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TWO AMERICANS WHO ATTENDED THE KONY 2012 SCREENING IN GULU TELL IT LIKE IT WAS
At this point it’s old news that much-maligned philanthropy organization Invisible Children facilitated a screening of their notorious film KONY 2012 in northern Uganda last month, specifically in the rural town of Gulu. Showing a film made for Western teenagers about the atrocities of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army to the people who experienced those atrocities firsthand seems like a terrible idea, and sure enough, the thousands of Acholi in attendance hated it. According to some reports, by the time screening ended the audience was throwing stones and curses at the local IC leaders who had set up the event. Soon the cops were firing teargas and bullets into the crowd, and the riot left many injured and one dead.
The audience’s reaction should have been expected, which underscores just how clueless IC was in the first place. You’re asking a community to gather together to watch a movie in which the explanation of its past, in all its complexity and horror, is equated to the understanding of a white American filmmaker’s three-year-old son? Come on now, guys.
Unable to find much in the way of personal reactions from those who attended, I recently learned that a couple of my friends—American students doing research in the area who we’ll just refer to as Erika and Abby—made the trek to Gulu for the screening.
Their perspective is that of a pair of Americans, of course, and they didn’t witness the violence that was reported, but given the White House’s apparent embrace of IC,, I think it’s worthwhile to point out that some Americans on the ground in the region cringe at the kind of ham-fisted good-versus-evil narrative IC is determined to tell.
VICE: What was it like outside the screening, when you arrived?
Erika: It was held in a small soccer stadium in Gulu. To get in, we had to weave through a massive crowd standing in anticipation of the event. I read a few articles about how many attended—some said 6,000, others said 10,000. Either way, it was an incredible turnout of people waiting to see what the rest of the world thought of them.
Some have taken issue with how it was promoted.
Erika: The “event” was advertised on the local radio as not just a film screening, but rather a “production” with musicians, whiteface comedy, and a supposed “movie.” There was no accurate depiction of what the film really was—no mention that it was about them.
But you knew what it was about, right? Had you seen KONY 2012 before?
Abby: Despite my isolated location in Africa, I did have internet access and saw the video during the initial wave facilitated by Facebook. My first reaction was less than positive, but watching that same video in the context of Gulu, surrounded by thousands of people who had lived through this, painted a very different image for me.
I watched as the words of Jason Russell and his son were translated, as if they had any constructive or enlightening commentary to add, while the comments of the white politicians remained in English. I felt the colonialist undertones were exponentially more jarring at that moment, as if a white college student who has the power to post some bumper stickers and write to my white congressman, can fix their problems. I felt presumptuous and, more than anything, embarrassed.
Erika: I was shocked to see the disconnect between the way Gulu was depicted in the film and the reality of modern-day Gulu, years after the war. Other than the film being only partially translated, it was also cut short. The differences between what I saw on YouTube and what I saw in Gulu pose important and difficult questions for IC’s execution of advocacy and its role as an NGO in the community.