How the documentary projects a picture of helplessness and how we can use its marketing lessons to portray a better one
The dust has now settled on the documentary about Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel leader, Joseph Kony. I was impressed by Invisible Children (IC’s) marketing genius. Their ability to get an obscure cause and use celebrities and social media to generate global attention to it is a feat with few precedents.
Critics have accused Jason Russell, the IC filmmaker, of using a people’s misery to make money and gain fame. I think this is unfair criticism that may have contributed significantly to him running crazy. On the contrary, I am inclined to believe that Russell, like many Western visitors to Africa, came to our country, encountered a problem that touched his heart and has worked genuinely hard to bring it to world attention for a solution. Beyond this shared aspiration, I find little agreement with him.
The documentary reflects persistent Western attitudes towards Africa and its peoples. There is Jacob, an African (read black) child who has lost his family members to a murderous rebel leader. Then comes Jason – white, blonde and blue eyed – as the miraculous saviour. This script can be found in nearly every novel, history book, research paper, fiction film, speech and song by Western people about Africa. Always the problem in Africa will be local and presented as some aberration; the solution will be an external intervention i.e. by a white person.
There is Machine Gun Preacher (2011), a fiction film based on the LRA. A retired alcoholic and drug-using biker from Minnesota comes to Northern Uganda and South Sudan upon converting to Christianity. He finds the children under constant attack from the LRA and becomes the hero who leads armed raids to rescue them. But this is one in a long line of movies and documentaries about Africa.
The story of Idi Amin in the movie, The Last King of Scotland, is told through the eyes of a Scottish doctor living in Uganda. In the Constant Gardener, it is Tessa, the beautiful blonde activist who loses her life trying to save the people of Kenya from a harmful drug, Dypraxa, which is being tested on them by a powerful Western pharmaceutical company. In Blood Diamond, it is a white female American journalist and humanitarian, Maddy Bowen, who eventually saves Sierra Leone by exposing trade in conflict diamonds in a newspaper article. (It was actually a Sierra Leonean journalist, Sorius Samora, who filmed the war and exposed this evil. Why did Hollywood omit this fact? Samora asked me not to say).
I can list hundreds of examples of this characterisation. The point is that over time, a common consciousness cultivated in the West has also captured Africa that for every problem on our continent, a solution must be sought from the West. For example, Russell’s documentary does not address itself to Ugandans, the people who have suffered terror for 25 years, for a solution. He addresses it to the American Congress. It is not that he ignores the role Ugandans can play to save themselves. He does not even give it any consideration. I do not think it even crossed his mind.
Our absence from it shows that the documentary was done so that middle-class youth in the US and Europe can find meaning in their lives – by feeling that they are saving the world. I do not think Russell did all this deliberately. He is simply a white kid who came to Africa, saw a problem and felt he should go back home to find a solution. Russell as a citizen of “the world” has learnt this lesson at home, his church, at school and through the mass media. And he passes it on to his son – in the documentary: there is “the other people” whom we need to save.
In many ways, the documentary represents a cultural artefact – that the West is noble, Africa is savage. It also underlines the major theme of Western views of Africa – that problems on our continent are generated by local conditions but need western solutions. Even where the problems are caused by the West (as in the Constant Gardener or other writings on imperialism) the solution remains with the West. This presentation is seen as normal even though it depicts Africans as incapable of self-initiative. Russell’s documentary drives this message home by showing that it does not stop with him; it is a message he gives to his son.
One can clearly notice the absence of reflection in the documentary, a trait common in all such movies, books and films. Russell asks his five-year old son to mention the problem. Kony! And the solution: dad should go capture him. In the entire documentary, the people addressed to offer a solution are not Ugandan political, military or security leaders. They are American politicians. It is like someone doing a documentary on police violence, brutality and racial profiling in black ghettos in America and calling on China for a solution all in complete disregard to US institutions.
In Kony 2012 the documentary has images of white people in posh areas – whether residential or office premises – enjoying the good life. These are juxtaposed by images of Africans – the “invisible children” – in their poverty, misery and mass suffering – victims of mass murder and neglect (why?) sleeping on the floor in one large hall. In the background is a comment by Russell: “If this happened for one night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek” – suggesting that this sad story has not been covered by local media perhaps because they don’t care.
The Kony story and the suffering children were front cover news and headlines in the Uganda media when Russell was in Uganda in 2003, so much so that it ceased to be news. It has been the most debated story on radio and television talk-shows ever. And it has been a central issue in every political campaign. Yet in regard to a Newsweek cover story, I see worse problems in America and no media coverage of them.
The lesson from Kony 2012 is that there is a lot to learn from its production and marketing for us to tell a better story about ourselves than let others do it for us.