The Viewer IS the Subject: “Kony 2012” a Year Later

With all the awards season talk about what 2012 film was best in what ways, it’s a good time to pay some respects to the online documentary sensation, “Kony 2012.” A call-to-arms produced by an activist organization in San Diego, Invisible Children, it has been called the most viral video of all time.

It was almost a year ago, last March, when “Kony 2012” was suddenly everywhere, and then it was nowhere. Within a few weeks, most of us had written it off as an astute publicity stunt by a creepy messiah-complex-sufferer. When filmmaker Jason Russell got hauled off for a psych evaluation for masturbating in traffic (caught on video, of course), it only confirmed what seemed obvious.

And yet, within days, over half of American young adults had heard of this obscure Ugandan warlord, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). A New York Times article weeks later started with this nugget of B-movie story-telling worthy of Robert Rodriguez AND John Cleese: “One hundred of America’s elite Special Operations troops, aided by night vision scopes and satellite imagery, are helping African forces find a wig-wearing, gibberish-speaking fugitive rebel commander named Joseph Kony.”

The adult blogosphere turned on Russell in a big way, but for those of you keeping score, how many child-enslaving African warlords have the snarky bloggers and critics made life shittier for in 2012? Zero? Jason Russell can say, “Arguably, all of them,” or at least, “One.” Both Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast and Henry Jenkins of Confessions of an Aca/Fan (check him out!) cited THIS analysis by Gilad Lotan while figuring out how “Kony 2012” as became an internet phenomenon.

Most sensational, as far as I’m concerned, is that Jason Russell’s video didn’t just take off out of nowhere. His organization Invisible Children already had an ardent following among 13 to 17-year-old girls from Middle America. Statistically, these teens were from big small towns or small cities, and had a penchant for tweeting about Jesus. They provided the massive buzz in the first day of the film’s release, that spread to a hundred million people within a week. In other words, if the movement ends up succeeding and taking him down, then the only force up to the task of defeating an army of Christian teenagers with assault rifles led by a homicidal narcissist will have been…a movement of Christian teenagers with Twitter accounts led by a comparably benign narcissist.

But that’s just part of the story. Invisible Children presumably gets lots of messages to its inner circle of 15-year-olds that don’t ever make the leap to my over-30 New York and LA Facebook friends. What was it about the content of “Kony 2012” that made it stick? To begin to answer that, I’d go back to the sea change that documentaries in general have undergone in recent decades. Let’s compare it to the mother of all call-to-arms films, Frank Capra’s Prelude to War (1942), the first installment of his Why We Fight series:

All media, of course, have to be faster now. Americans were forced to watch the Why We Fight series, so calling out “Kony 2012,” which is 30 minutes, for its superficiality is unfair. First, we’ll forgive it for omitting anything like the first two minutes of Prelude to War, in which no fewer than four title panels laboriously disclose who is producing it, what government departments approved it, etc. Had Russell been so scrupulous, it might have illuminated why he fails to mention the odd addition of Christian fundamentalism in Kony’s usual mix of nationalism and thuggery. Forget that.

Let’s compare minutes three through nine of Prelude to War with minutes one through eight of “Kony 2012”. In Prelude to War, the first live action shots of people are American soldiers, thousands of them marching in formation to military bands. “Causes and events leading up to our entry into the war,” the voice of God narrator booms. “Well, what are the causes? Why are we Americans on the march?”

Immediately, a series of rhetorical questions over images of Axis aggression around the world answers the question. “Is it because of Britain…France…China…?” After two minutes of this – and who wouldn’t melt seeing Nazis under the Arc de Triomphe, before anyone knew how the story was going to end? – a dreamy sequence of American arms factories dissolves, one into the next, while the narrator asks, “Just what was it made us change our way of living overnight….our whole nation into one vast arsenal?” It implies that our preference would have been to remain at peace, as the screen dissolves to another shot of Americans on the march, G.I. Joe’s filling the frame to every corner. The only American humans we’ve seen so far are these faceless helmets. The sequence ends with another title, a boilerplate quote from the Vice President: “This is a fight between a free world and a slave world.”

In the first two, captivating minutes of “Kony 2012,” it mentions no enemy. It goes straight to the quote, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” often attributed to Victor Hugo. You don’t know what it’s about, but already you’re inclined to support an elusive slogan that evokes the forward march of history, and the inherent power of ideas. You might still be wondering what a Kony is, but if and when you give it up, you’ll not just support a foreign policy detail, but an uplifting intellectual position. It was reminiscent, we have to admit, of the nebulously optimistic campaign slogans of a presidential candidate I volunteered for in 2008 who was facing reelection.

Then an “Outer Limits for the digital age” sequence of video misbehavior turns into a series of satellite footage and time lapse shots of the hum of 21st Century humanity. Prelude to War was narrated by the stentorian voice of Walter Huston, but the warm male voice that narrates this sounds like he’s reading a poem to his writer’s group.

“Right now,” he says, “there are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet two hundred years ago.” What?! Eerie minor chords on a synthesizer hint that something is wrong, but he launches into an ode to the wonders of our connected-ness via social media, punctuated by brief, wholesome personal moments from Americans’ life on the web.

In the second minute, he draws the battle lines. “Governments are trying to keep up, and older generations are concerned.” Snippets of the Egyptian revolution and out-of-context business headlines fearing a downturn in the market appear. “The game has new rules.” You still don’t know if it’s a promotional video for Goldman Sachs or Pinterest or what, but the conflict is one between them the old order and us the tech populi.

The conflict defined, Russell shows us two solid minutes, starting with home video of his wife giving birth, of a Facebook-Timeline-looking sequence of his photogenic son’s upbringing, including copious footage of, what else, his son using video and social media. (This was the nauseating point when I started skimming last year.) Just past the four minute mark, Russell and his son introduce Jacob, a Ugandan, and at 4:30 Russell explains that when he met him ten years prior, Jacob was running for his life. From whom, you still don’t know.

If this is what it takes to get a hundred million hits in six days, then it marks a generational shift. In the days of Prelude to War, a story-teller, or certainly a documentary filmmaker, would start with the general and then move to the particular. “Causes and events leading up to our entry into the war!” Its contemporary Citizen Kane was tweaking news reel journalism, but also started a new era in story-telling: it started with a dying man’s intimate moment, “Rosebud,” followed by “News! On the march!”

So, a few generations of writers, myself included, were raised to believe that good writing starts with the particular and moves to the general. Capra might have started a film about Kony, “Uganda! An East African nation of 32 million…” My instinct, honed by watching and re-watching Hoop Dreams and Brother’s Keeper, would be to put Jacob on the screen in minute one, playing soccer or something like that. “Jacob is a normal boy, and it’s a miracle that he has survived,” would be the first message. By minute two, I’m showing the viewer Joseph Kony. By minute four, a professor explains the British legacy in Uganda, and Idi Amin. (In 29 minutes Russell never bothers.) By the fifth minute, we’re down to business.

This is a conservative, old-fashioned instinct of mine, since, it’s very clear, documentaries have been moving toward an ever-more subjective, narrator-centric style of story-telling in recent decades. Roger and Me, My Architect: A Son’s Journey and Supersize Me are just a few examples. When the subject matter crosses the old colonialist divide, critics will occasionally point out that filmmakers insist on crafting stories about white people’s journeys. What is Cuban jazz after all but a photo opp and a soundtrack for Ry Cooder and his son to get away from it all? But rarely do we question why the narrator is so present in the first place.

“Kony 2012” took the historical trend one step further and started with the viewer. From the viewer it moves to the filmmaker. “Everything in my heart told me to do something, and so I made him a promise,” he says around minute 7, and of course has captured himself on video making that promise. The hero isn’t the Special Forces sniper who’s actually going to dispense with Kony, nor a Ugandan boy who’s going to beat impossible odds to rebuild his life, or get his revenge. The hero is the guy with the video camera, and we the viewers, just by watching, are his supporting cast in this pageant of justice. Joseph Kony is finally mentioned at minute 8, and real exposition about his most wretched human rights crimes finally comes up around minute 11.

Prelude to War also spends its first five minutes establishing who “we” are. How did we in the free world become free? “Only by a long and ceaseless struggle inspired by men of vision: Moses, Mohammed, Confucius, Christ…” It invokes the notion of freedom as fought for by Washington, Jefferson, Kosciuzko, LaFayette, Lincoln, etc. It trips on itself to be ethnically inclusive, but touchingly succeeds at it, before turning to the enemy: “But what of this other world?” “Here the march of history was reversing itself.”

Like Prelude to War, the substance of “Kony 2012” is a set of long, alternating sequences detailing what’s wrong, and showing Americans rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it. The only authority it appeals to is the prosecutor from the International Criminal Court – not a bad place to start – who says that Kony is at the very top of his “most wanted” list. It also insists on giving the filmmaker’s toddler just as much screen time. The bad guys are bad and must be stopped: even a child can understand it. This rubs me the wrong way, I don’t mind admitting, but arguably it was an ingredient that made the message stick among its core audience, and I wouldn’t have heard of Joseph Kony if it weren’t for the charm of Russell (cute) and his son (extra cute).

From minute 12 on, it is an optimistic action plan. We could take issue with the lack of political program, which boiled down to: Keep Kony in the public mind so that the US Government doesn’t rescind its October, 2011 order for 100 military advisors devoted to the Ugandan Army; and donate money to build an early-warning radio network to alert villagers to rebel attacks. The substance doesn’t seem to live up to the bluster, true enough, but what made “Kony 2012” a phenomenon was the bluster.

It’s depressing to think how many activist organizations (or corporations, for that matter) are shelling out real dollars for consultants to repeat the few truisms about social media changing the landscape that we hear all the time. “Kony 2012” ends by saying that people connecting via social media is “turning the system upside down,” as if that were an end in itself. Still, if it has somewhat inefficiently provided some deeper political support for the US Army to take Joseph Kony down, then that’s not a bad thing, right? Right! And here are some things “Kony 2012” got right, that I’m sure other call-to-arms videos will try repeating:

1. It celebrated its victories. It listed the October, 2011 US Government decision as a victory for the movement, and invited you to join in feeling happy about it.

2. More generally, it was positive! A little too “Up With People” for my taste, but it sure beat a “gloom and doom” video about how screwed East Central Africa is.

3. It listed three simple things a viewer could do. Good, basic organizing.

4. It created a sense of urgency. I would argue that it did so unconvincingly, but at least it recognized that some deadline was necessary to compel people to act.

5. It let the viewer see behind the camera. That is, in bits and pieces you could see the “making of” video within the piece itself. People want to be insiders, and this helped create that sense. More importantly, along those same lines:

6. It included not just the public pitch, but the organizing pitch. When you watch it, you’re not just signing a petition, you’re becoming “in the know” about the overall plan, while getting the impression that the plan already seems to be working.

7. It dared to be visionary. It pointed to a new political Eden. Once again, it was a little heavy on the vision and light on specifics for my taste, but it demonstrated that there is a place for ideals and not just common sense as a thematic linchpin to a project.

One final word of disclosure: It took me three guesses to find Uganda on an unmarked map!  Check out this African geography quiz to see how you do.

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