Last night, I had the privilege of attending a panel discussion of the Invisible Children film, Kony 2012. The panel was convened at the New York Society for Ethical Culture as a part of Congo in Harlem, a week-long series of film screenings and other events related to the DRC. It was the best way I could have spent my birthday (I know, right?) and I would like to recap everything covered at the event for all of you who couldn’t be there. (In addition, the Congo in Harlem website should have a full audio podcast up in the near future). Early next week I will also (attempt to) write up my own response to what was said. Below is a run-down of what was said by whom, in a very not-verbatim transcript rendered from my notes.
- Moderator: Elliot Ross, writer and contributor to Africa is a Country.
- Milton Allimadi, editor-in-chief of Black Star News.
- Amanda Taub, professor at Fordham University and blogger at Wronging Rights.
- Kate Cronin-Furman, lawyer, PhD candidate, and blogger at Wronging Rights.
- Laura Seay, professor at Morehouse College and blogger at Texas in Africa.
- Richard Mark Ochaka, mentor at Invisible Children.
- Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve.
- Bukeni Waruzi, program manager for the Middle East and Africa, WITNESS.
Elliot Ross, after outlining the framework of Kony 2012 and the ensuing debate, asked all participants to introduce themselves and talk about their initial reactions upon seeing Kony 2012 for the first time, and to look at specific ways which the debate should proceed.
Milton Allimadi: At the end of the day, we can address problems in Africa by pushing for democracy. Problems in the DRC have roots in Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Invisible Children chose to highlight only Joseph Kony’s atrocities and ignore Museveni’s role, doing a disservice. The popularity of the video shows that there is a demand for finding ways to resolve atrocities, Iwish that IC wasn’t disingenuous in their portrayal of the conflict. Upon viewing the film, I wondered what the agenda was for a video to only show one side of the story. It is like Americans going to Europe in 1940 and creating a film called Mussolini 1945, but not mentioning Hitler. It is important to question the reasons IC chose to only show one side of the story. It is important to remember that Museveni and Kony are two sides of the same coin, and that Museveni was the one that ended peace talks in 2008, and that it was Museveni that allowed the LRA to continue in order to gain support from the international community to stop him.
Bukeni Waruzi: The objective of Kony 2012 was to raise awareness about the LRA, and in that sense it was a success. But it is important to ask, at what cost? Look at how the film was made and portrayed and ask why it was done that way. It is important to look forwards at what to do next. The video was a good start at raising awareness, but the campaign needs more.
Amanda Taub: Kony 2012 sends the message that, by learning about the conflict through the video, you can play a role in ending the conflict. Upon watching the film, I felt empowered that my knowledge could do so much. It is focused on American youth and it tells them that knowing and caring is enough to end a war. IC has argued that this is because a film focused on complex ideas and fact-heavy narratives would not garner as much grassroots support. But is that a good trade-off? Too much is lost in not addressing Uganda’s military record, the political, military, and judicial complexities of capturing Kony, and the implicit danger conscripted child soldiers would be in. It is important to remember that a short-sighted campaign by IC could have negative consequences for civilians and victims in LRA-affected areas. If IC isn’t at risk of bearing the burden if its message fails, it should be held to an even higher standard of ethics in how it chooses to portray the story and present solution.
Michael Poffenberger: Resolve’s work was to complement IC’s film by rolling out more informative action steps and policy goals for the Kony 2012 campaign. The rapid success of the film was unexpected and resulted in a disconnect between the film’s message and the roll-out of policy goals. Regarding the complexity of Museveni’s involvement, it is important to note that people in LRA-affected communities’ immediate need is security from the LRA and not solving grievances with the government. In that sense, security is something the US is able to provide in a number of ways. Having worked on the issue before IC was started, I can say the difference is like night and day. Congress is much more open to working on this situation now that IC has built a grassroots platform for pushing lawmakers to take action. The steps that Kony 2012 puts forward are based in part on the wishes of LRA-affected communities and seeks to implement changes to secure their needs.
Kate Cronin-Furman: Since Amanda touched on our reaction to the film, I’d like to analyze why the film concentrates so much on the ICC. At first glance, in light of what Kony has done, it seems that seeking to bring him to justice is the least controversial thing to put forward. But when you look closer, you realize the complexity in placing the ICC at the heart of the narrative. The ICC’s involvement in the Ugandan situation is very contentious, with skepticism of the ICC’s role as an obstacle or instigator of peace. It’s important to remember that the ICC’s jurisdiction is based on complementarity, and that Uganda’s justice system has grown tremendously over the years. It is reasonable that Uganda could take on the LRA through its own justice system, which would give ownership to Ugandans over the LRA crisis and allow justice to be closer linked to other post-conflict programming. That kony 2012 didn’t look beyond the ICC is either a sign that it isn’t thoughtful advocacy or that the ICC is just window dressing for a campaign to support an all-military approach. Something to look at going forwards is why a complex political situation is being treated as only a law enforcement problem.
Richard Ochaka: After any major conflict, there is a silent war in the aftermath, and if that silent war breaks out in open conflict again, it can be tremendous. As an example, Rwanda’s genocide erupted out of a silent war where grievances from previous conflicts had not been resolved. In the case of Uganda, the main perpetrator of conflict is clearly the LRA, and Kony 2012 is about those who are most at risk of violence. If no pressure is placed on ending the LRA conflict now, the LRA could return. They have moved from northern Uganda across central Africa – what is to stop them from moving back? When looking at an individual’s protection, it is important to understand the rings of protection. A child is protected first by his or her family, and when that fails the local community steps in. If that fails, the state is tasked with protection, and then the international community. Kony 2012 was aimed at mobilizing the international community to prevent the risk of further violence, and convincing people to join the movement to end this war. My first response to the film was that it was a new chapter in a book about the conflict. It was a new way for many to get involved. In reaching out to new supporters, it is important to meet them where they are and take them where you want them to be – to start simple and bring them into the complex.
Laura Seay: My biggest problem with Kony 2012 is the way it depicts children. There are problems inherent with an effort to film a vulnerable population, and IC has shown that it is unable or unwilling to mature in how to craft a response to the crisis. When the international community addresses a crisis, there are clear standards on how to treat victims of violence, whether they be displaced persons, former conscripts, or victims of war or rape. It is imperative to avoid triggering trauma and to avoid stigmatizing victims by labeling and identifying them. The acts IC engaged in could have triggered PTSD, and dehumanize children by depicting them as nothing but a child soldier or victim. There are ways to draw attention to a crisis without using images, or at least without these types of images. IC has used bad practices in the past, and they first began as amateur filmmakers. But they haven’t matured and, despite having spent years working in the industry, fail to meet standards of reporting.
E. Ross: Richard said that a good educator should start simple and move towards the complex, but Milton argued that simplification was the problem. Please elaborate or respond on that point.
M. Allimadi: The problem is not necessarily simplicity, but selectivity. A good educator should know to give the whole story. Museveni and Kony feed off of each other. People now know about Kony’s crimes, but they know little about the interstate conflict in the DRC that set the stage for this type of violence. Museveni is not mentioned once in Kony 2012.
R. Ochaka: Kony 2012 introduced people to the crisis. Rough Cut, The Rescue, and other IC films feature Museveni. It is merely that this film gained popularity that Museveni hasn’t been in the wider conversation. The campaign is specifically about stopping Kony, and the video was aimed at that bringing a large amount of people into the fold, cultivating a deeper understanding of the conflict.
E. Ross: One incident that occurred during the aftermath of Konu 2012 was an Al Jazeera English report on a film screening of Kony 2012 in Lira, Uganda and a riot that occurred there. Can you comment on what that says about the film and the campaign?
R. Ochaka: It is important to understand the context of the Lira screening. The organizers promoted the event as a place to “see Kony in action,” and prefaced the screening with other films as well. The screening was set in a tense way, and by the time the film was screened many people were already upset. The riot was a result of the event, not a result of the film.
M. Poffenberger: The viral dissemination of the film fed the craze of the video, and many people were interviewed that should not have been, which could have played into people’s reactions. AJE also had a crowd-sourced survey that showed people’s feelings in Uganda as about 50/50. It’s also important to look at the fact that people currently affected by the LRA were the only group not interviewed in the immediate aftermath of Kony 2012.
M. Allimadi: To Richard’s earlier point: it is not accidental that older videos by IC showed Museveni, but that this one did not. It is also disingenuous to say that the riot in Lira was merely due to the screening’s context – the riot was tied directly to the film. You can see this by looking at interviews with people at the stadium. In addition, Resolve used to be more unbiased in its reporting, but has leaned more pro-Museveni in recent years.
B. Waruzi: The context very well could have led to the unrest. Yes, Museveni is responsible for many things, and Kony 2012‘s decision to concentrate solely on Kony is similar to the ICC’s decision to indict only LRA leaders. But despite all of this, Kony is more than just a Ugandan problem – he is an African problem. If Kony is caught, where is he to go? Uganda courts do not have jurisdiction over crimes committed in CAR or DRC. There are many criminals like Museveni and Kony, but this campaign could help bring one to justice.
E. Ross: The idea of Kony 2012 was to target the youth as an audience, but with the aim of achieving success in government action. Did that work? And is that a good strategy?
A. Taub: Having an audience of youth and a goal of pushing the government isn’t contradictory. It is based on a theory of social activism that is based on creating mass awareness of a problem, then building a grassroots campaign around that awareness, then harnessing it in lawmaking. But what is it worth if the participants are not always well-informed? The foundation of a representative democracy is an informed citizenry. Wouldn’t it be better to have a smaller, but more informed group lobbying for action?
L. Seay: A simplified narrative can be problematic if it is inaccurate or omits important facts. An important example is the Save Darfur campaign, as described by Rebecca Hamilton in Fighting for Darfur. When aid groups pushed a skewed narrative, it gave al Bashir a pretense to expel aid NGOs from Sudan. The net effectiveness of activism for Darfur was worsened by the Save Darfur movement. It says something that Kony 2012 was aimed at American youth, and that Ugandans weren’t “meant” to see it. There was a strong reaction from both the Ugandan diaspora in the US and UK as well as well-connected Ugandans who were resistant to the video on factual terms.
After this discussion, there was time for a handful of questions, many of which were a waste of time. Regardless, here is a sometimes-sarcastic rendering of the Q&A segment:
- Question 1: It is important to acknowledge that the film uses the threat of Kony to pledge support to Museveni. It isn’t just like making a film about Mussolini and omitting Hitler – it is like making a film about Mussolini and praising Hitler! This was decidedly not a question, and was a good indicator of much of the Q&A session.
- Question 2: I disagree with Laura Seay’s argument that you can spread the word effectively without using images. Something about Spielberg and using video to manipulate an audience’s pathos. Question: How can I, as a filmmaker, approach these situations effectively and in the right manner?
- Question 3: Kony is only one man with a small force of a few hundred. Why must we have such a large coalition mobilized to capture him?
- Question 4: As an informed activist (presumably an IC supporter/roadie), I am often still depicted as ill-informed, misguided, or even ill-intentioned. How best can I choose to help and act without coming across as a “white savior?”
K. Cronin-Furman, Re: Q2&4: We aren’t saying that you can’t act at all, but we ask that your actions be well-informed, and that you act carefully.
B. Waruzi, Re: Q2: Kony is incredibly difficult to find and capture, but he needs to be. That is why this campaign requires such as vast effort. Re: Q4: When you are filming, you must weigh the advantages of what you are doing. Protection of victims is the most important, and you must use your judgement regarding how to approach sensitive topics.
- Question 5, Re: Q3 Answer: Several journalists have interviewed Kony, so how can you say it is difficult to find him? This question was clearly just a statement that Waruzi’s answer wasn’t good enough.
- Question 6: Many of you have critiqued Kony 2012 for not giving clear steps towards ending the conflict. How would a better campaign approach the issue?
- Question 7: Kony 2012 came off as self-promoting. I thought that it was good to get young people thinking about the broader world around them, but at what cost? Did IC consult with people on the ground when making their films or choosing who to film and how?
- Question 8: I’ve won lots of awards for reporting and I think Kony 2012 fails. It caught people’s attention, but they’ll just be distracted by the next tweet or a fight with your boyfriend. Take Organizing 101 and give actionable take-away postcards, not fancy color-printed programs. I am old and wise and you all suck. Seriously. He was the epitome of olds hating on youngs and apparently didn’t get the 3″x5″ postcard to send to Secretary Clinton.
M. Poffenberger, Re: Q7: IC has a clear media policy on their site, but I’ll let them speak to that. Resolve works very closely with civil society groups throughout LRA-affected areas. It’s important to understand that, while Museveni is a part of the problem regarding Kony’s rise and ability to continue, people at risk right now are worried explicitly about Kony – overthrowing Museveni is not a part of the same conversation – only security from Kony.
L. Seay, Re: Q2: When making a film, you can interview adults about what has happened to their children, or you can frame interviews differently to avoid triggering trauma. Avoid the “Kristof Method” of reporting on atrocities. Re: Q4, 6: If you are looking for a way to get educated, work with STAND, where they engage in smart advocacy towards mass atrocity crimes.
K. Cronin-Furman, Re: Q4, 6: It’s best to be realistic. Accept that there are difficulties and try to gain perspective by talking to people who know what is best. Adapt based on what you learn and do what you think is right.
M. Allimadi: The history of east and central Africa is Museveni and Kagame. But know that you must acknowledge the agency of Africans, find activists on the ground in affected regions.
B. Waruzi, Re: Q5: Journalists who have interviewed Kony have done so through a long process of setting up meetings and making sure they are neutral and disarmed. It would be impossible to use that channel as a way to kill or capture him.
With that, the panel ended. There were a lot of subsequent conversations during the reception that I’m sure were great. In a few days I will also put together my own response to some of the points made by various speakers. Overall, the event was one of the best fora for discussing Kony 2012 and hearing both sides of the movement. Mad props to the panelists, the moderator, and the hosts of the event. If you are in the New York area, do check out film screenings and other events all this week in Harlem. For those who went and think I am missing something vital from my notes please comment and I’ll make edits.