“Through Our Eyes” – A very focused view [TELEVISION REVIEW]

Terry, 10 years old, from Chesapeake, VA in THROUGH OUR EYES: HOMEFRONT. Photo courtesy of HBO Max.

“Through Our Eyes,” the new documentary series produced by Sesame Workshop for HBO Max, is thoughtful, provocative, and ultimately difficult to watch. Presenting four life-altering subjects from the child’s perspective, it is a reminder that some of society’s biggest victims when dealing with calamity are those who are only considered tangentially. Four topics are covered in 30 minute segments, each filmed by different directors.

Survival through crisis is in the hands of the adults, for better or worse. As a society, we understand that children going through these events are affected but rarely do we take into consideration what the affected children may be thinking. Certainly, in the case of poverty, we worry about the care and feeding of dependents, but what are the psychological implications?

Part 1 – “Apart” is a revealing look at the children who are left behind when a parent goes to prison. Like all of the episodes, two or three different families are profiled dealing with this situation in ways similar and different. Each child is very protective of the incarcerated parent and each is in a household that seeks, in its own way, to help the child deal with the situation in a sympathetic way. What the filmmakers (Geeta Gandbhir and Rudy Valdez) have excelled at is highlighting that, like divorce, children internalize the situation and blame themselves. In this particular case it is not just protecting the memory of the parent but also of protecting one’s self because the negative judgment of others is passed on to the child. Like the children in the episodes that follow, they must grow up suddenly and childhood is sacrificed.

Part 2 – “Uprooted,” directed by Talleah Bridges McMahon, deals with weather-related disasters. Perhaps slightly less effective than the other episodes, survival of every family member is at the core. The children are not left with a feeling that somehow they can make it better or that they caused the catastrophe. Whether it’s the flooding that destroys a family farm or a hurricane that drives a family out of their home, the children are no more victimized than their parents who are working as a cohesive unit to find a solution. The similarity to the other issues is that, through no fault of their own, childhood gives way to loss.

Part 3 – “Homefront” by Kristi Jacobson is difficult to watch in more subtle ways. The children of wounded vets returning from war each have different waters to navigate. The recovery of the affected parent takes precedent over any needs of the child. So, once again, we are dealing with the loss of childhood and the unspoken feeling that they, in some way, are responsible for the recovery or lack thereof.

Skylar, 8 years old, from Stanton, CA in THROUGH OUR EYES: SHELTER. Photo courtesy of HBO Max.

Part 4 — “Shelter” directed by Smriti Mundhra is a topic we know all too well, homelessness. All three families live in Southern California and each family has its own particular circumstances. Despite their differences, each is confronted with a bureaucratic nightmare not of their making. Each parent is caring and cognizant of how this situation affects their children but  is literally powerless to do anything. Whether it’s a job loss or an abusive situation, the aid that is allegedly available is as insurmountable as a Sisyphean hill. Offices are closed, short term solutions do not lead to anything long term. Social services are overwhelmed and housing is lacking. This episode only serves to underscore what we all intrinsically know to be true. Unless we prioritize this very expensive problem, it will continue. Once again, children suffer disproportionately. They have no stability, no friends, no consistent schooling, and food is often sacrificed for the gas necessary for transport (and housing) if the family is lucky enough to have a car.

What “Through Our Eyes does well is present the problems in an unvarnished light. The children interviewed are thoughtful, understanding, and in many cases emotionally fraught by virtue of their recognized need to be “adult.” However, one can legitimately ask what is the end goal? There are only problems; there are no solutions. If the objective is to generate empathy, then they do a good job, but the filmmakers would have done well to watch the Linda Ellerbee series for “Nick News” that truly went deep into the issues that children face in trying to understand problems created by adults. Her series, that aired between 1991 and 2015, is still the gold standard in this arena.

“Through Our Eyes” is a series that was made for adults to watch with their children but in order to maximize the necessary conversations that would result, it might be advised that parents watch each episode first and then share with their children.

Streaming July 22 on HBO Max

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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