Visible children

[Update: For more recent posts on the 2012 campaign, also see here.]

Invisible Children, as many readers may know, is less a film than a social movement in the US. Three young filmmakers set out to make a movie about the Sudan. They didn’t find their war in the Sudan, though. They found it in northern Uganda. Their movie did more to bring the Lord’s Resistance Army and the war in northern Uganda to US audiences, especially Congress, than any other advocacy organization on the planet. That deserves credit.

But why oh why, I have to ask, does it have to be in ways like this:

Last week I bemoaned the new ‘abduct yourself’ campaign and film. Many asked why, including their Mission Director. Here’s what I wrote back:

Well, to be truthful, the hipster tie and cowboy hat was a little much. But there are more substantive things to be said about the new film.

There are a few famous TV documentaries about Africa, by the likes of Basil Davidson and Ali Mazrui. The funny thing about these shows is that they are less about Africa than they are about Davidson or Mazrui. The new IC film clip feels much the same, laced with more macho bravado. The movie feels like it’s about the filmmakers, and not the cause. There might be something to the argument that American teenagers are more likely to relate to an issue through the eyes of a peer. That’s the argument that was made after the first film. It’s not entirely convincing, especially given the distinctly non-teenage political influence IC now has. The cavalier first film did the trick. Maybe now it’s time to start acting like grownups.

There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.

One consequence, whether it’s IC or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone. At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures. There’s lots of room for intelligent advocacy.

There are a few other things that are troubling. It’s questionable whether one should be showing the faces of child soldiers on film. And watching the film one gets the sense that the US and IC were instrumental in getting the peace talks to happen. These things diminish credibility more than anything.

A little harsh, perhaps. Comments from readers?