Christian Caryl

Let’s Stop Miscasting Africans

Africans are way past the victim thing -- but Westerners don't seem to be there yet. A tale of two films.

Johan Stahl/Winthereik
Johan Stahl/Winthereik

There’s this movie about Africa that everyone’s talking about. In case you haven’t been paying attention, it’s Kony 2012, a 30-minute video by the California-based humanitarian group Invisible Children that found millions of viewers around the web last week. The film describes the group’s efforts to end the activities of Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the most vicious insurgent armies in the world.

I don’t think I need to go on at great length about the video, since Michael Wilkerson has already dissected it so deftly for FP. He notes that the film, in its eagerness to woo supporters to its cause, distorts the current reality in Central Africa on several important counts. I’m inclined to agree – not least because my two Ugandan colleagues here at Democracy Lab, Denis Barnabas and Jackee Budesta Batanda, have also told me that they don’t really understand why the film makes it look as though northern Uganda is still suffering from Kony’s ravages. (In fact, as critics point out, Kony likely left Uganda six years ago, and the LRA is probably down to a force of a few hundred by now.) While all of us have been talking about Uganda over the past week, it’s striking, in fact, how few Ugandans have had a chance to participate in the conversation.

If you don’t believe me, just take a look at this video by Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire, in which she chides the makers of Kony 2012 for portraying Africans primarily as powerless victims who have to wait for the white people to ride in and save them. "You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what’s going on," she says at one point. Sounds valid.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Africans are tired of being typecast as victims. The sad fact of the matter is that we in the West (if there still is such a thing) still prefer to imagine Africans primarily as victims and ourselves as their redeemers. You’d think we’d be way over this by now. By now we’ve had countless books that deflate Western myths about Africa — including the sometimes distorting effects of well-meaning development assistance and humanitarian aid. And you’d think that we’d be ready to move on to serious solutions for the problems that undeniably exist.

Old habits are hard to change, apparently. One thing that’s conspicuous about Kony 2012 is the way that it spends more time on the activists campaigning against Kony than it does on the people who live in the places where he’s committed his crimes. Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, his equally appealing young son, and their legions of twenty-something supporters around the world get far more footage than any Africans. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to assume that this (in addition to its amazing production values) is one of the reasons why Invisible Children’s film has struck such a nerve. People would much rather identify with the heroic crusader than the evildoer’s depressing victims.

As far as I can tell, no one is making a movie about the many African countries that aren’t suffering from war or ethnic conflict. No one’s making a movie about Ghana, which recorded a Chinese-style growth rate of 13.5 percent last year. Nor are the filmmakers gravitating to Botswana, which, according to the World Bank, has a per capita GDP higher than several countries in Europe, and boasts a corruption rate lower than Israel’s. I got that last fact from Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, which also gives Rwanda a more favorable ranking than Hungary or the Czech Republic. South Africa (along with the other African countries mentioned here) does better than Italy.

Activists, of course, don’t have to make stirring crusades for countries that succeed. Yet those success stories – achieved primarily through the hard work of Africans themselves, not Western development assistance — suggest that Africans might just be capable of finding their own solutions.

This is not a conclusion that fits into the world of Kony 2012, which strongly suggests that 100 special forces operators dispatched to the region by President Obama last year will easily solve a problem that has eluded local African governments for the past quarter of a century. (The film mysteriously alludes to high-tech capabilities that will enable the 100 Americans to ferret Kony out of hiding. Now that would be powerful medicine, wouldn’t it? But I’m not holding my breath.)

And yes, Africa has its disasters, obviously enough. But do we really want to know what they are?

The other Western-made movie about Africa I watched recently has not triggered a mass campaign. It hasn’t even found a distributor in the U.S. (though it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year). Called The Ambassador, it was made by Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist who specializes in pretending to be someone he isn’t, and then filming the results with hidden cameras.

In the film, Brügger (shown in the photo above) actually purchases a diplomatic passport from Liberia (with the help of various slippery middlemen of various colors). He then uses his bona fide diplomatic status — which he has obtained under his own name, mind you — as cover for the establishment of several shady business ventures in the Central African Republic, including diamond smuggling. (He never quite carries them out, but, of course, that’s beside the point.) The CAR, as we experience it in Brügger’s film, fulfills every horrible cliché of the corrupt, brutish, resource-cursed version of Africa that we have so long been accustomed to. (The CAR, indeed, is one of the countries that Joseph Kony may now be hiding in.)

The result concisely captures that atmosphere of jovial menace that permeates similar places around the world. (Burma and Afghanistan were two that came to my mind as I was watching the film.) Brügger, clad in a sartorial style that evokes one of Graham Greene’s African novels, tells the story as a pitch-black comedy. We watch him handing "envelopes of happiness" stuffed with cash to government officials, conducting contract negotiations with a spectacularly unsavory local diamond mine operator, and consulting with the CAR’s Head of State Security — a fat, sweaty white man, an ex-Foreign Legionary, whose French citizenship, he explained, was revoked by Paris a few years back. Near the end of the film we discover that the man has just been murdered (a factor that figures in the filmmaker’s decision to quit the country). If these were characters in a fictional story, they’d be dismissed as crass and overdrawn.

"A lot of the film is definitely outside people’s comfort zone," Brügger told me recently. Just when you think his ambassadorial persona can’t get any sleazier, one of his friends in the film pops up to outdo him. The white men come across as proudly corrupt, eager to do whatever they can to contribute to the CAR’s continuing dysfunction. His African interlocutors figure as unapologetic con artists, happy to sell their compatriots down the river for a chance to fleece the rich and clueless European. But all of them seem real, because they are. (The Dutch businessman who is shown helping Brügger get his passport tried to prevent a prestigious documentary festival from showing the film, asserting that it besmirched his reputation.)

You never know quite what you’re supposed to think — and that is precisely the movie’s achievement. "Documentary films about Africa aren’t supposed to be funny," Brügger says. "You’re constantly being told how terrible it is. It’s all supposed to be about victimization — NGOs with teary eyes. And suddenly you have this film that also has its fun moments. This is difficult for people to deal with."

As such, The Ambassador is a welcome provocation. It probably won’t get anyone to take to the streets for a good cause, and I doubt very much that it will solve any problems. But perhaps it will make some of us think a little bit harder about African complexities. Surely that would be a good thing.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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