10:41 am Mar. 12, 20121
I remember the first time I saw D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), in a film history class. The film’s climactic sequence, which cuts between a cabin full of white people holding a gang of black thugs at bay and hordes of Klu Klux Klansmen riding to the rescue at full gallop, kicking up dust clouds, is exhilarating. Just as one of the trapped whites makes a move to bludgeon a child to death rather than let her fall into the clutches of the dastardly negroes, the Klan comes tearing through the bush, firing, sending the black militiamen massed outside the cabin on the run. Victory.
Later, when the lights went up in the small auditorium, there was stone silence and dismayed stares. Since I was the only black person in the room, I assumed that nobody wanted to admit how exciting the movie had been, as an action spectacle. I enjoyed their discomfort almost as much as the film. Only the joyous helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village in Apocalypse Now had stirred up in me a comparable blend of nausea and triumphal bliss.
Until I saw KONY 2012. This 30-minute viral video deserves a Nobel prize for exasperation. It’s an advocacy documentary that uses every weapon in the Photoshop and After Effects arsenal to turn real-life Ugandan criminal warlord Joseph Kony into a camo-clad Thulsa Doom. As it solicits support for the non-profit organization Invisible Children, Inc., it drafts us, the viewers, as junior crime-fighters in the effort to stop the villain. We are told that donating to Invisible Children and plastering our cities with KONY 2012 posters will “change the course of human history.”
Just as quickly as the video soared to 70 million plus views, a backlash rose up against its propagandistic techniques and perceived distortions.
But there’s something good and true peeking through KONY 2012 that you’d have to be a real scarred-over cynic to dismiss entirely.
“We’re all innately born, as human beings, wanting to belong to something larger than ourselves,” said KONY 2012’s Hollywood-trained co-writer and director Jason Russell last week. “That’s why we go to the movies.”
He was explaining to Australian reporters why, of all the heart-tugging humanitarian docs out there, this one is the Spielbergian blockbuster. He was also inadvertently describing what value his film will have beyond the political moment.
Long after various power brokers have used the Kony situation as a pretext to pursue their own interests in Africa, this film may stand as a record of simple human events, such as an American child being born, a Ugandan child soldier befriending a narcissistic but sweet filmmaker, atrocities and kindnesses extended across a world spinning way too fast. In construction, this film is as synthetic and Madison Avenue shiny as they come, yet many of the moments that Russell remixed from the much larger 2005 documentary Invisible Children stop the bullshit cold.
When Russell’s child refugee friend Jacob describes watching Kony’s men decapitate his brother, time stops. When Jacob later breaks down while saying he wishes to die so that he can meet his brother in heaven, there are no words for the haunting sensation as the image fades to black while the sound of his sobs remains.
Jacob is as gentle, personable and articulate as Africans are rarely allowed to be in American popular culture. Well, in the fleeting moments we’re allowed with him. These brief encounters are still priceless in a Western land teeming with ignorance and hostility toward the Third World. Beyond prompting millions of middle-class kids with a little extra mall money to buy KONY stickers and bracelets for the cause, Jacob’s vibrant humanity confronts them with the reality that they are not exceptional, just fortunate to have been born into relative privilege and safety.
Russell’s zero-attention-span storytelling (despite his admonition at the start, “You have to pay attention…”) lends most incidents the character of extreme cheerleading. After watching KONY 2012, a reality TV show editor who requested anonymity told me, “The video reduces activism down to a commodity, something that you should buy into without necessarily understanding the messiness of the situation. It's really odd that when I work on a show (and these are fucking food and travel shows), we work to clarify facts and make sure information supports the overall thesis. I felt that the video resorted to manipulation and completely forgot to tell the story. Whether you agree with what it says or not, I would hope that people would be more justifiably spurred into action by knowing more than what this video says.”
It seems that Russell’s priority was to spur a self-absorbed ADHD generation into action first, fill in the blanks later. That’s the way Internet learning and social-media sharing work. How much do we now learn new things by stumbling across links and re-tweets, then fleshing out our understanding with further reading? Russell was careful to dramatize his own initial boyish ignorance in Uganda video chronicles like The Rescue, where he confessed that he and his collaborators were just some silly Southern California boys touring Africa for kicks when they discovered the Uganda crisis firsthand, fleeing a guerilla raid.
Well, since the International Criminal Court list of most wanted offenders (featured as a dizzying graphic in KONY 2012), on which Kony was listed as #1, contained nothing but Africans, maybe he should adopt as his next project a more difficult consciousness-raising exercise about some more politically well-protected refugees from justice.
Like The Birth of a Nation, which spurred the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, KONY 2012 is powerful agitprop stirring up real world action. Russell’s film has given millions of Facebookers an interactive adventure story with a great bad guy. And they'll get him, too. (Victory.)
But it may be what Russell and his band of filmmaker-activists do or don't do next that determines how we remember this particular moment.