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Beyond Famous: Kony 2012 Episode 2

April 5, 2012

Often on television shows, an episode ends with a sort of problem that you have to wait until the next episode to see the inevitable resolution. If only it worked that way in real life.

Last month, Invisible Children wrote the first episode of their new ‘reality’ series, Kony 2012, which documents the exploits of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is guilty of all sorts of atrocities such as child abduction, mass murder, and rape. Invisible Children’s stated goals were to “share the video” and “make Kony famous” so that the US government would intervene and support the Ugandan military in catching Kony. The best way to do this was was to watch the video, share it, and then purchase the action kit (I’ve created an anti-Kony 2012 kit…) which included bracelets, posters, and buttons. Clicktivism meets consumerism.

This was all despite the reality that Kony is no longer in Uganda and hasn’t been for a number of years, the Ugandan people are rebuilding and have larger issues to deal with such as disease, the Ugandan military is guilty of more than their share of atrocities, and past experiences in militarizing the Ugandan army to cross borders led to hundreds of thousands dead in the Congo. Facts were no obstacle in creating the film though as Invisible Children spent the 30 minutes using old footage and focusing more on the creator (Jason Russell) and his son who, as stated in the film, both like to be in movies.

There were even broader problems though. I detailed how the goals and drive of Invisible Children was rooted in a colonial desire to see Africa as underdeveloped and in need of Western saviours. Despite how Invisible Children believes Facebook and technological connectivity are new ways to save, the belief in the saving might of Western technical superiority was one of the driving forces of colonialism 500 years ago. It’s not new. There are other major issues: only around 37% of the money raised goes to programs while the rest goes to promotion, movie making, ‘awareness’ creation, travel & salaries; the message and impact of US & Ugandan military intervention are simplified; Ugandans in the area almost universally speak poorly of Invisible Children, they’re profiting by ripping scabs off old wounds, how the founders are young White boys who see saving Africa as ‘an adventure‘ – one where posing with guns that kill people is ‘funny’, and the list goes on.

The critiques are overwhelming, even to the point where it has impacted the health of Invisible Children’s leader. I was asked recently if I saw anything redeeming out of the film and I unequivocally said ‘no’. It harms perceptions of African agency and innovation, it advocates for foreign military intervention that has not been requested, it ignores political realities and complexities on the ground, and projects a White, Western, colonial arrogance that we have the answers, the skills, the finances, and the humanity to save Africa – things Africa does not have and needs from us. Yes, money will be raised, awareness (however temporary) given but, like colonialism that brought roads, hospitals, etc… to Africa hundreds of years ago – the lasting effect is negative and harmful. Not all action is good action.

So, with all the backlash – how was Invisible Children going to respond? Throughout the process they attempted to deflect criticisms, even calling some of them ‘absurd‘. And last week they announced – episode two was coming! And today it arrived, here to complete the picture and resolve the crisis. Just like in television.

It’s produced to go further into the complexities of the situation on the ground and provide more information about the LRA, especially its activities in countries not named Uganda. It does. I want to commend them for producing the video that they probably should have produced to begin with. But how does this video help and what problems remain?

For one, this video will never reach the 100 million who saw Kony 2012. Second, Invisible Children is intent on seeing THIS moment of human connectivity and care as unique. It’s not. It’s part of a historical trajectory of ‘caring’ people ‘saving’ Africa.

Third, and where my original critique focused on, there is still no discussion of race. Albeit, Invisible Children made a conscientious effort to centre the diverse people and voices of the areas in this film, there is still an overt reliance on the ‘human race’. By centring the voices of Africans, Invisible Children actually recognizes that race matters, despite their overtures that it does not. The bile inducing narrative of White bodies in Africa from the original film is tempered this time with local, involved parties bringing a more complex analysis. Race and location do matter. But the second step is missing, how does race or location change how we view things? How does it give power to some and deny power from others? How can Invisible Children’s efforts address this? How can they be both local and still have a board of all White males?

What to take from Beyond Famous? It begins in your streets. Not with the hipsters they show but with everybody. In this, they nailed it. Ironically, they show show students cleaning up a beach while postering it – after you’re done postering the globe I hope you’ll at least clean up the posters that will eventually be littered around. Second, learn. As the film says, Invisible Children is not the only ones there – there are some great local groups doing some amazing work. Africans are solving problems, bringing peace, and living lives – every day, all the time. Support THAT.

The film is a step forward but to me it rings false. It’s full of talking points and damage control, responding to critics without actually naming problems that still exist. Solome Lemma who has been active in speaking around the films, tweeted yesterday:

“The best way to let people know you’ve heard their feedback is to pause, process, seek, listen, learn, reimagine, & to give all of it time.” 

Invisible Children is intent on their plan, intent on their way of doing things which is driven by their views of the problem and solutions, and – while obviously acknowledging some of the critiques in this new film – is still driven by their make movies, sell merchandise model which believes that all action is good action. Their timeline is still in place and that’s all that matters, this is a deflection.

People’s lives are at stake here, their daily existence. It only makes sense that those who have the most invested in solutions should be the ones driving them, should be the ones owning them, should be the ones living them. Ugandans, Congolese, Sudanese and other Africans ARE doing this despite of Invisible Children and we need to support them in this.

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