A slick blend of cliche and principle has made this bold polemic against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony an online sensation.
by Peter Bradshaw
Maybe Jason Russell’s web-based film Kony 2012, calling for international action to stop the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, can’t be considered great documentary-making. But as a piece of digital polemic and digital activism, it is quite simply brilliant. It’s a slick, high-gloss piece of work, distributed on the Vimeo site, the upscale version of YouTube for serious film-makers. And its sensational, exponential popularity-growth on the web is already achieving one of its stated objectives: to make Kony famous, to publicise this psychopathic warlord’s grotesque crimes: kidnapping thousands of children and turning them into mercenaries, butchers and rapists.
It does not stick to the conventions of impartial journalism, in the BBC style. It is partisan, tactless and very bold. But it could be seen as insufferably condescending, a way of making US college kids feel good about themselves. And is Russell scared to come out and admit that effective action entails an old-fashioned boots-on-soil invasion of a landlocked African country, with plenty of collateral damage and civilian death?
It is actually two minutes into the film before we hear what it is supposed to be about. Visual mood music invokes the world and all its peoples. Russell juggles the cliches of US presidential campaigns and corporate imagery. We see senior citizens chat to their grandkids via Skype. We see a beautiful Earth suspended in space, in fact, we see everything but fields of green, red roses too. It looks like an ad for Nike or Adidas or even Enron. (I was reminded of Steve Martin’s sinister entrepreneur Gavin Volure in Tina Fey’s TV comedy 30 Rock, who made corporate ads full of dreamy images but which failed to disclose what they were actually selling.)
Russell begins by invoking the social network and the world of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook so fervently, so passionately, that the movie begins by being about its own future viral success , a prophecy now extravagantly fulfilled. He shuffles in graphics in the manner of Michael Moore and Al Gore; he deploys the language and rhetoric of grassroots campaigning, channelled campus energy. This is the world of Occupy and Obama 08. But all the material about social networking is there to prepare the audience to believe in their ability, through the web, to make a difference, to pressure celebs and politicians and donate a couple of bucks each. Interestingly, this is intended partly to pay for tracking devices which will warn Ugandan villagers about Kony’s approach with his shock-troops: the technology is a cousin to the social networking hardware and software mobilising western support.
Russell isn’t afraid of brash emotionalism. He tugs and wrenches at the heartstrings. He interviews his cute little boy Gavin, and even shows the wacky home-movie videos he makes with him in the garden, with spoof explosion effects using the Action Movie app on his iPhone. (Full disclosure: I do exactly the same thing with my little boy.) But this can get toe-curling, especially when he interviews Gavin about the “bad guy” he is facing. You won’t find the BBC’s John Simpson doing this. And are we, the audience, being talked down to? Treated like kids? Well, yes, a little. But there’s no doubting the force of this film. It is sometimes conceited and cliched, and Russell does not detain the viewer with exactly how much western intervention he expects, and what the downside is. Nevertheless, Kony 2012 lands an almighty punch. This is a principled campaign ad, and a very, very effective one.
Guardian News Service