After Kony – Staging Hope 2011
Distributed by First Run Features, 630 Ninth Avenue, Suite 1213, New York, NY 10036; 212-243-0600
Produced by Melissa Fitzgerald and Katy S. Fox
Directed by Bill Yoelin
DVD , 99 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
AIDS/HIV, Africa, Human Rights, Ethics, Films, International Relations, International Crimes, Sexual Child Abuse, Storytelling, Theatre, War Crimes
Date Entered: 09/05/2013Reviewed by Jennifer Dean, Graduate of the CUNY Graduate Center MALS program with thesis on female filmmakers.
The documentary After Kony – Staging Hope follows Voices in Harmony, a theatre group from Southern California that works with at risk teens in the United States as they take their program to Northern Uganda to work with Acholi youth in the camps who have suffered from the atrocities brought on by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and gets them together to put on a series of plays (or dramas) for the community. Melissa Fitzgerald, co-Artistic Director of Voices in Harmony, narrates the film and serves as a main character and instigator of the program, bringing together the youth participants and the instructors from the United States. She tells the audience that she first came up with the idea after volunteering in Uganda and then brought it to the co-Artistic Director of Voices in Harmony David Ackert who admits in an interview for the documentary that although he initially thought the idea was a good one he was not sure he was willing to make the trip himself (he does eventually end up deciding to go with the group). Through her narration Fitzgerald describes the conflict in Uganda in precise and empathetic terms.
The film attempts to tell the story of the youth participants just as the theatre group wishes to give voice to the Acholi youth that take part. However, it demonstrates the problematics often inherent in both social documentaries and social programs where a Western or American group sweeps in to document a culture or give voice to a community that (in this case) they are only going to inhabit for a few weeks. After Kony, thanks in part to director Bil Yoelin and writer/editor Paul Freedman, manages to present the philosophical dilemmas, illustrating the groups desire to help and at the same time the narcissism that can often accompany altruism even with the best of intentions. Nonetheless, it does seem that these dilemmas are presented not for analysis necessarily but merely as a way to engage a Western audience. There is no denying that the group means well in their journey and wants to help these young people but there is a sense in the unfolding of the film that they overemphasize their own importance and possess a certain naiveté in regard to what the youth participating in the program have endured. As Fitzgerald questions one of the participants, Francis, and his family about opportunities for education, she learns that Francis was abducted for two years and forced to be a child soldier. She responds to Francis by sympathetically commenting that two years is a long time to be away from an education, a cringingly innocent reply as the viewer must recognize that education is fairly low on the list of concerns when spending two years as a child soldier. Throughout the film there is constant reference to “the power of drama.” Yet drama is ephemeral and does not necessarily change reality. As one of the participants, Scovia, sweetly and yet astutely remarks in an exchange with an instructor, Benjamin, after he tells her maybe he will come back, “You are deceiving us. ‘Maybe’ you will come back.” The laughter of the group stops and they all fall silent recognizing for Benjamin this is a one-time experience and once the group leave the young people (and Scovia) will have to continue to struggle to survive.
Nonetheless, the narrative of the documentary very much follows a Hollywood rubric of hope against all odds. Despite the realities of the camp – extreme poverty, disease (HIV/AIDS) and a persistent threat of violence (as of the filming of the documentary Kony had yet to be caught despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court and the LRA was still a presence in Northern Uganda) – Fitzgerald and the other facilitators insist on promoting the theme of hope. The narration often consists of platitudes such as towards the end of the film, the night before the performance Fitzgerald pronounces, “Whatever happens tomorrow I know that I have learned from these amazing young people that there can be hope in the face of hardship, forgiveness in the face of justice, and life, vibrant life, in the shadow of death.” The narration belies a scene between an instructor and a performer backstage. The student tells him, “I lost my hope, one time, when I was very young. Because my father was very responsible once… but in some minutes, those who were responsible for me died. And my hope got lost.” The instructor unconvincingly counters, “Don’t lose your hope,” gives him an awkward soft punch on the shoulder and walks away.
Of course, as with many documentaries, the question raised is despite these quandaries, is their value in bringing issues to light even if imperfectly? Is there significance in doing good (both for the philanthropists and those they are serving) even if that good is limited? The filmmakers attempt to make an incomprehensible tragedy digestible to the general public by promoting the positive not entirely convincingly and yet they did do their best to bring the problems of Uganda out into the public discourse in the United States. Jesse, a performer who falls ill during the day of performance asks an instructor, Alfred, “When the drama is over will you go back to the United States? Will you forget about us?” Alfred says no. Is that promise kept with this film? In a very small note in the ending credits of the film there is a dedication to Jesse because subsequent to their leaving Uganda she died. Do the filmmakers gloss over Jesse’s illness and death because they want to retain the myths of hope and perseverance that have been propagated throughout the film? After Kony – Staging Hope not only provides a discussion base for the oft-neglected struggle in Northern Uganda and perceptions of social injustice but also raises many questions about documentary form and the ethical implications of the documentary. Pairing it with a screening of the film Kony 2012(2012) which also utilizes Hollywood tropes of emotionally evocative soundtrack and character identification, but as a call to action, could raise additional questions about the function and form of documentary while also bringing to light the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony. One of my biggest criticisms of After Kony-Staging Hope is that the mission of Voices in Harmony (or Voices of Uganda) is to give voice to the young people who take part and yet the documentary usurps their stories and tells them through the lens of the facilitators of the program – not really allowing the stories of the participants to be told in their own voices. On the films website all of the instructors are credited with biographies giving the audience additional information but none of the students taking part are listed. Even if the viewer wishes to learn more about the participants and seeks more information outside of the confines of the film with the supplemental material provided, it is not possible.
- Audience Award Winner Philadelphia Film Festival
- Audience Award Winner Starz Denver Film Festival