"I am an invisible man", wrote Ralph Ellison in 1952. Invisible, in this case, refers not to science fiction trickery but to being out of society's sight.
"I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." All the Invisible Children, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2005, is "a cry for all the children of the world that are victims of jailing, war, neglect, disease and abuse". By bringing together seven renowned directors, including Ridley Scott, John Woo and Spike Lee, to each make a short film, the project's organisers hope to drag such children out of the shadows, to highlight their plight - as the phrase goes - and ensure they are no longer "invisible" simply because people refuse to see them.
This all sounds a bit heavy, struck with emotion, weighed down with a message and freighted with righteousness for a worthy cause. In some senses, it is: watching all seven vignettes in a single viewing is at first intense and harrowing and then gradually numbing - the exact opposite of the film's stated intention. By the time you reach the end of Spike Lee's Jesus Children of America, the third piece and for me the nadir of sequence, you will have seen orphaned kids with guns roaming around in a makeshift militia, young children become veterans in the cycle of imprisonment and release, and a child realising her drug-addicted parents have infected her with HIV.
Rather than creating a single film with a resounding impact, the project's structure sets up the vignettes as rivals, at times seemingly competing as to which one can portray the most appalling situation unflinchingly. Fortunately, some of the pieces stand alone as superb short films. The opening piece, Tanza, directed by Mehdi Charef, is sparse and beautiful. In an unspecified country in Africa, a group of orphaned children are forced to become soldiers. In one sequence, the children are running up a railway track at night. The position of the moon and its glimmer on the steel tracks gives the impression of them ascending a stairway to heaven. The film is full of such powerful and haunting images. But these carefully choreographed scenes are not simply for show. At the end of the film, when Tanza, the 12-year old protagonist, realises the building he has been ordered to blow up is a school, he is transformed into an Everyman - or perhaps more appropriately an Everychild - faced with the forked path of vengeful destruction or difficult peace. This brilliant film alone makes it worth buying the DVD.
The other excellent piece is Ciro, directed by Stefano Veneruso, set in Naples. In a smash and grab robbery, Ciro and another boy steal a Rolex watch from a man sat in a car jammed in traffic. They trade the watch for money and tokens for rides at an amusement park. This film is brimming with youthful exuberance, thrust along by the sounds of buskers and street drumming. And in its quieter moments, such as when Ciro mimes blowing his brains out in the shadows on a graffiti-crammed wall, the film succeeds in conveying the despair behind the bravado and the near-random events driven by volleys of brash and youthful energy.
"People need to see this stuff, you know," says Kelly Macdonald's character to Jonathon, the shell-shocked photographer in Ridley Scott's piece. "You show them what's going on," she says. This project, while ultimately not more than the sum of its parts, includes some excellent short pieces on subjects often maligned by mainstream filmmakers. For that alone it is worth watching.