The reason that I felt a calling to pursue film production was motivated largely because of its power to promote social justice. I always knew that film could stir people to action to bring awareness, political change, and shifts in perspective. I almost called this post “The Power of Film,” but that really doesn’t get the point across strongly enough. Film is powerful, and it can have wide-reaching beneficial or destructive consequences.
In college I attended a screening of the Invisible Children documentary, and my heart was so powerfully moved that it played a part in planting the seed for evolving my hobby of the time into an almost full-time pursuit. I use what I’ve learned to work with causes I’m passionate about, and I’m lucky to have worked on many of the projects I have, which are doing so much good in the world. My hope is that I’ve aided these efforts through the films I’ve produced.
A few days ago, Invisible Children posted a 30-minute film about Joseph Kony, a war criminal who was unknown to most of the world’s population. When I saw it go massively viral in one day, with 2 million views, I was reminded of the incredible potential of the medium.
But just 5 days later, the video has now been viewed 72 million times, despite being 30 minutes long. When it’s embedded on a Facebook wall, any web video over 3 minutes is an eternity. But its content was so stirring that people became enthralled in the first few minutes, and most probably watched the full film. The collective time translates to 1.5 million 24-hour days, about 4,106 years, or about 50 lifetimes spent watching Kony 2012. Keep in mind this is a relatively low-budget production made by a small team, posted to the internet and marketed only by the viral miracle of social networks.
If I were to to make something that’s watched for 50 lifetimes, I’d undoubtedly start seeing every little mistake I made, every imperfectly timed edit, every choice of music, every comment that could be labelled as controversial. It’s like having your face blown up on a screen so big that everyone can see your pores (terrible analogy, sorry — best I could come up with).
Donations and purchases poured in — Invisible Children sold out of their hundreds of thousands of “Action Kits” almost immediately. In fact, their entire online store is currently sold out. The emotional reaction to the film was so strong that millions of people immediately visited the site and pulled out their credit cards. And their call to “Cover the Night” on April 20 — when Invisible Children has asked youth across the world to paste Kony’s face to every public surface they can reach, is sure to be a night of action on the scale of the Occupy movements. The trendiness, the rebelliousness, and the feeling of being able to take meaningful action was a sure-fire way to stir the hearts of young adults — fed up with the world’s multiple wars, threats of new conflicts, the recent revolutions in the Middle East, and, to top it all off, the ridiculous political theater of the current Republican Primaries. The video effectively tapped into the frustration of not having a voice by giving youth the opportunity to take some kind of action.
Then, of course, came the backlash. As with anything that has this much success, criticism began to surface less than 24 hours after the video went viral. Jezebel wrote a scathing attack that undermined the film’s claims, and, in fact, the whole organization. Not only did the organization exaggerate their facts about Kony and the LRA, the claim was even made that supporters of Invisible Children are also supporting all the things that they’re donating to prevent, via the small armies that Invisible Children has supported in Africa.
A photo surfaced of the founders holding guns, which definitely doesn’t help their case.
Their budget, too, was criticized, when public records revealed that only 32% of their expenses were toward direct action, while a large portion went toward films and awareness, not to mention salaries and travel expenses. A report from late last year by the Council on Foreign Relations was dug up and made a splash with this paragraph:
“During the past decade, U.S.-based activists concerned about the LRA have successfully, if quietly, pressured the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to take a side in the fight between the LRA and the Ugandan government. Among the most influential of advocacy groups focusing specifically on the LRA are the Enough project, the Resolve campaign, the Canadian-based group GuluWalk, and the media-oriented group Invisible Children. Older agencies, from Human Rights Watch to World Vision, have also been involved. In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.”
The video was then labelled by many as a “scam.” This, of course, made millions of viewers feel betrayed, and the strong emotions had a polarity shift that vehemently backlashed against the video that now felt like a misleading trick. In both cases, with the initial reaction to the film and the counter-attack to undermine it, much of the commentary to gain traction has been black-and-white.
The challenges of working in Africa are immense, and in their efforts to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army, Invisible Children has had to work alongside forces in those regions that have far from perfect reputations. Their determination to stop Kony has lead them down some iffy roads. The slogan for the campaign, even, is “Stop At Nothing.” Which could have been worded better — that’s a pretty extreme policy in any situation.
Furthermore, Invisible Children focuses their time and budget just as much on awareness (marketing, if you’re cynical) as it does on intervention and direct action, which in itself brought along plenty of criticism. And the founders each make a salary of $85k, a not insubstantial chunk of the organization’s budget.
An official response to the critiques has been posted, in which they address each concern individually. Here’s one excerpt:
“Re: Ugandan government human rights record
We do not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or the Ugandan army (UPDF). None of the money donated through Invisible Children ever goes to the government of Uganda or any other government. Yet the only feasible and proper way to stop Kony and protect the civilians he targets is to coordinate efforts with regional governments.”
In response to the photo of them holding guns, Jason Russell, one of the founders in that photo, states that it was a joke photo for their friends and family, and that it was “a bad idea.” Yep. Big oops.
I don’t fall strongly on either side of the argument — as with anything, it’s a complex issue. The founders are neither evil nor saints, and their approach to the issue (viral marketing, rallying young adults, advocating bold action, political pressuring) is what’s enabled the campaign to have such wide-reaching impact. Because of their efforts, the child soldiers of Uganda neighboring regions have been made visible, and at least some good has come out of their campaign which they’ve tirelessly worked to promote.
The drama in the wake of the Kony video is still unfolding. But there’s already a lesson to be learned: Film is an immensely powerful medium. It can be used for good or for evil. It can express ideas and viewpoints and passions in a way that other mediums simply can’t match. And our visceral reaction can surprise even ourselves.
There’s a limited amount of professionally filmed footage — about half of the video is voice over and still images. It was done cleanly, but the production value was still relatively low given the fact that it has had more views than a Spider Man sequel on opening weekend. But that’s the thing — it was well done in the sense that they told a story and tapped into our desire to feel that we can do something in this chaotic world of ours where we so often feel so unheard. They knew how to tap into that through the way they presented their cause.
I’ll probably go through my life without making a film that gets 72 million views. But this whole debacle has served as a reminder to me of the power of film. It is a tool, mightier than the sword, that can have wide-reaching implications and make people feel passionate emotion and take bold action. Human lives will be saved, changed, and even ended because this video was produced. As filmmakers, we have a responsibility entrusted upon us to be mindful and prudent of the implications of what we produce. It is a craft that can be learned and with that must come an awareness of the fact that we often must tread lightly.
And as viewers, we have a responsibility to be aware that we are seeing only what the filmmaker wants us to see. In film, as in text and all media, the limitations of the medium ensures that we only get a sliver of the whole picture. Both the Kony video and the response articles are oversimplified, and gloss over the complexities of the situation in Central Africa, the past actions and involvement of Invisible Children, and the underlying reasons for the way these ideas were expressed.
Kony 2012 is an extreme case that serves as an example of the impact a small team of passionate individuals can have when they utilize this medium to their advantage. It’s my hope that as other filmmakers and I strive to have an impact through the films we produce, we are able to look back on this as an example of the care we must pour into our work, not just creatively, but also in a way that is as true to facts as possible and adheres to our morals, knowing that if we attempt to engross a wide audience, the effects of our message, mistakes, and ideas will grow exponentially, and can literally change the world.