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Kony 2012, Viral Videos, and Documentary Ethics

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s Kony 2012, the half-hour documentary by the organization Invisible Children that’s swept the Internet this week. It’s about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been terrorizing the region around northern Uganda for a quarter century; a particular emphasis is on Kony’s notorious practice of kidnapping children and forcing them into military service.

The film was posted on YouTube last Monday, and as of this writing it’s chalked up 62,172,848 views. Those kinds of numbers are impressive, and the people at Invisible Children, including director Jason Russell and two other American filmmakers who helped shoot in Africa, must be pleased at the film’s level of response. I first heard about it Wednesday in an email from a friend, a mother of young children, urging everyone in her contact list to watch the film and carefully think about how we could best get involved in Invisible Children’s mission. Her message started by saying she had never emailed everyone in her contact list before, but she was so moved by the film’s message she felt she had to let everyone know about it, and right away.

When that kind of response happens 62 million times it is, of course, the very definition of a video going viral. Obviously no one can completely control whether a film will go viral or not, but filmmakers desiring that kind of response can take a look at what Invisible Children did to help push Kony 2012 toward it. Most obviously, it’s built into the film itself. Quite a bit of the running time explains explicitly what viewers should do to help spread the film’s message, not just with all their friends and contact lists but with influential celebrities who have the ability to reach thousands of fans and Twitter followers. Apparently celebs like Rihanna, Alec Baldwin, and Taylor Swift have obliged in helping spread the word through their own social networks. A second tier of response urges viewers to then contact politicians and make Kony’s capture a national policy (success at this stage might prove more difficult, particularly since Kony’s capture already is national policy).

Building a social network marketing strategy into the film’s content, while a little tendentious, has obviously worked in this case, and it reminds me of similar though less specific calls to arms near the end of films like An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc. The tradition also dates back to Upton Sinclair and, in fact, the original 17th century Catholic congregatio de propaganda fide–the congregation for the propagating of the faith that actually coined the word propaganda. But more than a call to arms is required to really make a video go viral: as the No Film School blog explains very well, it also requires a degree of unexpectedness, participating communities willing to get the word out, a cycle of sharing and re-sharing, and a great deal of luck. Invisible Children happened to hit a perfect storm with this video, but it came after many years of producing other films, building up their core supporters, and establishing a brand around their mission of dismantling the LRA and ending the violence in Uganda. Thus this film’s original target market was not Taylor Swift, but Invisible Children’s preexisting viewers who would be willing to enlist their friends and target Taylor Swift en masse, who could then reach out to an even larger audience. The lesson? Overnight successes can still take decades of building up a fan base, even in the era of the “instastar.” Filmmakers of any variety still have to work to build up an audience that will return from film to film and act as the primary engine to publicize new work. (Yesterday the New York Times blog The Lede also ran an article about how Kony 2012 went viral.)

But even more interesting to me than using the film as a case study of going viral is the way in which it’s thrust discussions of documentary ethics into public discourse, well beyond film circles. Politically-oriented documentaries routinely stir up controversy, but it’s hard to recall a similar film–only a half hour at that–creating such a flood of public and private commentary, both for and against, in such a short time. Maybe only films like An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11 are comparable in their penetration into the general public’s consciousness, and these were theatrical releases with the weight of major public figures behind them. That a half-hour documentary about an obscure warlord in a distant country could generate this amount of debate is truly remarkable.

There are several controversial points surrounding the film. Some chief criticisms are that it oversimplifies the situation in Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It omits pertinent facts like Kony’s current absence from Uganda and the fact that no children are being abducted today. And others claim Invisible Children itself is an ethically questionable group, with murky ties to dodgy institutions like the Ugandan military and more of its donations going to San Diego office space than African relief. Individuals have been raising these issues since the film premiered Monday, and journalists have begun to follow suit: on Thursday The Guardian published an in-depth analyses of the situation, and I’ve found similar stories in the American press on both the left (NPR) and right (The Buzz, The Atlantic). Criticisms have been harsh enough that Russell has taken to the press to defend his film, saying he knows it presents an oversimplification but that he had to do so to create a compelling–and persuasive–film.

One of the best responses I’ve seen came from a Ugandan journalist in an editorial monologue created for Al Jazeera. Her response is thoughtful and measured, and centers to a great extent around a criticism Western filmmakers/journalists have long borne, that they are out of touch with the nuances of the area (think of early ethnographic films like Nanook of the North or Merian Cooper’s Grass) or that their proposed solutions to any problems come from external aid, the White Man’s Burden, rather than solutions born inside Uganda.

So there are problems with Kony 2012 and Invisible Children, sure, but everyone agrees that Kony should be brought to justice. As a filmmaker who’s been contemplating issues of documentary ethics for the past ten years, I’m most impressed that we’re talking about doc ethics at all.

Soon after getting that first email from my friend, my Facebook homepage started lighting up with Kony references, mostly sounding a note of caution. One non-filmmaking friend, for instance, posted a lengthy thought on his timeline: “At the risk of being cast out as a pariah, I want to again voice some concerns with the Kony 2012 campaign. . . My biggest fear is that campaigns like this foster in the YouTube generation a herd mentality and an ‘inactive activism’ that is detrimental to real progress in situations like this. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and forward a link, especially when all of the pop stars and celebrities you follow on Twitter are championing the cause, but is ignoring the root causes and focusing on one symptom (albeit a horrendous one) the way to enact real meaningful change?”

Even teenagers, some of the primary respondents to the film, have gotten in on the debate. Here’s a YouTube response I randomly clicked on the other night, expecting a white, upper-middle-class girl to say something along the lines of, “Hey all you haters, this child soldier stuff is really bad while we’ve all had it really good, so stop hating and we should all Tweet about this until Kony’s stopped.” Instead I got a thoughtful teenager who was admittedly underinformed and ill-prepared to make a difference in the African jungle, but who admitted her lack of knowledge and even mused about the possible failings of the film–and whether they were even important.


Her points are good. “Even if it’s a simplification at least people know that something’s going on.” And as a digital native she’s remarkably aware of the effect of the new social media. She’s right that this wouldn’t have been able to happen ten years ago, and it shows the path for other issues-driven documentaries–as well as other films–to create an audience and a challenge for change that early documentarians like John Grierson could only dream of.

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