March 23, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink
Twi, Fante, Ewe, Ga, Ada and Efutu with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in the area around Ghana’s Lake Volta and featuring an all-African cast, the documentary “The Rescue List” follows a grass-roots group of child-welfare advocates and the children they’ve rescued from modern-day slavery.
Culture Clash: The group faces opposition from the slave masters and has an overwhelming task of rescuing thousands of child slaves in the area, as well as rehabilitating them.
Culture Audience: This compelling movie will appeal primarily to people who have an interest in issues about human rights and social justice, but the disturbing subject matter might make it difficult for some people to watch.
Slavery and human trafficking are tragically still happening in the everyday lives of an untold number of people around the world. The emotionally raw but ultimately inspiring documentary “The Rescue List” takes an unwavering, up-close look at a grassroots group in Ghana called Challenging Heights that runs a children’s shelter, rescues children from slavery, rehabilitates them, educates them, and then places the kids into homes that pledge to keep the children safe.
Challenging Heights, which is not funded by the government, includes rescue-group leader Stephen Kwame Addo, who used to be a child slave until he escaped, found a safe place to live, and got an education. Challenging Heights also includes social workers Bernice Jaama Akromah and Peter Kwesi Smyth, who help the kids recover from their trauma with therapy. The children who leave the shelter for permanent homes get follow-up monitoring for two years by the group’s social workers.
According to some sobering history and statistics presented in the film: “In 1965, foreign mining companies built a hydroelectric dam on Ghana’s Volta River, creating the largest man-made lake on Earth. Traffickers began to pay families facing extreme poverty to send their children to the lake for short-term work. But the children often disappear. There are now an estimated 20,000 children enslaved to fishermen in remote regions of Lake Volta.”
In addition to suffering abuse, children who’ve become fishermen’s slaves often get trapped with fishing nets and die. And, of course, many of these children are prevented from going to school because they spend most of their waking hours doing slave work.
“The Rescue List” focuses on three of the boys who’ve been rescued: Peter Samuel, who was 17 at the time the documentary was filmed; Edem Akpalu, who was 12 during filming of the movie; and Teye Adi, Peter’s best friend who was 14. At the beginning of the movie, Peter and Edem have already been in the shelter (their rescues are not part of the movie), while Teye’s rescue is shown in the documentary.
In addition to being a rescuer, Addo (who goes by his middle name Kwame) is a de facto private investigator. He and his team spend an untold number of hours finding the necessary information to put on their “rescue list,” which includes the names and locations of suspected slave masters and the children who are enslaved. Addo describes his mission to rescue child slaves as “a calling.”
The movie shows Addo scouring Lake Volta for children to rescue, and it’s clear why he is often successful at his mission: He approaches children who appear to be fisherman slaves with a calm and friendly demeanor that allows them to trust him in a short period of time. Because many of the children are brainwashed into thinking that rescuers will harm them, he immediately assures them that he’s taking them to a safe place where they won’t have to spend long hours fishing anymore. Most are happy to be rescued, but one boy in the film is terrified, and tries to swim away when Addo approaches him and offers him an escape from his life of misery. (The boy eventually goes with Addo and his team.)
Peter and Edem have a story that is common with these children who are sold into slavery. Their mothers were the ones who let them be trafficked, and their slave masters often abuse and starve the kids to do what they want. Peter is a friendly kid but his rescuers notice that he’s distressed because being rescued meant that he had to leave his best friend Teye behind. Peter feels guilty about it and asks the group to rescue Teye.
Meanwhile, Edem, who is shy and insecure, is dealing with the trauma of losing his best friend Steven in a drowning accident. In therapy sessions, Edem describes Steven as someone who supervised him and was a protector who never abused him. During an especially poignant scene, two of the social workers take Edem to the beach and tell him to say a prayer and talk to Steven. Edem’s soul-baring prayer might bring tears to some people’s eyes.
The rescue of Teye is tense, but not violent. It resembles the negotiation of a hostage release. As Teye leaves with Addo, a woman shouts from a nearby house, “My investment is lost!” Teye’s reunion with Peter is one of the most heart-warming moments of the film.
But even after they’ve been rescued, the children still experience a lot of anxiety, because many face an uncertain future, especially if no family members claim them. Peter and Edem do have family members (including their mothers) who come to visit them in the shelters and want to take them home. The movie doesn’t judge Peter’s and Edem’s mothers for essentially selling their children into slavery.
But “The Rescue List” does show the very real emotional damage that these decisions caused, as now the mothers and children are virtual strangers. It’s clear from the guilty and tearful reactions of the mothers that coming home for these boys will not be an easy emotional journey. Although it’s never openly discussed in the documentary, they will all have to come to terms with what whatever they feel about forgiveness and emotional healing. Peter is old enough to decide if he wants to live with his mother or with a village elder who has offered to raise Peter. The documentary shows his decision.
Not all of this documentary is depressing. The shelter’s children (who are almost all boys) are shown to be well-adjusted to their surroundings. And they have a camaraderie that’s evident when they play soccer or when they gather in recreation room to watch TV or a movie. (One of the movies they watch with fascination is “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” the 1980 South African comedy about how the discovery of Coca-Cola bottle set off a chain of events for an African tribe.)
“The Rescue List” directors Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink take an observational yet empathetic approach to their subjects by allowing them to tell their stories without the annoying interference of voiceovers or talking heads. Although it’s certainly a relief that these children have been rescued, the movie doesn’t least viewers forget that not everyone is that fortunate and there will always be a need for groups like Challenging Heights.
PBS premiered “The Rescue List” on its “POV” series and on POV.org on March 23, 2020.