The Rights and Wrongs of Kony Catching

How Kony 2012 has been misunderstood ☛

Jason Russell, tipped to play the lead in the inevitable Matthew Modine bio-pic.

Recent weeks have seen the rise of a film that has taken the internet by storm and massively divided opinions across the globe. Its name is Kony 2012. Just in case you’ve been away from the web for a time, a quick recap. The film is a slickly-produced 30 minute piece directed by Jason Russell, calling for action to bring African warlord Joseph Kony to justice by making him a household name. The film had been on Vimeo for a time getting a few dozen hits a day, but last weekend it went viral and those figures soared into the millions. It has garnered support from senior American politicians on both sides of the aisle and celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Angelina Jolie. As I write, the film has been seen by over 100 million people worldwide – equivalent to one third of the population of the USA (or half the readership of this blog).

A backlash soon followed. Journalist pointed out that the Ugandan army, who the film supports, has itself been accused of human rights abuses. Despite its thoughtful, liberal accent Kony 2012 has been accused of proposing a gung-ho solution to complex issues, provoking comparisons to Team America: World Police. Commentators on African affairs claim that the intervention the film advocates could destabilise the entire region.

The most cutting criticism however is that Jason Russell has played fast and loose with the facts. He’s been criticised for fudging the timeline of events, giving the impression that things happened more recently than they did. Britain’s Channel 4 News reported on the film with barely suppressed anger – ‘shoddy internet slacktivism, they should try getting that past the Broadcasting Standards Comission!’ was the subtext. (It may not have helped that the film stole a lot of the thunder of Channel 4’s flagship war crimes film Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, shown a few days later). While no one has actually accused Kony 2012 of an outright lie, it’s clearly not the whole truth.

Now, documentary-makers have to be serious-minded folk. I’ve cut a few docs, during which process I’ve been acutely aware of a responsibility that I don’t bear when cutting fiction. I can’t just change the story because it plays better that way. The director will insist on things being broadly true. Boring, I know. In fact at the Sheffield Documentary Festival I once attended a debate about two words: “like these”. A historical documentary had illustrated an account of a military operation by showing footage of fighter jets taking off from an aircraft carrier. However the footage was not of the actual planes that took off that day, it was a shot from the same era: of similar planes taking off. The debate the documentary makers had with their broadcaster was whether to include the words in their narration “The decision was made to send out Phantom jets like these” in order to acknowledge that the footage was generic, or to trust that the audience would make that assumption. After some discussion they dropped the phrase, but the fact that the conversation happened at all should tell you how seriously accuracy is taken.

So is Kony 2012 a bad documentary, biased and selective with the truth? I don’t think it is. In this respect I think the backlash has missed something. Clearly the film is biased and certainly it misses out some unhelpful facts, but it’s not actually a documentary. Kony 2012 is a campaigning film.

"An Inconvenient Truth": the rather serious brother of "The Day After Tomorrow"

The long-form campaigning film is a relatively recent phenomenon. The best-known example of the genre, the one that popularised the form, was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, back in 2006. In the past decade The Corporation, The End of the Line, Stealing America and many more have put their cards on the table and tried to get us to join their cause. You could say that the campaigning film is propaganda by a different name, but propaganda often deals in outright lies, and associations with oppressive regimes have made it a dirty word. Let’s stick with ‘campaigning film’.

You want to know the difference between a documentary and a campaigning film. While they look very similar and mostly use the same techniques, they have different objectives. Documentaries seek to inform the audience about their subject. Many try subtly, or not so subtly, to persuade the viewer to the filmmaker’s point of view, but they do so within a code long laid down by journalism. They know the difference between reportage and editorial comment and, while they might sail close to that line, they’re careful not to cross it. Above all, a documentary must be honest and seek to reveal the whole story. Sometimes they’ll only tell one side of a story, perhaps when the other side has been well-rehearsed and there is a new angle to be revealed. Generally speaking, though, the aim of a documentary is to add to the sum total of human understanding.

The campaigning film is different; at its core it’s about action. Such films overtly express their beliefs and set out an argument to back them up. They often end with a call to arms, and this is what the film has been about all along – an explicit attempt to persuade the viewer to do something. To write to a politician, sign a petition, take fewer long-haul flights or eat less tuna. A documentary wants to make us think. A campaigning film may want that too, but as a means to the end: they want to make us act.

Why is this difference important? The campaigning film is open about its objectives and, while it certainly shouldn’t lie, it doesn’t have a duty to tell the whole truth. The campaigner gives us information not out of a documentary desire to inform, but as fuel for their argument. And making that argument is their key goal. Whenever you or I make an argument we inevitably present all the strongest facts that back up our case, and ignore, discredit or dismiss the evidence that might weaken our argument. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Your job is to present your argument. The other side of the coin? Leave that to those who disagree with you; that’s their job.

"Team America" stood down for the moment

Kony 2012 is the perfect product of the internet. Unlike a documentary, it is not a complete thing in and of itself, it exists only as a part of a larger whole. In one respect it’s a piece of a broader campaign, involving a petition, pressure on celebrities and politicians, a day of action, &c. But crucially it is also part of a debate. In this respect the backlash is also a part of the whole. While I think that criticism of the film as a documentary isn’t valid, questions about the course of action it promotes are both legitimate and essential. Having watched the film and read the responses I think that Joseph Kony should be brought to justice for his crimes, but sending in the marines with orders that just read “go get him” is almost certainly not the best way to make that happen.

But would Kony 2012 have been stronger if it had pre-empted its critics, anticipating their cavils and countering them in the initial film? That’s what a documentary would have done, and would have been right to do within that form. But this campaigning film chose to simplify its argument in order to generate feeling, rather than thought – a feeling of anger at injustice. This pressure gives politicians a spur to act, even if it may not direct serve their national interest. They and their policy advisors will have to do the thinking and work out how to respond to the public mood the film has created. That’s their job. Hopefully action will be taken that will lead to the right result.

Whether you agree with the film and how it was made, one thing is sure: it has succeeded in its aim of making Joseph Kony a household name. Had you heard of him before last week? This in itself makes his eventual capture more likely. Has this been done at the expense of the truth? Not really; the film has prompted journalists who’ve remained quiet about Kony for some time to tell the whole story. Besides in the Internet age we’ve all grown more savvy about judging information presented to us as fact. Do you really think I have 200 million readers?

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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6 Responses to “The Rights and Wrongs of Kony Catching”
  1. Bill Hayes says:

    The worrying thing about this is that anyone can say anything and whip up an internet campaign to make something that is inaccurate a fact. I have lost count of the invites I have had to pass this film on. I did not. I will not pass on anything I can be sure is as triuthful as it can be. Also, I couldn’t understand the “why now” aspect. I think Charley Brooker nailed it. Given the background of the people who produced it, I am glad I didn’t pass it on.

    I agree with Channel 4 news on this – if it couldn’t pass a terrestial standards of accuracy and balance, then it is automatically suspect.

    • guyducker says:

      Thanks for your comment Bill. While I can absolutely understand your caution: I too was put off forwarding the video when I discovered the nature of the group behind it.

      I also think you’re right when you say “anyone can say any thing and whip up an internet campaign”. Twin town: freedom of speech. Invisible Children put out a call to action based on what they believe to be an important cause. They don’t pretend it’s a balanced documentary, that would be deceitful.

      If you apply broadcasting standards of accuracy and balance to campaigns you essentially kill them. They need to be able to present their side of the argument in its purest form. I think political, environmental, religious groups and the like all have a right to argue their case, as long as they don’t exhort illegal behaviour and do so in a way that’s OBVIOUSLY biased.

  2. Bill Hayes says:

    agreed. But I do like Charley Brooker 😉

  3. dave hewitt says:

    It’s the film’s smug, look-at-my-cute-kid, ‘i wanna be just like you dad’ tone that put me off. (there wasn’t actually much about Kony in there at all)

    The film’s message:
    Wanted poster: this bogeyman in Africa – Now give us money and buy our merchandise (but we’re not going to tell you how we spend the proceeds)

    • guyducker says:

      Dave, I have to admit that I did find the stuff with the kid a bit wince-worthy. Clearly not such of a problem for audiences in the States who are less cynical / savvy (delete as appropriate) than us Brits.

      However Jason Russell and Invisible Children have been very canny. They know that the public back the people behind a project, rather than the project itself. For this reason they spend much more time pitching themselves than they do the problem – if we buy into them, we’ll trust that the problem is real and needs fixing.

      It’s interesting that when Invisible Children were challenged, they responded with a defence of how they spend their money. They argue that they’re primarily about lobbying and raising awareness. Doing work on the ground is their secondary concern, they’d rather that government stepped in and did that. Given how staggeringly successful they’ve been at raising awareness, I’m not sure that this is such a bad policy.

  4. Brian Barnes says:

    I haven’t seen the Kony film, and I honestly have no desire to. However, you should remember that the great documentary films of history originate from a tradition of a distinct point-of-view and were never objective or balanced. This idea of fairness and decency in documentary came in with television documentaries – TV was perceived as a mass medium and so needed regulation, in the way that the Press is now and wasn’t then. I have no problem with biased documentaries, they’re much more engaging – think of ‘Man on Wire’ portraying Philippe Petit as a daredevil hero whom we all rooted for, when by any reasonable objective assessment he was an idiotic criminal trespasser. (See what I did there? – I expressed an opinion.) Can you honestly say that ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is an objective documentary? Or Werner Herzog’s ‘Lessons of Darkness’? The authorial bias is given away in the titles – I’d say that’s a good thing.

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