Yesterday I watched “Kony 2012”, the short film which has “gone viral” (to quote BBC and NPR, which frankly they’ve taken all the joy out of that expression with their overuse of it) on the web this past week. Created by the same filmmakers (headed by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell) who produced the hour-long original “Invisible Children” film and started the awareness-raising campaign of the same name, the video has been seen several million times and has almost quadrupled the number of followers they have on [insert disparaging adjective here] facebook. Almost immediately after watching it, I turned on the radio to hear BBC discussing their opinions of “Kony 2012”.
The title of the film is meant to remind you of a candidate in a political campaign (Bush 2004, Obama 2008), but Joseph Kony isn’t running for any kind of office (well, not in the near-future anyway, but who knows?); actually, Kony is rather obscure despite (what he would call) his accomplishments. The folks from Invisible Children chose the name because they want him to become one of the most famous people in the world this year– or more accurately, the most notorious. He is one of the Ugandan warlords who abducts children, rapes them, tortures them, forces them to kill their own parents, and ultimately turns them into child soldiers and sex slaves. “Kony 2012” is the campaign to make Kony and his crimes against humanity so well-known that world powers will have no choice but to act and get this guy charged and on trial at the International Criminal Court. According to Jason Russell, who is also the film’s narrator, all this has to happen this year, because…er, for reasons unbeknownst to us. Their “deadline” is never actually explained to viewers. (Maybe because the possibility exists that Obama won’t be president, and there’s not a chance in hell that a Republican president will give a #%$ about atrocities in Africa?)
Since yesterday afternoon, I have been thinking quite a lot about this…short-film-meets-documentary-meets-visual-personal-essay. My initial reaction upon watching it was very similar to how I felt after watching the original “Invisible Children” film in college: deep sadness, empathy, anger. Which is how the filmmakers want you to feel after viewing either film. The difference between the two films is that “IC” was more of an educational, awareness-raising piece, whereas “Kony 2012” has an actual, spelled-out political agenda. And what they appear to be banking on is that you will either forget the nidus which produced these films, or you will already be on their side so it doesn’t matter if you know, anyway. If that sounds enigmatic, let me explain…:
When I first saw the original “Invisible Children”, I was sitting in a church. I had been invited by a number of acquaintances from a student group on campus, Spartan Christian Fellowship. No one had told me what the movie was about (before I watched it I was actually under the impression it was a fictional story), and most of the few dozen people who came also seemed oblivious to its content. So I was quite surprised when it turned out to be a homemade documentary about the plight of child soldiers in Uganda (and also a fund-raising program).
I recall that during and after the film, we (the “Christian fellowship”) were deeply touched; many of us cried. At that time I was also a professed and somewhat outspoken Christian, though I had little in common with the ultraconservatives who attended this particular group. What we did agree on, however, was that it was our Christian duty to bring God’s love and justice to the people in Uganda– love for the child soldiers and justice for their torturers. Then we sang some songs, had a group prayer session, and went home.
As the next few weeks passed, I was struck by how suddenly everyone seemed to have Invisible Children apparel, bracelets, DVDs, stickers, and so forth. Even now, I see IC’s scheme to bring to light the suffering of a voiceless, marginalized group of people as a more or less positive: people who had never heard of child soldiers (or of Uganda, for that matter) were suddenly deeply, almost personally invested in helping them. The commercialized, commodified treatment of the plight of child soldiers did nag at me, however. I didn’t buy any shirts nor did I choose to donate money to the IC (if only because I didn’t have any).
This is not the most widely circulated critique of the video. The BBC’s main complaint about “Kony 2012” is that it is reductionist, oversimplifying what is in reality an extremely complex conflict. Their point is well-taken: “Kony 2012” makes understanding the “main bullet points” of the Kony dilemma so simple that even a five year old can understand them. Literally. Gavin, the film director’s (I’m guessing five year old?) son, is given a very boiled-down, easy-to-understand lecture on who Kony is and what he does, wherein their family friend Jacob (one of the children featured in the original “IC”) is positioned as the “good guy” and Kony is positioned as the “bad guy”. It is the film’s way of presenting and explaining this Ugandan conflict.
Is this an insult to the average adult’s intelligence? I think most people would probably say so, but then again most people who are watching this film aren’t, in fact, adults. This film has mostly “gone viral” with young adults, teens, pre-teens. What the film sets out to do is not to give people an in-depth (or even broad) understanding of Ugandan politics of conflict; indeed, we hardly even learn anything about Kony, whom the film is supposedly about. IC was also one of the organizations criticized by Foreign Affairs for “manipulat[ing] facts for strategic purposes.” The purpose of the film, in my opinion, is to create some hype and appeal to people’s emotions in order to further the agenda of the IC.
Before I get into what I believe that agenda might include, let’s look into this “emotional appeal” aspect of “Kony 2012”. There is a scene in the film that is actually taken from the first “IC” film, in which creator Jason Russell is talking with the young Jacob. Jacob has just described how he would rather die than continue his present existence, which Russell seems astounded to hear. Jacob explains that it would be better to meet his brother in heaven than to live in constant fear of being abducted and killed– a reality that hits too close to home for Jacob, whose older brother was murdered when he tried to run away from LRA soldiers. Jacob breaks down and cries; it becomes clear that perhaps he does not truly wish to die– he just wants a respite from the terror and agony he feels every day. Watch this part of the film and tell me you don’t get choked up, and I’ll call you a heartless bastard. Like I said, this film does an aces job at striking an emotional nerve.
This is where the film takes a pivotal turn. Russell, perhaps in a desperate bid to ease his own helplessness, tells Jacob, “I promise you we are going to stop them.” He repeats this promise over and over, asking Jacob, “Do you hear me?” Jacob nods and says yes, but seems entirely unconvinced. Actually, he looks even more hopeless than before he shared the story of his brother.
The crisis counselor and the feminist in me at this point exchanged glances. “Well he certainly botched that, didn’t he?” they said with a sad shake of the head.
Crisis counselor: “Well, he probably thought he was making Jacob feel better by trying to ‘fix the problem’. Unfortunately, Jacob reacts to this by stopping crying and receding– we see him almost physically withdraw, into himself, away from all those feelings he just put out there. It was a huge, brave risk Jacob took, sharing those deep, vulnerable parts of himself, but he didn’t receive any empathy, support, or validation. Instead, Russell tries to make Jacob ‘feel better’– in reality he’s probably just trying to make himself feel better, suppressing his own strong emotions– by promising to solve the problem. This is problematic in multiple ways. First off, there is simply no way to fix ‘the problem’ of Jacob’s brother’s death. It is an unsolvable situation. Secondly, it’s both unempathetic and counterproductive to try to ‘solve’ another person’s problems; we only disempower them to help themselves, and even possibly create a situation in which they keep coming back to us to fix their problems. Lastly, possibly most importantly, we should never presume to know how to fix another’s problems…Whose to say that we won’t exacerbate the situation? It’s awfully arrogant to take such a presumptuous position as ‘problem solver’.” Okay, let’s have the feminist weigh in on this: “Agreed, it is not only presumptuous, but also white-savior-masculinist. Assuming the role of ‘problem solver’, even– especially!– in the face of an unsolvable issue, is a classic patriarchal reaction. Talking about emotions, even revealing emotions, is counterproductive to the masculist: what good does talking about feelings do if it doesn’t fix the problem? Moreover, sharing feelings earnestly is a ‘symptom’ of the feminine: weak, pathetic, deplorable. Contrast this with the stereotypical associations with the masculine: strong, assertive, corrective. ‘Boys don’t cry’, after all, but women cry and complain, and what good does that do them? Russell’s declaration that ‘we are going to stop them’ is also neocolonialist; the white Westerner needs to intervene in the “chaos” of Africa in order to set things straight. His racist moral high ground figures the ‘we’ he refers to not as himself and Jacob, but as himself and others like him. He is not talking with Jacob, but at him.”
Those two can sometimes get a little reductionist, themselves, not to mention they have a bit of a superiority complex, but their points are well-taken in examining the underlying sociocultural motives at work.
I want to consider these points as we expand our investigation to include not just the IC films but the organization of IC, itself. IC posts its finances on its website for all to see, so we know how the money is used, but where does it come from? Purportedly a large number of IC’s donations (not to mention moral support) come from their Christian following. Considering the context in which I was first exposed to IC, I am not surprised. But what are the ramifications of this?
Between now and May, there will be IC film screenings at over 150 Christian churches all over America (average of about 3 screenings a day). That’s a lot of support coming from a single sector, which doesn’t include screenings at Christian-affiliated schools, colleges, or other institutions. Clearly there is a bit of hype about IC among Christian Americans. Even if it is not IC’s explicit directive to portray their organization or their mission as Christian, the Christians are doing it for them. At the events I attended during college, it was made clear that we had a divine imperative to “save” these folks (mainly the Ugandan children) because of our God-given duties as Christians and Americans. For it is not for Americans alone to enjoy the glory of Jesus, but we cannot rest until “every ear has heard”. (But quite frankly, my impression of the people participating in these events/film screenings/etc. was mostly that it was just “a cool thing to do”.)
In that vein, I take issue with how IC’s media-oriented strategy seems to focus on and portray only two groups of people: victimized, powerless Ugandans and salvation-carrying, white, largely Christian Americans. (And I’m not the only one whose irritated by this portrayal.) It appears as a retelling of the old classic, the Great White West moves in to save the primitive savages. IC’s activist campaigns and photographs of the movement (which can be seen on their websites) are full of young, fist-pumping white folks, often wearing IC apparel. There is even a section where these folks are called “The Rescue”; perhaps they romantically believe they really are just “helping”, but any time you get together a bunch of people and put them in uniform, you should really question whether or not the participants truly understand the various levels of ideology at work. Another interesting feature of the website are the photographs and descriptions of all their staff. IC staff is strikingly gender-balanced, and is also equally proportionate in the number of Americans and Ugandans, though the Americans are almost entirely white. For some reason the Board of IC is listed last: it is comprised entirely of white American men.
“But Lee, what are you saying, that white Americans can’t or shouldn’t help Africans?” I’m so glad you asked. Why, not at all, but to unquestioningly and uncritically accept the fantasy of the GWW “saving” Africa is to ignore deeper, perhaps not-so-entirely altruistic motives subjacent to the movement we see on the surface. I would never say helping another person is bad, in and of itself, regardless of either person’s position in the Universe (e.g. as racialized, genderfied, etc. entities). However, would you accept the help of a person who not only desires to “help” you, but also to fulfill what they perceive as a mandate of their god? Would you accept the help of a person who is primarily helping you because they see you, consciously or unconsciously, as inferior? Would you accept the help of a person who does not see themselves as helping you, an individual, but as helping “correct” a system– a system which perhaps is the culture you live in? These aren’t questions with simple answers, and that’s entirely the point. To reiterate the BBC, “It’s a bit more complicated than the IC films make it out to be.” And simply put, I do not believe this is so simple as some white travelers to Africa trying to make themselves feel better about what they’ve seen there.
I’ll shut up now, but p.s. IC is calling on your (American) government to deploy forces to aid Uganda’s army in capturing Kony, and they’ve already been partly successful. But the Ugandan army has been called out by human rights groups as being guilty of war crimes, themselves, including the mass rapes of women and murders of refugees, not to mention the Ugandan government has also violated the human rights of their people.
p.s.s. For other people’s critical perspectives on IC, check out Visible Children, who links to some other resources of information.