Last night I was able to go to the Kony 2012 screening that had been translated in Luo (Acholi) in Pece Stadium and it was definitely interesting and deserves to be shared. All day there were trucks driving around town making announcements, radio shows discussing the event, and people talking about it where ever I went. Interestingly, we had a photojournalist, in the office yesterday too. You know that picture of the Invisible Children founders holding guns with the SPLA in South Sudan? Yeah, she took that photo. She is not affiliated with Invisible Children at all, but is back in Gulu doing a follow up story on the real situation in Northern Uganda for WIRED magazine.
After work, people were already waiting for the event to start. When the time for the screening was drawing nearer, Pece Stadium was literally filling with people and the line outside was ridiculous. Everyone came: men, women, youth, children… and people traveled from far away to see the film. I was talking to a UPDF (Uganda People’s Defense Force) commander at Golden Gate Hotel before the event started and although he wasn’t going to go, he thought it would be a good event for the government so that even if people were not in Gulu or in the North during the insurgency, they would see what was happening before and be able to compare it to the peace that the government has brought today. He also thought it would make it easier for the government to get assistance from other countries because they would “know what was really happening”. Because of the reactions to the screening in Lira a few weeks ago, some people were worried that the crowd might become violent or rowdy.
Once we had finally made it into the stadium, we knew that this event was a big deal. Apparently, the screening was sponsored by NUMEC, the Nortehrn Uganda Media Club. The emcees were some announcers from Mega FM and they had gathered several local artists to perform before and after the film. Most performers chose to sing songs about ceasing fire, peace, or thanking Invisible Children for their work in the North. The event also included a pretty vulgar comedy performance that seemed to have the sole purpose of appeasing the crowd.
Finally, Jolly Okot, the country director of Invisible Children in Uganda, came to the stage to speak and introduce the film. The screen they chose to play the film on was much smaller than anyone had expected, so I’m not sure how most people there could even see what was going on. But when the film started, it was clear that it was not what people had expected.
In the beginning people were receptive and found Jason Russell’s son humorous. When it reached a point that mentioned Kony’s “expiration date” in 2012, the crowd cheered and was still very positive. That is until people began leaving within the first 10 minutes after a short montage of victims missing ears, lips, and noses was shown. As they walked past us, some were saying that “This is too painful. They shouldn’t have shown this.” But at this point, most people were sticking around to see the rest of the film. From all of the hype, debates, and criticisms that have flooded the radio waves and newspapers, people were expecting to get a chance to see Kony and his troops. They wanted to see the acts of violence, more recent footage of Kony, and maybe locations of the LRA now. It was only when images like that appeared that the crowd was silent. At all other points, people shook their heads saying this was a waste of their time.
Last night was the first time I had seen the film too, and even though I couldn’t understand the narration in Luo, I don’t think I needed to. To be honest my impression was that this is a film about America. Not about Uganda. The vast majority of the footage is of college kids and politicians in America talking about their moral imperative to “Stop Kony”. Then came the footage of Jason Russell’s family, and finally a small portion of the footage was from Invisible Children’s trips ten years ago. There was no “action” like people were expecting, unless you count a bunch of Americans jumping in the air and holding signs that they were “Changing the History of Humanity” by wearing bracelets.
The most striking thing to me about the whole event last night was its insignificance. It was literally laughable how small this film was compared to so many of the expectations people had of this worldwide phenomenon. The film has no effect whatsoever on the lives of residents in Gulu. As more people left, some women walked by us and said “Look! Even this muzungu is shocked that this is what the film is!” All of the footage of Americans was considered to be “commercials” from the real film that people thought they were going to see—the real film that had anything to do with their lives.
When Kony 2012 Part I ended, LC 5 Chairman Mapenduzi attempted to speak to the crowd, but with little avail. He tried to get everyone to clap for the work of Invisible Children, but people only laughed in between the messages for lost children and stolen shoes. When he announced that they would also be playing Kony 2012 Part II, all anyone wanted was for the musicians to come back on stage. At this point, I would say that one third of the crowd had left. And more began to stream out when Part II began to play. And while that film had more “relevant” footage, it was already too late for anyone to really pay attention to Jolly Okot’s pleads for the children to come home or to the bullet points in the “multifaceted approach” that would stop Kony.
We left immedately after the 2nd film, but I have heard that people started throwing stones on the stage and shouting at the musicians, so everyone started fighting and it turned to chaos with multiple gun shots and some rioting. The streets were apparently flooded with soldiers after that.
A million other people have already analyzed every second of this film and every dollar that Invisible Children has made or invested in their work. I like to believe that no matter how atrocious, harmful, or simply ignorant a person’s actions are, in their mind and for their goals, it makes sense and they are doing what they feel is “right”. My analysis is coming late, but my biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t do anything to actually educate the well-meaning youth it is targeting. It doesn’t ask anyone to go read a book or even do a Wikipedia search for Joseph Kony. The only options it gives to the youth of America are to donate, donate, donate (and sign a pledge to “Cover the Night”… cover it with what? Dollars? Bracelets?).
All in all, Gulu town’s reaction to the film was that it was simply a waste of their time. The most challenging part of the whole evening was trying to squeeze out of Pece Stadium with hundreds of other people trying to fit in the same small exit that we were. Gulu has not changed because of Kony 2012. People still went out after the film to celebrate Friday night. They still have to put food on the table, they still have to pay school fees for their kids, and they still have to continue to try and forget the atrocities that changed their lives. As I have said before, Kony is no longer the problem in Northern Uganda. New problems resulting from much more than a single rebel group have emerged in the years since peace returned: land conflicts, Nodding disease, unemployment, inflation, corruption, HIV/AIDS, overpopulation, alcoholism, domestic violence… The list goes on and on but that doesn’t mean that Uganda needs “our help” or that it needs “saving”. There are dozens of local NGOs that are engaged in truly innovative grassroots programs working to rebuild and to empower their communities to bounce back from whatever they may have experienced.
The most entertaining and fitting reaction that I overheard was from a man walking in the crowd back to the center of town: “That was a waste of my time. I should have just stayed home to reproduce with my wife”.