After first watching the Kony 2012 film, I thought of two things.
One was Christian Rock.
The other was Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary Grizzly Man.
I found there to be something unbelievably white and creepily narcissistic about the Invisible Children produced movie, and what catalyzed this in my brain was Jason Russell, the man who narrated, directed and rather curiously ended up being the focal point of the Kony 2012 video.
Attentive to image and appearance, Russell’s 30-minute movie had the dewy look of something that was inspiring and sincere, but failed to actually feel inspirational or sincere. Kind of like getting a birthday card from somebody who doesn’t much like you but was looking to curry social favor. Honest to God, although I saw all sorts of attractive mechanisms being used, and felt appropriately manipulated by many of them, I never really understood what the hell was going on.
Astonishing as it was, it was a weirdly cryptic work. Why did I have to share the movie? Why did the movie “expire” at the end of the year? Do I really have to buy a fucking bracelet? And an “Action Kit?” Say what? And we’re going to eliminate Joseph Kony through American military intervention? Really? Hadn’t history proven this be a very bad course of action?
For me, the video raised far more questions than it answered, and of course, this isn’t a bad thing. But the straight up truth was that I instinctively disliked and distrusted Jason Russell.
Although it might seem petty of me, I was annoyed by his hair. It kept changing, as if it was itself a flashing light that suggested something of substance might be lacking. There was an unctuous vanity that seemed to waft about him like Axe aftershave.
Using his five year-old son— Gavin “Danger” Russell— as little more than a self-promoting prop, I couldn’t stop thinking about how staged it all seemed. The child, being fed lines and sculpted to the necessary dramatic role, murmured cutely that his dad fought “bad guys.” Later, twice, just so we were all clear, the boy was recorded saying that he wanted to grow up to be just like dad. Seemingly oblivious to the ironies implicit in the blatant manipulation of a child in pursuit of the arrest of a man who horribly abuses and destroys children, it actually seemed like Russell was planning on creating a kind of holy child army to stop the existence of an unholy child army. It was weird, and Russell explained it to his son and the rest of us, in language that only a five year-old could understand. There was good and bad, and the good was going to eliminate the bad, by getting as many people on the planet to watch his movie and buy his products, and then have them hit “Like” buttons on Facebook, generate scads of publicity, and eventually reach some tipping point that would prompt the American military to spring into action and beneficently guide the local black folk to the evil man.
It was just a little too patronizing and Messianic for my taste, and when I went to the Invisible Children web site to look at the “Action Kit” and bracelet I was to buy, I was enthusiastically told, ” People will think you’re an advocate for awesome.”
I didn’t want people to think I was an advocate for awesome.
It was all, I don’t know, too cheerful. Russell is an Evangelical Christian, a man who has described himself as being what would have happened if Oprah, Stephen Spielberg and Bono had a baby. I don’t want to think too hard about that for obvious reasons, but two of the three people he cited— like Jesus—are so famous and great that they only need one name. I mean, regardless of what you think of trinity from which Russell imagines himself a kind of immaculate conception, you have to recognize a level of self-regard that’s very nearly obscene in placing oneself in their context.
Russell grew up in the Christian Youth Theater and accepted Jesus Christ into his heart when he was five. He describes himself as a radical, rebel soul and dream evangelist who is attracted to pregnant women. I certainly have my biases, but he just doesn’t sound like the kind of guy I want babysitting my children, should I ever have any.
At any rate, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a great man or a great advocate for justice. However, watching the movie I kept returning to a scene where he was speaking with Jacob (the traumatized Ugandan boy) in the dark of night, as if trying to hurriedly pull dangerous truths from him. We see an African soldier come up to Russell and politely say, “You are making our job very, very difficult.” This, like much in the movie, is not given any sort of context and as audience we’re to understand threat and menace, not the possibility that the soldier might have been a good guy and that indeed, this white Christian dude from the States might have been making his job very difficult.
Regardless, nearly 100 million people have now seen this video, and the unvarnished truth is that if you asked me two weeks ago who the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Now I know, and so does everybody else. I’ve watched countless videos espousing countless different points of view, have invested time in finding out what actual Africans have to say on the matter and have become a relatively well-informed part of the global citizenry. Without a doubt, the Kony 2012 video has had a positive, educational impact in my life, and has created more space in the world for conversation about Central Africa. More attention has been focused on the region and more people are learning about it. The fact that the delivery system was so suspect in both motive (profit?) and method (disinformation, propaganda and veiled mandates?) seems irrelevant. Does advocacy have to be held up to the same standard as journalism? Are the two even separable? Kony 2012 does nothing to answer these immensely complicated questions and might have even posed them accidentally, but there they are, and that is a good.
At this point we’ve probably all now all seen the TMZ video of Russell running around the streets of San Diego naked and banging on the pavement while raving about Satan. Under the screams of hyper intense publicity, and all the attendant criticism and praise that has come with it, Russell suffered a psychotic break. It’s the sort of unfortunate outcome of celebrity that proves a million conflicting points at once, and it’s unspeakably sad. We know not what will become of Kony 2012, all the bracelets purchased or Jason Russell. It could be the start of something great, or maybe a branch of misguided, even perverted vigilantism, but I sincerely hope that Russell gets well and is able to battle whatever demons he’s facing in his life, before he hopes to lead an army into the jungles of Africa to root out the demon he sees in Joseph Kony.