Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy
By Chiara Lucchetta
A crucial part of the film process has always been promotion and distribution: determining what platforms to advertise on and how to invite an audience’s attention over to a film. Along with ensuring a film’s content will capture and hold its audience’s attention, the film industry must be clever with how it can make its films widely and publicly known. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in a rapidly expanding digital world, the film industry has latched onto social media platforms as gateways into the public’s homes. Social media has become a powerful tool in the world of film, and even more instrumental to the merging of film and politics. Whereas, before, politicians made videos to aid in their campaigns, there are now campaigns built on films. These video campaigns spread fast and far, going viral online and trending worldwide. One of the most notable video campaigns of our time is Kony 2012.
The Kony 2012 campaign started with an experimental video, produced by Invisible Children (IC) and directed by Jason Russell, the founder of the Invisible Children organization. This campaign video was meant to expose the crimes of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), in Uganda, and incite people to take action – two goals that are controversially viewed as being successfully met. However, what was clearly viewed as a success of Kony 2012 was how quickly and vigorously the video campaign spread. The components that went into the broadcasting nature of this advocacy film campaign are discussed in the article “KONY 2012 Anatomy of a Campaign Video and a Video Campaign”, written by Leshu Torchin. However, while Torchin’s analysis of Kony 2012 examines the role of the advocacy film within the context of online media, it does not take a definitive stance on the moral successes or pitfalls of such a video.
Where one can look at the Kony 2012 initiative arguing either side, Torchin (2016) instead chooses a reflective viewpoint, encouraging the campaign to be regarded as a learning experience, which “offers an occasion for thinking about the benefits and limitations of video advocacy as it moves online” (p. 123). Torchin begins with this thesis that Kony 2012 prompts us to thoroughly consider how the evolving online world will change how we think about, and go about, curating, promoting, and distributing advocacy videos. As Torchin launches into the article with data about the life of Kony 2012, the changing relationship between film and online media, which the reader has been called to consider, becomes apparent.
To better understand the context of the campaign, Torchin delves into the teleology of IC and how and why Kony 2012 came to be. It is important to note that IC is no stranger to video activism (Torchin, 2016, p. 123). Founded in 2004, with the goal of shedding light on the use and abuse of child soldiers by the IRA, IC produced a number of documentaries before Kony 2012 (Torchin, 2016, p. 123) Therefore, when IC entered into the Stop Kony project, the organization already had a strong idea of the power and impact films could have on a public, online platform, and definitely the potential of ‘clicktivism’. Torchin (2016) briefly confronts this concept of clicktivism in relation to IC’s strong belief in the leverage of social media, suggesting that critics of this activism tool underestimate it (p. 124). Clicktivism, as described by Mark A. Drumbl (2012) in his article “Child Soldiers and Clicktivism: Justice Myths and Prevention”, is when organizations use social media to advocate for a cause and get people involved (p. 481). Drumbl (2012), whom Torchin references in her article, debunks clicktivism, and by direct association the Kony 2012 campaign, for having “short attention spans and limited shelf life” (p. 484). That is to say that they hold no real influence in the long run, which is an interesting opinion to consider when examining the outcomes of the Kony 2012 initiative. However, the content of the video and what went into making it must be understood first before one can look at its aftereffects.
Providing scene-by-scene descriptions of the video, Torchin does an excellent job of breaking down the film’s plot line and the meanings behind its composition. Kony 2012 is narrated by activist Jason Russell, who also takes on the role of the film’s lead. The campaign video is composed of shots of Russell explaining the crisis in Uganda to his five-year-old son, Gavin, revealing the story of turmoil of his Ugandan friend Jacob, and outlining ways people can take action, such as through “Cover the Night”, a night devoted to posting up pictures of Kony. Throughout the film, there is a persistent, underlying theme, which praises social media. As Torchin (2016) states, “These [social media] platforms…can function to articulate the relationship of the user to the world, and of the humanitarian to the person in need” (p.130). Torchin (2016) even lays out the history of sites like Youtube and Citizen Tube popping up as channels to be used to advocate for causes (p. 124-125). This motif that social media can connect the world, further leading to change, seen in the recurring graphics of social media sites in Kony 2012, is the framework through which Torchin analyzes the film.
Torchin (2016) points out that there is this conviction driving Kony 2012 that exposure to an issue will lead to awareness, which will ultimately lead to a response of action (p. 124). And so, Kony 2012 mirrors something of a publicity campaign; “as Russel explains in voiceover, the goal is to make Kony ‘famous’, a process that will lead to his capture” (Torchin, 2016, p. 124). This conviction is carried on throughout the video, as seen when the audience is told in order to help, they must share the video with their friends by the means of social media. As Torchin (2016) explains, targeted towards the very specific audience of modern, progressive young adults and students, the film prospered in this respect, receiving 112 million views in just 6 days (p. 123). However profitable a response the video received though, Torchin (2016) also makes it clear that, unlike the film’s structure suggests, there is not a direct correlation between engaging in social media posting and democratic change (p.127).
This is a recurring point made in Torchin’s article. As Kony 2012 displays seamless scenes of the engagement in social media leading to Kony’s capture, the audience is guided to believe that it can be this easy (Torchin, 2012, p. 126). Furthermore, this contributes to a larger source of criticism regarding the film, and that is oversimplification. Torchin (2016) calls attention to these questionable film techniques in passing, saying that in explaining the issue in simplest terms and by placing the audience on the intellectual level of a five-year-old boy, the issue wrongfully turns into “a ready-to-comprehend battle of good versus evil” (p. 127). Torchin then continues on to also present preexisting criticisms surrounding the film for its underrepresentation. Not only does the film misconstrue the issue in Uganda for its audience through simplification, but also through its lack of voice from Ugandan politicians, activists, and citizens, (Torchin, 2016, p, 127). Nonetheless, Torchin (2012) passes over these judgments, saying these film choices follow with IC’s campaign strategy and actually aid in its progress as they support the American image of the “White Saviour” complex (p. 126). Thus, moving on, Torchin again looks at the role of social media in an online video campaign. Torchin (2016) admits that the video was ineffective in getting people involved in actual, practical initiatives, however, says this does not weaken the potential of social media campaigns, but “raises questions of how activists negotiate the speed and reach of these new media, particularly when assessing the timeline of a campaign” (p. 129). Finally, Torchin (2016) concludes the article by reaffirming her view that Kony 2012 teaches us how film and social media can work together to promote activism (p. 131).
By the end of this article, Torchin both presents praise for Kony 2012 for showing the potential reach a video/social media campaign can hold and presents critiques over the content of the video. Unfortunately, scrutiny of what was displayed in Kony 2012 (and how it was displayed) is overshadowed by Torchin’s breakdown of how the video approached the world of online campaigning both on and off the screen. In her article, Torchin focuses more on learning from Kony 2012 how to use and connect an online video campaign with practical action than on the ramifications of the film’s makeup. In her conclusion, Torchin (2016) “prompts us to ask how one can engage an audience without resorting to excessive oversimplification, or narcissism of pity that engages politics of victimization and occludes local agency and voice” (p. 131); yet, fails to start this conversation herself in the article. I believe these ethical dilemmas, which the video raises, as well as the consequences of the video campaign’s more controversial film techniques, could have been explored more thoroughly. I agree that as a campaign video, Kony 2012 broke boundaries with the amount of attention and passion it spurred. I also think the emphasis Torchin places on studying Kony 2012 as not just a video, but a movement, is important to understanding it since “video and publicity function as components of a larger campaign” (Torchin, 2016, p. 124). However, the negative features of the film are ones that could have had a dangerous impact on Western political culture, and therefore needed to be delved into more deeply. Kony 2012 did a good job of capturing its target audience’s attention, but in doing so, it also fed into Western political ideals that place America as the centre of the world. Or, as Torchin (2016) recognizes, but does not address, “maintains power and agency in the body of white men” (p. 126).
We have learned in this class that films can shape how we think about the world and ourselves. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to what a film is telling us. Kony 2012 may have begun with sincere intentions to advocate for the rights of children in Uganda. Somewhere along trying to spark excitement in its audience though, the subject of the video (victims in Uganda) became lost. Kony 2012 became less focused on revealing an issue and more focused on placing Western civilization on a pedestal. This issue is one Torchin (2016) recognizes in her article when she talks about the victims in Kony 2012 becoming obscured by the Hollywood dynamics of the video and the “dramatic arc of activism” (p. 127). What Torchin does not do though is talk about the repercussions of this. It seems to me that in attempting to prove that Kony 2012 acts as a lesson on how to use film and social media as accompaniment for activism, some of the more problematic parts of the video are overlooked in the article. As discussed before, Torchin (2016) regards the lack of African representation in the film as a strategic ploy to hook young activists by confirming the meliorism to which they feel a responsibility to (p. 126). I agree that this probably had a hand in why the video did resonate so well with students, gaining a profitable following. However, I think the article should have been more critical of the implications that come with feeding into this preexisting belief, even if it is for a good cause.
When defining IC’s social media campaign plan, Torchin compares it to the approach of the human rights organization WITNESS, who also use film and online communities as activism tools. All through her article, Torchin calls attention to how Kony 2012 applies video advocacy methods integral to WITNESS’ mission statement. According to the article “Juggling Advocacy, Audience and Agency When Using #Video4Change”, by Sam Gregory (2012), the program director of WITNESS, this statement includes the principles that videos “should be audience oriented and provide a clear space for action” and “should be part of a campaign, complementing other forms of activism” (par. 4). Torchin uses this comparison to strengthen her conviction that Kony 2012 stands as an example of how and what an online video campaign should look like. Nontheless, if you look more closely into the doctrines WITNESS stands by, you can see that Kony 2012 fell short of living up to the same ethical standards.
Gregory addresses where Kony 2012 went wrong in exercising these advocacy tools in his article. For one, I noticed the video’s oversimplified narrative ends up misrepresenting the victims. Gregory (2012) characterizes storytelling as being too simple “when it perpetuates stereotypes” (When Does Storytelling for an Audience Make Simple Too Simple, par. 5) , and this is what Kony 2012 does. As we have seen, Torchin does touch on this exhausted dichotomy of the suffering, vulnerable African and self-assuring White man evident in Kony 2012; however, she does not respond to how asserting this stereotype contributes to us viewing Africa as inferior to us. Another complication that I noticed with the narrative is its runtime. Torchin (2016) claims “The video’s runtime allows for a lot of information and the development of a clear narrative”, as the video has a runtime of 30 minutes, compared to the typical 30 seconds used for advocacy advertisements (p.124). Looking back at the film conventions used by WITNESS, this runtime appears to be an advantage since it provides IC with room to develop an engaging storyline for its audience. Be that as it may, the video’s length suggests it is something that it is not. Because Kony 2012 is long enough to establish a narrative, it fools its audience into thinking it is a documentary about the crimes of the LRA, when there are few accurate facts about this subject included. Again, Torchin confronts this criticism in her article by then turning it around to be regarded as productive discourse. According to Torchin (2016), these mistakes lead to constructive feedback, such as in the form of “Uganda Speaks” and the ‘#AskIcAnything’ initiative (p. 130). “Uganda Speaks” was an online platform where Ugandan voices could join in the conversation about the issue and contribute facts about their experiences; whereas, IC opened themselves up to questions and criticism online using ‘#AskIcAnything’ (Torchin, 2016, p. 130-131). Similar to Torchin, I see how these responses to the criticism IC and Kony 2012 received resulted in more constructive and transparent exchanges over the conflict in Uganda. However, I would have rather the article explore where the video went wrong and how future online campaign videos can practice better ethics than on how to correct the matter after the fact.
Finally, the greatest weakness I found with this article was the absence of evidence for Torchin’s most repeated conviction, which is that you can learn how to use online video to complement real-life action for change from Kony 2012. As both Torchin and Gregory reiterate, an online advocacy video is only effective when working as part of an off-screen campaign (Torchin, 2016, p. 131). Kony 2012 did institute other activist events, such as “Cover the Night” and encouraging people to bring the issue to the eyes of influential figures in politics and pop culture on Twitter. Yet, these off-screen activities did not see much movement. Torchin (2016) does not see this as a failure of the video, but rather the result of its success as it spread fast immediately instead of gradually increasing attraction leading up to “Cover the Night” (p. 129). I think it is interesting to return back to the concept of clicktivism here though, and consider if the reason for this failure is that the instantaneous, fleeting nature of viral videos does not allow for longer, sustained interest. Based on the way the video was dramatized to seduce and persuade, which Torchin discusses, it is not far off to think that people adopted Kony 2012 as a trend instead of a serious issue, causing the short turnout for “Cover the Night.”
With this article, Torchin gives the reader much to think about concerning Kony 2012. It is for this reason, however, that I think there were areas that could have been scrutinized more. Torchin expertly paints a picture of what a successful video campaign can look like using Kony 2012 as a learning example, but it is within this example that there are gaps. In this article, Torchin brings forward criticisms of the video that can be used to create conversation over how to craft video campaigns to circulate as much attention as Kony 2012, but under more ethical pretenses. Thus, I left this article asking myself the same question, but also wishing Torchin would have given her own input on how to best approach film in a developing online world.
Drumbl, M.A. (2012). Child soldiers and clicktivism: Justice, myths, and prevention. Journal of Human Rights Practice. Vol. 4. Retrieved from http://works.bepress.com/mark_drumbl/77/
Gregory, S. (2012, March 17). Kony 2012: Juggling advocacy, audience and agency when using #video4change. Retrieved from https://blog.witness.org/2012/03/kony-2012-juggling-advocacy-audience-and-agency-when-using-video4change/
Torchin, L. (2016). KONY 2012 - Anatomy of a campaign video and a video campaign. In Y. Tzioumakis, & C. Molloy (Eds.), Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics. (pp. 123-134). Routledge.