Saturday, March 10, 2007

Invisible Children

So, last night I went to see Invisible Children. I was a bit suspicious about the film, made as it is by a three white Californian 20 year olds. But since a Ugandan friend of mine thinks it is a really good documentary, I decided to go and see what all the hype was about. The film is made by three very young men who went to Uganda in search of adventure and found "their story" in that of the northern Ugandan children who "commute" from their homes in the countryside to the town of Gulu every night to sleep. The children sleep en-masse in the hospital and on verandas in town where they are less vulnerable to abduction from the Lords Resistance Army, a cultish rebel group who kidnaps children and indoctrinates them into the army. (This is the info I got from the film btw; here's a better explanation at a BBC site. Also here. And of course Wikipedia with it's series of links to other sources.)

I was suspicious about it being the "same old, same old" with white people from America wanting to save Africans from themselves, and the beginning of the movie, which highlighted the extreme ignorance of these three young documentarians and their weeping mothers as they went off to Africa, confirmed my fears. However, overall, I was pleasantly surprised. After the first 10 minutes or so the film began to focus less and less on the "adventures" of the young Americans and more and more on the voices of the children. Neither did it focus entirely on the poverty or sadness of the situation but brought out moments of humour and joy and agency. When the filmmakers enter the story, they mock themselves for their own ignorance. So, overall, I think that it is a film worth seeing, with the caveat that there aren't very precise explanations for what you are seeing on screen. If you want to actually get a good contextual understanding of the LRA and the current situation in northern Uganda, you will have to do your own outside research.
That said, the person who introduced and handled the Q&A at the end of the film was absolutely appalling, and my friends and I left the film fuming. Although he has worked in Uganda, he didn't seem to know very many of the details about the situation; he glossed over the history saying that we wouldn't understand it, saying things like "Africa has so many problems; it doesn't makes sense; it's just a loony situation." He was also very dismissive of questions from people (the majority of the audience were graduate students) who actually wanted to know about the peace talks, weapons suppliers, and other contextual details. He seemed to think the answer to the problem was to get a bunch of American youth to go over to "fix" things, energize the people, and that all would be well. He made some statements that were so stereotypical and so offensive that I got shaky. What made it worse is that a friend from another department had asked me to help with publicity for the event, so I had gotten my department involved. I was so embarrassed by the speaker, I was PRAYING that no one from my department showed up.

Last night, I came home and looked at the invisible children website and groaned. While I thought the film itself was well-done for a documentary of its genre, the whole hoopla that has come out of it is like "adventure camp" meets "Indiana Jones" meets "Madonna adopts a whole country." The first video on their media website has all these white twenty-somethings marching forth as into battle to what sounds like CCM music, and riding on top of vans and playing air guitar. It seems to become all about empowering the white American youth. The subsequent trailer for the new movie (Blair Witch Project meets Indiana Jones meets Uganda) is no better. The strength of the film I saw last night is that (for the most part) it let the children tell their stories. The website makes "Africa" into the new adventureland and makes it look like getting rid of the LRA will be like beating a computer game.

I hate to be cynical about well-intentioned people (especially when I am doing nothing to help the situation myself), and I don't want to downplay the positive aspects of this youth mission. I have no doubt that they have helped a lot of the children they have featured in the film. It is a good thing to mobilize American youth to be concerned about the rest of the world. I also think that any psychological rehabilitation that can be offered to the children who have escaped from the LRA is absolutely necessary. However, there are so many instances of so much harm being done by those who are very well-intentioned. The kind of vague understanding of (and indeed misinformation about) the context that the speaker gave last night only deepens stereotypes of Africa, without offering many options for practical activism. (I'm sure that other people who show the film have done a better job of this.) And the website gives me the same bad feeling that the recent celebrity obsession with Africa (especially that horrendous "I am African" campaign) gives me. I'm not going to take the time to do any in depth analysis of the film or the publicity images right now, but I welcome feedback and thoughts on this.

I admit that I did enjoy this clip though....


Fred said...

"Africa has so many problems; it doesn't makes sense; it's just a loony situation."

What's wrong with this statement? I agree!!

Talatu-Carmen said...


i expected you'd say something like that.

if one is going to come give a presentation to an academic audience, we expect more analysis and historical context. I would hope for it elsewhere too. Africa is not "loony" just because it is "loony"; there are very concrete historical conditions that have created these problems. And to make it sound like decay, corruption, and brutality are inherent to Africa is totally irresponsible and wrong. To be fair to the speaker, I don't think he intended to imply this, but the flippant and unthoughtful way in which he spoke pointed to his own unexamined assumptions.

It's a lesson to all of us.