The media plays an important role in the representing human rights and when dealing with children filmmakers and journalists should be mindful not to threaten a child’s safety or dignity by portraying her in a negative manner. In the PBS/Frontline documentary Pakistan’s Children of the Taliban (2010), filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy takes a look at the impact on children of the armed conflict between the Taliban and the Pakistani military supported by the United States. Many of the children whose villages have been destroyed are now living in refugee camps all across Pakistan. In order to present a comprehensive background of the situation, Chinoy travels through Pakistan to meet with refugee children, Taliban leaders and Pakistani military officers to talk about the recruitment of children as soldiers.
The filmmaker starts her journey in Peshawar, a city in the north of Pakistan that holds many refugees from surrounding areas who have fled their villages to escape the conflict. From the very beginning, the film creates an atmosphere of fear and oppression as Chinoy, in a hushed voice, outlines the dangers of filming in the “lawless” northern parts of Pakistan where Taliban constantly attack, kidnap and shoot diplomats and foreigners.
The children who according to the title and the description of the film are supposed to be the main subject are constructed as victims of oppression, violence and war. Although, the core issue here in this situation is the violation of children’s rights, Chinoy does not approach the situation from a human rights perspective. Instead, she frames the issue of child soldiers within the broader political discourse on the war on terror. The young boys who have already joined the Taliban or who wish to become child soldiers blame the Pakistani and U.S. armies for the destruction of their houses and the loss of their friends and families. Relying on the children’s traumatic experiences, the documentary attempts to highlight how they might feel justified in aligning with the Taliban.
Instead of using a creative approach to address the children’s trauma, Chinoy asks children direct questions during the interviews. The film uses the children’s distressing stories only to support it’s own broader political narrative rather than empowering the children in any way. The “powerless” children are identified as victims whose fates are sealed. In Peshawar, Chinoy talks to a young girl named Qainat who wants to become a doctor, however the Taliban have taken over her village and banned women from attending school or working. Similarly, in Swat she meets two more girls who want to continue going to a regular school, but the Taliban have destroyed all schools for girls in their area and have left them with no choice but to attend religious schools.
Even though, the children tell their own stories, they are asked only about their specific traumatic experiences that have led to their present circumstances. Consequently, there is no transformative aspect that comes out of her interaction with the children as they recount past events. There is no actual dialogue between the filmmaker and the subjects who are interviewed that could lead towards a positive future for these girls. Instead, the film reinforces gender inequalities by presenting the young girls as passive victims and the young boys as active militants.
The young boys that Chinoy interviews are presented not only as victims, but also as potential threats to the Pakistan and the rest of the world. The documentary highlights the social and economic pressure on these young boys who become child soldiers. However, that does not mean they exercise free will and the film does not take into account that these pressures are a form of coercion. The documentary perpetuates the assumption that the children themselves choose to become child soldiers, whereas in reality, the children are often abducted by militants at a very young age and brainwashed into believing distorted religious theories.
Thus, young Taliban recruits and the refugee children are presented as a lost cause and as a part of the problem. Ishmael Beah, the UN Advocate for Children Affected by War and a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, points out that if children are provided with alternative opportunities they will not resort to becoming child soldiers for their survival. Chinoy does not investigate if any rehabilitation services are available for the young Taliban recruits and the refugee children by the Pakistani government and non-governmental organizations. For example, the filmmakers ignores the fact that the Pakistan army is running a rehabilitation center in collaboration with psychologists and educators for children who were at a risk of being recruited by the Taliban as well as children who were receiving militant training in Taliban camps.
The film not only ignores the possibility of social reintegration, but it puts the child at a risk of further isolation. The filmmaker does not obscured the identities of the children who are interviewed. The only people whose faces have been blurred are some of the adults such as the mother of one of the young girls and the father of another girl. By focusing on the faces of the children who expressed that they would fight with the Taliban, the film violates the children’s right to privacy. It also victimizes them further by putting them at a risk of social exclusion and by identifying them as potential recruits to the Taliban.
Rather than playing an active part in generating a positive space and social inclusion, the children are interviewed in isolation from their families, friends and the community. The film presents them as potential threats and this is more disturbing as the intended audience of this documentary is the international community, especially the American public rather than the immediate community around these children. This film has aired on major public broadcasting channels in North America, Europe and Australia and it is also available for viewing online at PBS channel’s website. However, PBS does not allow access to the video in Pakistan. By addressing only the foreign viewers, the documentary appears to be politically motivated rather than being concerned with child rights violations.
As mentioned earlier, rehabilitation and reintegration programs can prevent recruitment of the children as child soldiers. Chinoy provides an overview of the social and political context around the situation but fails to address the child rights violation issues. Right from the title of the film the filmmakers labels the children as the “Taliban generation” and stereotypes them. The main emphasis is on the refugee children who are inclined towards becoming suicide bombers. There are other children are shown playing in dirt and one boy expresses that he wants to join the army, an equally violent desire, but the film focuses on his friend who wishes to join the Taliban.
There is no positive outlook for the future of the displaces children and the film ends on a bleak note that a large number among the 80 million children in Pakistan live in extreme poverty and are easy targets for Taliban recruitment. Through interviews with injured Pakistani soldiers and the Taliban leaders, Chinoy highlights that the problem lies in Pakistan and America’s approach in fighting the Taliban. Chinoy points out that the Pakistani and American armies are also complicit in creating refugees when they attack the Taliban leaders. However, she makes certain to emphasize the role of the Taliban as the real villains who capitalize on the situation to recruit the poor refugee children and prepare them to attack civilians in Pakistan and abroad. By stressing the presence of evil that exists as a potential threat to everyone, the filmmaker destabilize the viewer’s sense of security and leaves them with a threatening image of refugee and other poor children in Pakistan.