South Sudan is a helpless, voiceless, unintelligible and war-ravaged alien world. That’s what we learn from praise-winning documentaries.
First there was Hubert Sauper’s “We Come As Friends”, taking the audience to South Sudan in a homemade airplane like it was a UFO. Now there’s a Facebook-hosted interactive 360 degree video letting the audience experience South Sudan like an invisible alien flying eye.
The country’s “strangeness penetrates you,” Sauper announces at the beginning of his film. “From now on you’re a complete stranger, you’re an alien.”
The aliens land in “On the Brink of Famine”: a Facebook-hosted virtual reality mini-documentary from filmmaker Marcelle Hopkins about food scarcity in South Sudan. Using GoPro cameras, Hopkins and her team film 360 degrees of food drops and expressions of despair.
Viewers can see everything in these scenes except themselves — not just their body, but themselves as part of the same world as the people of South Sudan.
What’s Wrong with This Picture?
The false reality of Sauper’s “We Come as Friends” and “On the Brink of Famine” isn’t limited to ignoring the interconnectedness of a 21st century global economy.
They get their history wrong, too.
At one point the narrator tells us that “[i]n 2013, a power struggle between the President and his former deputy ignited a civil war, starting the country on the road to famine.”
That’s a tremendously misleading description of why it’s hard for most South Sudanese to grow and purchase enough food. It’s also unfair to the South Sudanese and it does nothing to create a solution.
1. Food is scarce in South Sudan because of a history of exploitation. Just as North American and European countries exploited and exacerbated the disadvantages of African countries, South Sudan was long despoiled by the north Sudanese, the Egyptians and the Ottoman Empire.
2. Food is scarce in South Sudan because of dysfunctional global industries — especially the Aid Industry:
* Example — More money is spent flying food into South Sudan than trying to grow it locally.
* Example — Since before 2009, international partners including the USA and U.K. let South Sudan’s Elites direct millions of dollars away from agriculture and instead into patronage networks (i.e. corruption), military spending, etc.
* Example — Someone thought it a better use of funds to create a VR documentary about famine instead of sponsoring a farmer — consider the cost of the film (e.g. GoPro Hero3+ cameras, batteries, memory cards, transport and accommodations for crew, editing) when just one camera costs at least $300 minimum, not to mention accessories.
3. Food is scarce in South Sudan because of underdeveloped markets and infrastructure. A farmer in Maridi has a surplus harvest and wants to sell it in Jonglei where there’s a shortage — but there‘s no reliable roads, fuel supply, storage/refrigeration, etc.
4. Food is scarce in South Sudan because of fluctuating weather patterns and global climate changes — man-made and natural. This complicates an area already made both fertile and frustrating by Nature: the environment that is so great for growing crops is also great for mosquitoes, harsh tropical heat, crop-destroying pests, etc.
Only on top of and in relation to all that, food is scarce in South Sudan because of the ongoing challenge to create a functioning democratic government.
Cinema of Omission: What Gets Left Out
Another crucial reason food is scarce in South Sudan is because of where donors and the media direct attention: to death, dependence and destruction. Why use expensive technology to show viewers 360 degrees of hunger and desperation — the same things they could see on their hometown street corner?
Because these are the stories that get the money, so that’s where the money goes. Bleeding is leading. So we’re now watching the blood flow in South Sudan on cinema with surround sound and on computer screens with an interactive 360 degree perspective.
Another aspect of alienation or disassociation: when On the Brink of Famine talk about good things happening it involves foreign intervention: Doctors without Borders; The United Nations; passionate and caring foreign journalists. The problems, though? That’s where “we” the viewers leave the picture and the the South Sudanese are left standing alone.
To some this is a form of media-journalistic colonialism. Talking about academic data, Dr. Mamdani at the Makerere Institute of Social Research breaks it down this way: “The global market tends to relegate Africa to providing raw material (‘data’) to outside academics who process it and then re-export their theories back to Africa[…]collaboration is reduced to assistance [rather than original research.” The article goes on about “treat[ing] every experience with intellectual dignity”, putting those experiences in context, and not just looking at what’s happening but also how we see what’s happening.
It’s not a stretch to interpret “data” as action, characters, images, video or audio — i.e. the narrative or story about reality in African countries. Are we relegating African country residents to the dramatis personae in our art and documentaries?
That’s why there is a debate over who has the right to tell the “narrative” or “story” about what happens in African countries. I look forward to seeing this explored in the upcoming documentary “Framed” from filmmaker Cassandra Herman.
Watching the Southern Sunrise
What a difference would it make if money now used for promoting “bad” news and ineffective aid projects went instead to (a) local farmers, entrepreneurs and social innovators, along with (b) more stories about those farmers, entrepreneurs and social innovators?
The viewer has no constructive way to help when they watch an immersive 360-degree view of food aid drops or overwhelmed hospitals. If they don’t write the situation off as hopeless they may — worse yet — become part of the problem in voluntourism or the “White Savior” movement.
It’s not like there aren’t South Sudanese with good stories. In 2015 a pair of South Sudanese cooperatives made natural honey and shea butter their country’s first export to the USA. Before that, a South Sudanese cooperative opened the country’s first major domestic grinding mill for maize and flower. And there’s a South Sudanese women’s group not just running the country’s first art cooperative but also displaying their wares at fashion shows in New York and Los Angeles.
Imagine what progress such groups could be making if more groups like this were the target of more money and media attention. Instead of documenting famine in a misinformed context, we could actively participate in the emergence of the new African ecosystem: agricultural and economic.
We don’t need more ways to show a passive audience the problems in countries like South Sudan. We need stories and technology that help create solutions, that turn the audience into investors and partners for folks like the people of South Sudanese.