How images of pitiable children are used by cinema and NGOs

Issue date: 25 May 2010

A still from Stray Dogs (2004) New research into the use of images of 'pitiable' children in cinema has begun at the University of the West of England. Researcher Michael Lawrence is making a chronological study, starting with postwar films from Europe about displaced and destitute orphans to more recent films about street children in Latin America and the Middle East.

Analysing how such images relate to the history of international charities is a new way of thinking about world cinema. Michael, who is a senior lecturer in film studies at UWE says, “No-one else has done this before. The child is central to both humanism and moral universalism, and the appeal of children has been exploited by both cinema and charities. Children are usually seen as pre-political, and a magnet for sympathy. Children are a powerful way to market both international cinema and international aid campaigns.”

As part of his research Michael will access hard-to-see films at the British Film Institute. These include both Hollywood cinema and foreign-language films from the 1940s and 1950s about war orphans from Italy, Poland, France, Hungary, Japan and Korea. The research also involves films about urchins and street children from India, Latin America and the Middle East and that have appeared regularly since the 1960s.

Michael has just been to New York to work with the UNICEF archives, looking through correspondence and reports from the 1940s, including monthly reports from displaced children's centres throughout Europe. He found evidence that people were compelled to send UNICEF money after seeing European films about orphans. He also discovered that UNICEF has very close ties with the mass media, including several Hollywood studios.

He continued, “UNICEF from the beginning promoted the child as a pre-political and universal subject, deserving our sympathy and care. I am interesting in how such agencies have represented the 'child in need' to the world. The popularity of films about pitiable children must be understood in relation to the development of the concept of the global child, the history of international legislation concerning children's rights and welfare, and international humanitarian action on behalf of children in devastated and developing nations.

“My research could lead to a potential dialogue with charities and organisations that use images of children to elicit support. Charities can learn from films and films from charities about ways that they can most responsibly present the plight of suffering children.”

Michael is planning to give a presentation at a film conference in Glasgow on two Hollywood musicals made by Bing Crosby, in which Crosby's characters adopt destitute war orphans. Michael has discovered that war orphans appeared in a wide range of films during the 1940s and 1950s, and will investigate how the pitiable child functioned in different contexts, from Hollywood entertainment to European neorealism.

Michael received an award to undertake this research from UWE's early career research grant scheme. The University is investing nearly £300,000 to fund researchers to undertake some preliminary research with a view to then making a substantial bid for external funding to take the work forward. Awards vary in size from £5,000 to £20,000.

He is co-organiser of a one-day seminar on Slumdog Millionaire taking place on 5 June 2010 in Bristol's Pervasive Media Studios. To reserve a place e-mail

For more information on the seminar Slumdog Millionaire: Critical Perspectives on a Global Phenomenon, taking place on 5 June 2010 visit


Back to top