine. (As an aside, I admit that one of the really great things about the movie for me is that the hippies, activists and spiritual midwives are fully credited with being the good guys!)

One reason that the loss of fertility premise resonates so deeply is the reality of daily headlines that show how much we abuse and deny children and their mothers. If we really valued our children, would we let so many of them live in poverty? Half the world's population, three billion people, lives on less than $2 a day. As a result, 11 million children under five die every year from preventable causes while half a million women die from childbirth complications, according the UN's World Health Report. Meanwhile, funding for family planning decreased 36% between 1995 and 2003. Today, 97% of Africans cannot afford to purchase contraceptives, condemning women to an unrestrained fertility that ends in poverty, starvation and death.

Even in rich countries we don't do so well by children and families. Unicef has just completed a study of children in wealthy nations and found that the US and the UK were both at the bottom of the list in how they provided for the health, education and welfare of children. These two countries also ranked low in children's happiness, which is not always correlated with material goods.

One of the visuals that has stayed with me the longest from Children of Men is Theo's visit to his wealthy cousin Nigel who lives within a fortress in the seat of government in London. The view from the heights of the gray expanse of the city below is punctuated by a silly art piece, a floating pig. All the while that Theo negotiates for a travel pass that will take him and an unknown refugee to the coast, Nigel's son fiddles with a three dimensional matrix of colored lights in a savant trance. The luncheon ends, jarringly, when Nigel explodes at the young man, saying, "Have you taken your medicine?...TAKE your medicine!"

This picture bears too much resemblance to the disturbed and disaffected children of our upper and upper middle classes today. Outside of the fortresses of privilege, poverty and decay rule in the Britain of 2027, just as, increasingly, affluence and extreme poverty exist side by side today. At the same time that the US and UK lead the developed world in child unhappiness; they lead in children who live in physical poverty. Out of the 73 million children living in the United States, 39 percent live in low-income families and 18 percent live below the poverty line, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

In the Children of Men world, the youngest child is 18 years old, and most of the world has descended into chaos. But Britain is stable, and still able to produce food. People come as immigrants and refugees, called "fugees," hoping to work and to be fed. What happened to destabilize the rest of the world is not really explained, but you can just fill in the blanks: rising seas, super storms, heat waves, droughts, crop failures, pandemics.

Consider for a moment that 2007, not 2027, is a year in which such things might begin to happen. Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute reports that world grain harvests in 2006 fell four percent short of consumption, meaning that for the sixth year since 2000, grain reserves have been tapped to supply the shortfall.

Furthermore, Brown says, the growing demand for grain to produce biofuel increases the pressure on reserves: "By the end of 2007, the emerging competition between the 800 million automobile owners who want to maintain their mobility and the world's 2 billion poorest people who want simply to survive will be on center stage. If grain prices do climb to all time highs, food riots and political instability in lower income countries that import grain, such as Indonesia, Nigeria, Mexico, and scores of other countries, could disrupt global economic progress."

Children of Men is more than just a fable about fertility and whether or not we deserve its gifts. It is also about fascism, the love that blossoms in the cracks, and the will to power that blots life from our vision, only to have life pop up once again in all its thrusting insistence. The easy seesaw violence of the film is wrenching, but serves the purpose of replicating the emotional state that anyone who follows world events today experiences.

If you can handle it, go see The Children of Men.


Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin's Radio, says: "Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family."

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