Gill Fickling

I watched in horror as a nurse passed a wooden ladle full of food through the bars of Julio’s cell. Naked, wild-haired and eyed, 21-year-old Julio pressed himself up to the other side of the bars and opened his mouth wide to accommodate the huge spoon. Having spent the last 14 years of his young life behind bars, Julio’s only crime was to have been born with autism. We were in the psychiatric hospital in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, to make a film on the rights of people with disabilities. As a producer/director with United Nations Television, it was my job to witness such misery, but the conditions inside the hospital shook me to the core and this was one of the stories that left a lasting impression on me.
For 15 years I worked as a film-maker with the United Nations, based in both Geneva and New York, travelling the world making short-format documentary films on themes of UN priority – human rights, refugees, violence against women, climate change – from the story of escapees from the brutal North Korean regime to that of refugees in Europe; from rape victims in the townships of South Africa to that of farmers in Bhutan facing dire consequences of climate change; from the story of the Bakoya pygmies of Gabon fighting for their democratic rights to that of a band of young disabled musicians from Australia who came to rock the aisles of the UN in New York.
The film in Paraguay, called Julio and Jorge, told the story of the parallel lives of two autistic young men, both of whom had spent much of their young lives incarcerated in the government-run psychiatric institution. Both born to impoverished families, there was no state-support to help their relatives care for them. The only solution was to lock them away. When the boys were just eight years old, they were admitted to the psychiatric hospital and kept in solitary confinement, neighbours in their desolation. Naked, they picked food scraps from the filthy floor. Julio refused to wear clothes, tearing them and any bedding he was given to shreds, an indication of the frustrated torment in which he lived. He continued to do so when I met him in 2008 in Paraguay with my cameraman. He paced his dismal cell like a caged tiger, avoiding eye contact and devoid of any human touch. We had been allowed into the psychiatric hospital by the then director who wanted to expose the appalling lack of support in his country for people with such disabilities, which went against all protocols contained in the UN declaration on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
During the years I worked with the UN, I made more than 35 short films, and had the privilege of meeting many extraordinary people often living in the most wretched conditions. These people opened up their hearts and their lives for our camera; I hoped that sharing their stories and, for once, allowing their voices to be heard, helped them in some way. But I was often left feeling inadequate that instead of bringing practical help or aid, all I could do was bring their stories to the world.
One such person was Akhtar, an 18-year-old Afghan boy I met in 2008 in a dismal, muddy camp in Greece. His family had spent their savings for him to be trafficked across Iran and Turkey to escape the Taliban’s death-threats. He and another 1,800 Afghan men and boys lived in cardboard boxes on the outskirts of Patras and were trapped in a dead end, prevented by the authorities from leaving the country but offered no help or rights if they stayed. They spent their days trying to smuggle themselves into the wheel-hubs of lorries, waiting to board ferries for Italy. Boys had been had been crushed to death when unwitting drivers lifted their rear wheels. But such was their desperation to find a country that would welcome them. Akhtar, a bright, gentle, softly-spoken boy (then the same age as my daughter) touched me deeply and we remained in touch by infrequent emails as he embarked on a hazardous four-year journey across Europe, eventually ending up in Luxembourg, where I went to film him again. His situation remained perilous but, despite having numerous asylum applications rejected, he had been granted a ‘leave of stay’ to remain in Luxembourg to complete his education. He is still there today, now completing a degree in economics, but still without legal residency, his future remains uncertain. “I have so much to offer – I just want to be given a chance,” he said in one interview. I just hope he will be.
These stories, gathered by myself and a small team of other producers in all corners of the globe, were packaged into a monthly news-magazine series called 21st Century which was distributed by the UN Department of Public Information to television stations around the world. At one time, we were reaching 80 global networks from Japan to South Africa; Australia to Italy, reaching an audience in the millions. We produced the series in-house in English, French and Chinese, with a version produced for Nigerian television. In addition, multi-language versions were produced by our partnering TV networks for their own audiences.
During my last years at the UN, I was also executive producer of the series, editing and overseeing other producers’ pieces, as well as having responsibility for studio recordings with our on-screen presenters – TV journalist Daljit Dhaliwal hosted the English version for several years, and international musical performer Angelique Kidjo the French version.
Eight years after first shooting in Paraguay, I returned to pick up the story of Julio and Jorge. Jorge had returned to live with his family, a dedicated and loving mother and siblings who, while facing daily economic struggle, had made Jorge the centre of their lives. Meanwhile, the psychiatric hospital no longer housed autistic patients, provision having been made to accommodate them in more community-based houses. It was with great trepidation that we drove one morning to such a house in the countryside where Julio was now living with other disabled people; what would we find, I wondered. As the car parked, I saw a young man watching us. He was wearing clean shorts and a t-shirt and running a soft fleece ‘blankie’ through his fingers. As I approached, he stared calmly and curiously into my eyes – a moment of profound contentment and gratitude for me that the tormented naked soul of just a few years previously seemed to have disappeared – until he was gently led away for a glass of water by his ‘friend’, another autistic house-mate who had ‘adopted’ Julio as his ward. I dared to hope that perhaps our films HAD had impact and perhaps had brought some relief to the people whose stories we had shared.




Gill Fickling

Volume 34 no 4 March-April 2020 pp 6/36

The production of 21st Century ceased in 2018. The individual films for the series can be viewed on

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