A screencap from the Kony 2012 video showing the message: Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come

It is hard not to notice the commentary amassing online about the video from Invisible Children titled KONY 2012. As of this morning, the video had been watched on YouTube and Vimeo more than 80 million times in the last five days and had received more than 400,000 comments on YouTube alone.

Media outlets, from newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post to broadcast media such as CNN and Msnbc, all have featured at least one news story or commentary on the piece. Even White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fielded a question about the video in
a March 8 briefing. Critiques of the video and the organization abound (See here, here and here, and the official defense here) . Either way, what started as a viral video now has become an epidemic.

The basic point of the 30-minute video is a very specific call to action: Make Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony famous so that he might be caught and so that the forced drafting of children into his army would end. In addition to the forced drafting, the atrocities unfold from there: People maimed and murdered by these soldiers, girls forced into sex slavery, and children forced to kill their parents. The International Criminal Court even seeks to prosecute Kony for crimes against humanity.

This goal of making Kony famous is meant to attract the attention of two general audiences. One audience is the U.S. federal government, which in October 2011 sent 100 troops to Uganda in an advisory capacity. If Kony remains famous and people support his capture, then the government will keep the troops there and maybe even send further assistance, or so the video asserts. The other audience is a more general one, one willing to don a bracelet, slap up a poster, share on Facebook, and hopefully open a wallet.

Invisible Children labels KONY 2012 a documentary, and it is one that falls squarely into the propaganda/persuasion traditions developed in the work of Frank Capra, Leni Riefenstahl, and Pare Lorentz. But KONY 2012 pushes the boundaries of these traditions. It attempts to go for the heart strings and not just tickle them but instead rip them out and stomp on them. The emotional appeals throughout this piece often overwhelm, and they run the risk of alienating a more questioning audience.

KONY 2012 is told from the point of view of Jason Russell, a Man with a Mission. He wants to stop the LRA from taking anymore children. Through voiceover, he explains the inspiration for his mission with the story of Jacob Acaye, a Ugandan boy he met in 2003 who had survived attacks from the army and who tragically had seen his own brother killed by the soldiers. Further footage shows Jacob expressing his wish to die. Between these sequences Russell shares his promise to stop those horrors from happening. Footage shows Russell giving speeches, talking with people, leading rallies, and recording video in order to establish his efforts toward keeping that promise.

So with the voiceover, the footage, and the promise, this piece quickly becomes more about Russell than about Acaye. 

It is not a new technique for a filmmaker to place him or herself at the center of an issue and as the force behind a push for a change — consider Roger and Me, Supersize Me, and even Sherman’s March. The ability of these titles to resonate with audiences depends largely on that audience’s identification with that primary presence. Often this technique proves rather divisive, as some audiences prefer their documentaries more detached or they simply don’t like the person. For evidence, just consider how Michael Moore has managed to divide audiences over his films.

Part of that audience acceptance, then, comes back to the acceptance of the maker in a certain role — as an advocate, ally, outsider, or even insider. In the last 70 years, we have come to prefer the individual’s story from the individual, in the individual’s voice and words, not from another person telling us about it. We also have come to value these stories as having political weight — depending on how they are told, of course.

Russell positions himself as an advocate, but even in that role he definitely remains an outsider. Instead of trying to connect us more with Acaye, Russell tries to force us to become part of his sense of advocacy. The result is a patronizing tone that only reinforces his privilege and overshadows the importance of Acaye’s harrowing experiences.

One way that Russell attempts to force our identification with him is through his son, Gavin. Discourses about leaving the world a better place for the next generations are common. Few want to leave the world in worse shape for children, either others’ children or their own. We see the video of Gavin’s birth, pictures of him growing up, and videos of him making up stories, acting, and even making his own videos. We get the point — Gavin’s a cute kid.

So I was horrified to see Gavin become part of this piece’s rhetoric. Russell conducts a Q&A with Gavin. Russell asks Gavin about his father’s profession, and Gavin replies, “You stop the bad guys from being mean.” (Aww.) The Q&A continues with questions about identifying the bad guys, with reference to Star Wars (again, aww.) and with Russell explaining (very generally) who Kony is. But this entire sequence seems more about building up Russell’s role than about explaining the importance of the mission and the horrors behind what is happening, particularly with Acaye’s story buried just a few minutes before. Russell even comments, “The truth is, Kony abducts children just like Gavin.” A truth is, Gavin is adorable, but this sequence is condescending and insulting not only to viewers but also to the victims.

Another way Russell attempts to force this identification is through his use of all-inclusive statements. For example, he often refers to “we.” To wit: “If we succeed, we change the course of human history.” And: “We’ve come so far, but Kony is still out there.” While a sense of belonging and identification is key to mobilization, that use of “we” also can highlight who belongs and who does not. Another problem with the attempts to be inclusive is that they result in overgeneralization. One claim is that Kony remains unknown to 99 percent of the world, but if that 99 percent did know, they would do something about it. Really? Those kinds of bandwagon statements offer nothing but empty, unsupported rhetoric. In doing so, they also reinforce Russell’s speaking from a position of privilege.

A third way of generalization comes back to the “almighty” Facebook. The video features several sequences with Facebook interactions, including the new timeline, video posts, and likes. The video suggests that the forms of power have been inverted, with new media helping to shift that balance of power back to the masses. It rests part of that claim on the influence of Facebook. Recent stats put Facebook at around 750 million users, but are all those users looking to change the world or are their intentions more toward connecting with friends and playing Farmville? And what happens when that advocacy begins to undercut Facebook’s profits? And again, by heralding Facebook and social media as harbingers of power and change, the video demonstrates its own privilege. Not everyone has access to Facebook, let alone the technology or even the electricity to get to it.

In the process of all this overgeneralizing and melodrama, this video posits a rather innovative solution to whom the organization seems to believe is the problem, but this solution is an irresponsible and a misguided one. It negates the enormous complexities behind the violence in Africa. The abduction of children, their integration into an army, and the violence at their hands are just part of the surface of much deeper, long-term problems plaguing the countries of the African continent. Some of the poorest countries in the world are on the African continent. AIDS is an epidemic. Basic rights such as food, clean water, and even healthcare remain unavailable. Natural resources get mined through forced labor. Violence is an everyday reality for people in many countries there, and it forces massive displacement in populations and it even results in the killings of entire groups of people. Now, I am not discounting the horrors of children forced into a violent life as soldiers here, but I do want reinforce the point that these child soldiers are part of a much larger set of horrible and interconnected issues facing some countries there. By shining a spotlight on Kony and calling him the problem and his arrest the solution, this video discounts all the other contexts surrounding this army’s development in the first place. Arresting one man doesn’t mean the problem will end, and all will be magically solved. Far from it.

Revolutionary events such as this arrest might become the stuff of history, but true change comes and stays from small actions applied, adapted, and expanded consistently over time. The video mentions how the organization works with building schools and employing people in Uganda. Instead of spending all this money to make a film and rent a headquarters in San Francisco, why not channel funds toward changes that show proven benefits for people like Acaye instead of addressing an audience that might be moved by the message? And instead of wallpapering the world with posters, why not bring in more healthcare, subsidize AIDS medication, build more schools, create more jobs, fund more wells, and even underwrite programs to help the people who need it? Further, why not work with the people there to help them figure out how best to address their problems and find solutions, instead of trying to solve the problem from here?

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.