I felt rather intensely disappointed at the end of Imba Means Sing, perhaps unfairly. Is it unfair to critique art on what it could be, rather than what it should be? But if we do not engage art critically by asking questions and challenging its hidden assumptions and biases then there is surely no reason for it to exist.
I didn’t take issue with the storytelling or editing, which was beautifully done. I didn’t struggle to find to message and purpose of Imba-it was quite clearly to draw attention to the poverty in Uganda and the empowerment of the children through the African Children’s Choir. I was also not necessarily disappointed by that message but, rather, by its myopia.
From the stark contrast between the Ugandan homes and the children’s American host families to the rhetoric of the program’s aunties and uncles, the film was entirely uncritical of the message of neo-liberal prosperity through consumption. It didn’t question how colonialism and capitalism had caused Uganda’s crippling poverty in the first place. It didn’t spend much time on the White Savior complex inherent in the sometimes sickeningly patronizing attitudes of the Western megachurches or even the concept of prosperity gospel and the connection Christianity has to neo-liberal economics.
It feels unfair to critique Imba for failing to address issues that were outside of its scope but its uncritical stance allows for the normalization of these socially structured problems and therefore fails to make a meaningful social change. I know that many, many people donated to the African Children’s Choir after watching Imba; I probably will too because, for all of its problematic aspects, it does fund the education of children in need. However, if Imba had been directly critical of capitalism, colonialism, and the dubious logic of prosperity gospel, perhaps some of those many, many people would have become aware of the hidden messages in this otherwise inspirational stories and done more to combat their root causes.
Trinh T. Minh-Ha is a Vietnamese born filmmaker who was born in 1952. She studied music and French literature at the University of Illinois and teaches in the Gender and Women Studies department at the University of California, Berkeley. She made films from the 80s to the early 2000s. Sone of her most famous films is Reassemblage which was released in 1982. Her films and lectures deal with feminism and post-colonialism (Trinh Minh-Ha 2005). Her ethnographic film Reassemblage was her debut film and was shot in rural Senegal. It was a critique of traditional ethnographic film and colonialism. She tried to make a film without the imposition of her own preconceptions, or the traditional preconceptions of Senegal. She was not claiming to show what life in Senegal is like, but instead critiquing the idea that an outsider could. The opening sequence has a blank screen with drumming and whooping heard in the background and then a short, silent montage of fragmented images before Minh-Ha begins her narration. The sounds and images were deliberately confusing to show how, without a narrator or translator to provide contextualization, outside audiences would be unable to understand anything about Senegal. Immediately after that sequence she refuses to provide clarification and says, “I do not intend to speak about. Just speak near-by (Reassemblage 1:30).” She was an onlooker in the film- she was never seen and only narrated in short statements that were not necessarily related to the images being shown. She filmed and edited the images though, and her interpretation was necessarily imposed on her film subjects. In an interview with Nancy Chen a decade after Reasslemblage was released she acknowledges that the critique in Reasslemblage, “is not simply aimed at the anthropologist, but also at the missionary, the Peace Corps volunteer, the tourist, and last but not least at myself as onlooker (Chen 84).” She was asserting that no ethnography can ever show the true reality of a community.