The rule of the 'final inch'

Two documentary films that will be screened as part of the Ashland Independent Film Festival are "The Final Inch" and "Smile Pinki." Both are extraordinary in so many ways: evocative and informative, to be sure, while using the power of film to shift perspective and capture aspects of the human condition from which we, the Western audience, are surely insulated.

These two films will break your heart and leave you asking that ever-despairing yet fundamental question: Why, with all the resources available to the world community, should children anywhere be allowed to suffer? But there it is.

You will also be heartened by the efforts of those few who do whatever they can, against seemingly impossible odds, to make a difference in the lives of children.

The title of "The Final Inch" comes from a statement by Alexander Solzhenitsyn who wrote, "The Rule of the Final Inch consists in this: Not to shirk this critical work, not to postpone it "¦ one's purpose lies not in completing things faster, but in the attainment of perfection."

In "The Final Inch," perfection is defined as the eradication of polio from all corners of the world. The reality is that children still die or are crippled because of this disease nearly 50 years after the vaccine was developed; 1,000 people per day will contract polio, their lives changed forever. The only hope is prevention. There is no cure.

The film shows dedicated public health workers in India walking the narrow and densely populated streets of cities and traveling to rural villages looking for children who have not been given the vaccine (simply two drops, taken orally, and a child is immunized).

The vaccinators confront misinformation about the vaccine (it causes sterilization) and an unshakable mistrust of the government by parents and imams. And so, small children continue to be denied this remarkably efficacious medicine. "'The Final Inch' reminds us that public health, poverty and politics can converge into a perfect storm of tragic consequence," writes the film's director, Irene Taylor Brodsky.

There are millions of homeless children across India whose lives are defined by poverty so severe that it is incomprehensible. Finding them and administering the vaccine is Everest.

This Oscar-nominated documentary delineates in the most human terms a global strategy aimed at hundreds of millions of unvaccinated children worldwide. These children represent the final inch in an endeavor to eradicate a crippling disease that remains tenaciously embedded among some of the world's most vulnerable.

Winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Short Documentary, "Smile Pinki" represents a similar yet different final inch.

Directed by Megan Mylan, this heart-wrenching film focuses on a small girl, Pinki, who lives in a remote rural village in India, her family desperately poor.

Pinki was born with a cleft lip, a condition that has framed her young life and defined every day, making going to school or playing with other children all but impossible, so heavy is the stigma attached to this disfigurement.

As with polio, there is misinformation regarding the cause of cleft lips and palates. In the film, some mothers are convinced that a solar eclipse can cause the newborn's cleft. Others, to include husbands, believe it occurs due to something the mother has done during pregnancy, hence ostracism of mother and child is not uncommon.

We watch as a social worker, Pankaj, comes to Pinki's village and convinces her father to bring her to a city hospital, miles away, for what he insists will be a short and simple surgery. Free.

Pinki and her father make their way, at first on foot, to the city and to the doctors who will operate on hundreds of children over the course of several weeks. The results of the surgeries are astonishing, even miraculous, certainly life-altering and transforming. The deep clefts, seeming so severe, so inalterable, are closed and sutured, and within days the wide, deforming gaps are all but a memory; it has to been seen to be believed.

"I was excited to tell the story of this beautiful hospital and a team of doctors and social workers treating their patients with such compassion and quality care and making a positive impact," Mylan said. "I continue to be inspired by the simple idea that the better we know each other, the better this world is, and I hope people come away from my documentaries feeling like they better understand the life of someone living a very different reality."

A different reality indeed.

The children in these two films represent that "final inch," a metaphor for all that could be done for those among us who are the most vulnerable. Ultimately, it seems, it is our children who possess a wellspring of optimism, possess an unyielding resilience and courage while looking to us for their tomorrow.

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