Wasteland

Vik Muniz’s work in Brazil is inspiring in the social activist work documenting his efforts entitled “Wasteland.” Muniz himself is well versed in the poverty he captures in his art; he was born in one of the many slums in Rio De Janero and made it to America with less then 3 dollars to his name. Working in a department store, Muniz found he had a pashion for collecting the refuse that people threw out and making art with it. This unique approach to art got Muniz an immense popularity and following that rocketed him to high status in many art circles. Muniz took this fame with him to the trash heaps back in his native Brazil in an attempt to docuemnet the troubles faced by the residents there. I cannot say much on Wasteland past this point that wouldn’t spoil the amazing film, but I will leave this post with a great picture that shows the impressive scope of the social activist art that Muniz undertook. I highly encourage that anyone reading this post go and see this amazing film.

trash

Jared Callahan Comes to Class

When Jared Callahan came to speak to us about his pieces, I found him to be the most relatable guest we have had thus far… at least in my personal opinion. He was very realistic about funding, where to begin projects, etc… and I also liked the fact that he told us which classes he took in college, such as production, and how they have been helpful… or not helpful… for him today. I think learning from him really put into perspective my goals in the near future, and what I should strive for as a senior at Emory.

I really appreciated Callahan’s sense of positivity that he implements in the films he creates, or at least the ones we have viewed. The fact that he always attempts to put his subjects in a good light is refreshing to see in documentaries, rather than just showing the audiences what all is wrong with the world. Like he said,

“the camera is a source of compassion.”

That really resonated with me, and I hope that I can use that idea in films that I create myself.

While watching Janey Makes a Play, it was easy to see that the filmmaker was emotionally connected to central subject, Janey. I feel like otherwise the documentary as a whole would have never been created.

Callahan at the Lone Star Film Festival

While watching, I admired Janey and found her entire story to be entertaining. However, I did feel a sense of a disconnect. It might have been because I have never met this woman, or simply because this community theater is a place I have never been to. I’m not entirely sure of the cause, but I did feel a lack of connection to this documentary, and found my eyes glazing over at times, maybe just because I do not know those people, and have no personal connection. I also wonder if because Callahan knows her and always wants to put a great face on his characters, if that this created a sense of falsity within the movie as well.

I think my favorite films of the three was definitely American Moderate. Being from Texas, a state that has a VERY large Republican background, I found myself relating to Liz’s character. My father is a die-hard conservative Republican, and my mother is socially Democratic. At times dinner had some heated conversations haha. Regardless, I think that Liz’s story is one that we can all relate to. This presidential campaign has had the most media involvement in history, and this fact definitely effects the polls, along with family, friends, etc…

In the documentary, I liked how we never found out who Liz voted for. This ultimate question is then sort of asked to the audience– who do THEY want to vote for? I also think that not having her say in the film who she voted for was interesting because it also expresses the idea that media (including films) should not effect one’s own personal ideas and political opinions.

However, after finding Liz’s twitter account that she spoke of so much, it is clear to me that she has indeed voted for a particular candidate, and I think her saying so on Twitter sort of diminished my delight while watching. I wish I didn’t know, because then the mystery question would have been for the audience to decide.

I found The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella to be the most uplifting for any audience to watch. It could easily touch anyone’s heart and reach to a broader audience. I think it was a good decision of Callahan’s to not have a tone that just basically says “feel sorry for those with disabilities,” but rather shows them as people, in this case Sommer. In this way, Callahan was able to go into a much larger issue in society through Sommer’s personal life, and how she dreams of being a star.

Scaaaarrry Post!

A question I would like to pose: can a critique be positive?

In the films we watched there were notable connections from the personal to the political. The way in which you learned about social structures, stigma, and prejudice by being confronted with a living moving image of someone, is brilliant. It’s a sure way to start knocking away at the rigid categories we allow to blind us to the complex realities. Tying personal narratives to larger patterns is pretty cool. I think the play about Sommer perhaps does the best job of this even though it is the shortest film at just over 9 minutes.

I am glad that it is becoming more difficult for me to critique some of the films that we are screening. It means that I have to think more and pushes me to challenge the way I view films and by extension the world.

Janey Makes a Play

Disclaimer: My memory may be lacking when it comes to Janey Makes a Play since I watched 3 other films right before it, so if I’ve forgotten things which may at least partially counter any of these points, please feel free to make them known.

It would have been fantastic to see real conflicts among the troupe that put on the play or even the broader community. As much of a family as everyone seemed in the play, I am almost certain there are at least some conflicts sometimes, but these don’t seem to be shown much. Depicting such clashes would have complexified the people and, depending on their responses, deepened our sense of the bonds between them. Perhaps this may be why I personally felt some distance from the characters in this film and the story portrayed, despite the fact that I thought what they were doing was very cool.

While the debut of the play is certainly an example of conflict and a source of tension, it appears to be framed moreso as a common goal in which everyone is united against rather than provoking conflicts within the group and a plurality of directions in which to go.

I am also extremely curious to see how the group fares after Janey passes away. I think this could the basis of a film in itself. Will they be able to survive the absence of the charismatic energetic mover? Will they grow together in new ways or decay and splinter into many directions? Perhaps sending some toward new avenues and other not so much.

The juxtaposition between the alienating structural pressures like unemployment and other financial burdens with the sense of community and performance nicely demonstrate how our society isn’t necessarily based on what is really fulfilling for us. I kind of wish it dug more into this and how such things might be challenged.

If it is the job of the filmmaker to hone their techniques in crafting a story, then perhaps it is the duty of the viewer (and critic, if we like) to dissect what is presented and go even beyond that vision.

It may be that the way we see art is more of a reflection of ourselves than what is presented. So if we cultivate observation and openness to uncertainty, then we could also bring this investigative practice and awareness to our viewings of film and other forms of art too.

Yet if this reflective/reflexive form of critique can tell us about the social impact of film: that is, how it’s perceived and what consequences are tied with that, (more complex than determined in a linear fixed way) then that seems pretty useful! It can allow us to look more deeply and clearly at our own patterns of creating and consuming media.

I would really like to learn more about the creation of the community theater, of this new setting (Sarason 1972). How did this group figure out how to act (haha) when it first formed? How has it changed and how is it still evolving? How did other institutions and organizations respond to the community theater? Were there any conflicts? We’re told that the first 7 years sold out all of their shows and that there seems to be a rather good relation with the school and students, but there’s much more that must have happened than just that.

It seems like there is a rather zoomed in picture that maybe leaves certain more complex details out. Then again, certain conditions drove Janey to create the group. If part of the goal is to show that such different relations are possible and desirable, then showing the tougher times within the community is just as important as the good times.

American Moderate

I had some thoughts about this film too. The character here does feel a bit more real and I did experience more of a connection to her. It’s definitely useful for challenging some of our ideas and stereotypes about people belonging to certain social groups, including American political parties. It’s even good for questioning our own identities and self-inscribed categories. I enjoyed the part about feminism and also when Liz says “But…I’m a republican, I know I am…I’ve always been…”

However, I felt there were a few missing points that could have complemented the film wonderfully. The first is that it appears rather self-contained and does not locate itself within an ongoing historical context. I think this is actually a bias very present within our generation as well as our world’s media production. It would have been really helpful to bring up similar decisions which people have faced in the past within various cultures and social structures. Mentioning the past(s) while acknowledging their complexity seems doable to me.

I think the inclusion of similar instances from the past would have framed the individual indecisiveness and uncertainty in a very nice way and allowed viewers to possibly begin taking a more critical view at and start questioning our political institutions, society and culture. To start asking questions like: why have we been divided into two groups? Were things always this way? How did they get this way and who benefits from and works to maintain it? I understand this may be beyond the scope of the film and the maker’s intent, but these are the kinds of new avenues that begin to open up when we take a longer view of the issues affecting us today. If you think about it, doesn’t majoritarian democracy inherently foster social relations rooted in antagonism and domination (“winner” take all!) over compassionate understanding and collaboration?

Which brings me to my next point: beyond voting.

People may challenge their perceptions of one another but I do not think this is enough. Small steps toward breaking down prejudices are certainly necessary, crucial even, but they do not go far enough on their own because they don’t have to change our fundamental social relations. We also need to challenge the systems that manufacture and thrive on these types of divisions. The fact is that people gain and maintain power through these divisions. Those who command the majority of the planet’s wealth and resources were never voted in, and they’ll never be voted out either. Whether it’s by pitting megacorp employees against those subservient to ultracorp, people living in other countries, or even each other, the divisions perpetuate the hierarchy.

As Ken Knabb points out:

“The side that takes the initiative usually wins because it defines the terms of the struggle. If we accept the system’s own terms and confine ourselves to defensively reacting to each new mess produced by it, we will never overcome it. We have to keep resisting particular evils, but we also have to recognize that the system will keep generating new evils until we put an end to it.

By all means vote if you feel like it. But don’t stop there. Real social change requires participation, not representation.”

I truly wish that a question had been raised at the electoral system and voting itself. And whether there is legitimate social activity beyond this and who decides that.

Why do we vote for these teams? And why do we vote for others to make whatever decisions they like and think it represents us? And why do we want someone else to represent us or think we need it?

Heh, it sort of makes me think about films. Do we really think they can or do represent reality? Perhaps by seeing them as representations and stories we can better pick them apart and be less attached to them. Then we might even enjoy them more, without becoming stuck as easily in the narratives and assumptions they (re)produce with us. Which means we can participate in the creation of our own lives and worlds.

Can love of a character cause us to challenge these ideas? Can empathy for another portrayed in film enable us to reevaluate assumptions?

Maybe, but the conclusions we leave with can vary as much as our assumptions going in. If we bounce our assumptions off of what we view and project our existential experiences onto others, we can easily view someone like Liz and feel validated in our uncertainties or become more open to and aware of the lives of others. However, in neither case does this necessarily result in us going deeper and questioning where these realities stem from and how they are formed. It can become a way of seeing how others do not really know either, and stopping there. It can also serve as a way of thinking that we just need to try to make our decisions well without questioning the context and strategy laid out for us. Thus, the dominant answers, the narratives which we swim in, continue as if they were natural laws, eternal and immutable.

I do not think we can present a story without our own influence. The only thing that varies is the nature of that influence. Whether we contribute questions or hold off on them, select dialogue, framings and frames, cuts and edits, audio or silence, or present some things or leave things out, these are all a part of the web that our creation contributes to and is made up of, which it impacts and is also shaped by and perceived through. This social fabric woven by so many different forces.

Whether we like it or not, what we leave out, neglect to mention, contributes to the context and content of what we put forth. If we do not challenge what people bring to bear, what they carry along with them, then we cannot entirely say “well, they just see their reflections” as if it were the only possible result. Without challenging the lens people bring how can we expect things not to be refracted through those lens? Film is sort of like substituting one lens (of the camera and creator) for that created by any other source that inevitably filters information. So can we shatter one lens without simply replacing it with another? Or rather, can we change the relationship one has with their lens—the ways we look at and with them?

Positive vision is needed, but that almost never means going along with all of the already accepted ideas, assumptions and norms. We must be inspired by the opportunities for change and visions of where to go. This means seeing the problems for what they are, openness to complexity and discomfort, and a willingness to do everything to change them! It means to critique and go beyond, to use strategy and determination together.

References

Knabb, K. (2016, October 26). Beyond Voting. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from http://www.bopsecrets.org/recent/beyond-voting.htm

Sarason, S. B. (1972). The creation of settings and the future societies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

On Food Inc. and Individual Accountability for Change

In the 2008 documentary Food Inc., director and producer Robert Kenner explores the workings of the United States’ domestic industrial agriculture sector in order to uncloak the intricacies of one of the most secrecy-shrouded industries in the United States. Combining heart wrenching, vérité footage of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with interviews from nutrition, environment, and agriculture experts, and narration from Michael Pollan, a leading author on food sustainability, Food Inc. is emotionally riveting and scientifically grounded. One of the highest budget and best received films of its kind, Food Inc. stands out in a sea of consciousness-raising documentaries about different parts of American agribusiness as a film-festival and box office success and a true inspiration for change in the diets of Americans everywhere.

Food Inc. is broken into three parts: one that explores animal confinement and the inhumane practices used to raise meat and dairy animals en masse, a second that documents the environmental and economic damage inflicted by subsidizing commodity crops like corn and soy for animal feed, and a final segment that investigates the legal and political apparatuses that enable the industry to grow unchecked by public or political restraint and oversight. It is in its detailed and broad-reaching perspective that Food Inc. finds its voice; its exposé is well-rounded, supported by data and expert testimony, and thorough in its review. It is both academically diligent and emotionally charged. Food Inc. is in every sense an excellent documentary.

Yet, like so many documentaries, Food Inc. falls prey to the perils of consciousness-raising as a political strategy, which becomes particularly apparent in the film’s exploration into agribusiness as an industry that thrives off of its ability to displace the burden of choice and responsibility onto consumers. As Food Inc. dives deeper and deeper into the multifaceted and well-crafted social and political contraptions that enable agribusiness to succeed, industry experts and interviewed farmers alike explain that the agriculture industry’s control over American diets is cemented by its ability to displace blame and shield itself from criticism. By promoting social messaging through advertising and the manipulation of federal and state laws and guidelines, the agriculture industry has created a trap for consumers. Government policies constantly lessen and deny the industry’s responsibility for the obesity epidemic and climate change while increasing costs and burdens on consumers through taxes and misdirected subsidies. With the additional promotion of salient social narratives that fault individuals for not making healthier choices, the food industry derives much of its power from its ability to constrict individuals’ choices by making unhealthy food the most cost competitive option and then blame those individuals for making “bad” decisions. It is in this process of shifting blame onto consumers that agribusiness turns critical eyes away from its practices and towards the dietary habits of the public, suggesting that things would be better and the world would be healthier and safer if only people chose differently.

These narratives that fault consumers for mass environmental and health-related damage are toxic. Not only do they place the social burden of public health and environmental crises on low income and minority populations who are the least likely to be able to afford to use their limited purchasing power to “make healthy choices” in revolt against agribusiness, they also divert attention from the unsustainable and inhuman practices of the ever-growing agriculture industry itself. It is at the ends of such conclusions, that Food Inc.’s consumer focused approach to change seems misplaced. After a 94 minute testament to the danger inherent in investing the power of social change into a constricted and largely uninformed public (despite the film’s attempt to shed light on the secrecy that surrounds factory farming), Food Inc.’s final call for people to “vote three times a day” to change the system by making different consumption choices rings out uncannily similar to agribusinesses direction for consumers to do the same. Food Inc., ironically, pushes viewers further into the trap laid by factory farming in directing them to assert more agency of their choices, all the while acknowledging that those choices are limited and predetermined by agribusiness. Food Inc.’s call to action is nothing more than an impetus for grassroots efforts to work harder for demand-side reform of the food market, a market so large and politically protected that demand seems to have little to do with it.

While this dilemma is easily identified in Food Inc. and its associated impact campaign, similar complications in documentary’s efficacy as a tool for social change writ large are intrinsic to the medium’s form. Documentary can be powerful, moving, informative, and stimulating. But its power cannot stretch beyond its ability to move audiences. And while a vast, public audience may be a filmmaker’s dream and a necessary ingredient for broader change, it is ultimately insufficient if documentary cannot direct that audience’s efforts towards the heart of problems. While film may motivate people to act, to act in what way is an often unanswered or poorly answered question. In the case of Food Inc., the film paints the picture of a problem fraught with political protection, yet fails to answer the questions it raises about how to change the subsidy system, alter laws that restrict people from reporting on factory farm practices, or lower the costs of organic and sustainable foods. Food Inc. settles for the “do what you can with what you have” approach that agriculture relies – the very structure of demotivating the public that many exploitative and oversized industries like fossil fuel markets and pharmaceutical practices rely on.

While Food Inc. is an important contribution to the discussion about how to reform the food supply chain, it must be taken in critically, and with a cautious refusal to simplify the solution to a growingly complex problem down to “making better choices.” Until governments and markets start demanding differently subsidy and regulatory frameworks, agriculture corporations will maintain a monopoly over political power, even while consumers fight them with the full might of their spending power. Thus, in light of Food Inc., the public should reconsider not what the film demands of them, but what they should demand of those with agency over the supply chain. It is not enough to just ask the right questions to viewers. In response to Food Inc. and other documentaries that encourage us to change, we should ask ourselves the important question of what is within our power to affect and what is not. And with the knowledge that many decisions have been removed from our hands, we should be motivated to ask the right questions of the right people, forcing accountability onto those who should bear it, refusing to accept blame for a problem individuals alone did not cause.

Feminism can’t be reduced to a “trend”

I decided to do my midterm essay on H&M’s new ad campaign, the video of which can be found here: H&M’s New Advert

Honestly I came across this advertisement on Facebook, as it was part of an article that was actually critiquing the extremely popular and praised ad. The article was by Gemma Clarke who founded this website called “Global Hobo,” which is described as “a space for writers to share original views on destinations, experiences and social trends. Our aim is to open our readers’ minds to fresh perspectives, show them new parts of the world and have a good laugh at ourselves and each other.” Clarke’s article can be found here: Gemma Clarke: Don’t Fall for the New H&M Campaign

Ultimately, H&M created an utterly badass video that people have said is redefining the way we view femininity and ideals of what it means to be “ladylike.” The ad includes a wide and diverse range of models, all of whom go against the social norms of what it means to act like a lady. It’s phenomenal, and if it weren’t for all of the underlying, deep-rooted issues with H&M as a company and their morals in general, I would be just as obsessed with this ad as everyone else is. But Gemma discusses quite a few points that raise the question – does H&M truly stand for women, or are they simply taking advantage of this new wave of feminism as a marketing strategy? Staff exploitation, child labor, and stores failing to actually stock a plus-size range are some of the issues she talks about. How can a company preach one thing but act in a completely different way? Well I guess that’s actually quite easy but it’s also disturbing and disheartening. H&M had the opportunity to do something truly remarkable here, but it seems as though they are just trying to capitalize on the current “trend” of feminism for their own profit.

Honestly, it just blows my mind. It blows my mind that huge companies, famous individuals, and people with such a great deal of power just sit silent on the sidelines. The people whose voices could be most heard are the same ones who fall discouragingly quiet. And I’m not going to generalize that statement to everyone with a great deal of power, money, or following, but for the most part, I’m afraid that this is our sad reality. It’s just so unfortunate because those that could actually have the most impact fail to stand for something bigger than themselves. H&M is just one of many, many examples, but if the company actually cared about gender equality and women’s rights, wouldn’t you think they would first make some fundamental shifts in their morals and actions before presenting this image of “we love all women” to the world? I guess that’s just me being idealistic but I thought, as humans, we were better than that.

I spent 6 weeks this past summer in India, among the most genuine, kind-hearted, compassionate, and selfless group of individuals I’ve ever met – the Tibetan monastic community. Those 6 weeks helped me gain a lot of perspective and gave me some insight on what it being to simply be a “human being.” It’s absolutely crazy to think of the millions, probably billions of people that don’t go about their days in the same way – with a genuine and compassionate heart for every individual that crosses your path. Again, I’m being idealistic and I know how remarkably unrealistic that thought it, but is it really that difficult? Is it really THAT hard to just be a good person? Sometimes I swear I keep myself up at night thinking about things like this, because all of the hate, injustice, anger, and violence in the world just doesn’t make any damn sense.

Burning Thoughts

I really liked the rough cut of this film so far and am interested in seeing how it develops. Some of my thoughts on it are organized below.

I really like the main characters and would like to hear more from them and perhaps others about certain things. For example, why do they think that people fight them so severely to stop them from crossing? There was some mention of racism, but do people think there are other factors? (Neo/colonialism and capitalism come to mind, though others may not use these terms). What and who do they think caused the situations they are trying to get away from? What do they feel should be done? Do they ever hear from people who cross? And what do they do during the day—much of this is probably trying to get food and find some work to get money—but they also do have times when they are not doing this stuff. Here I’m mainly thinking of the kids at the camps, since we see quite a bit of characters in the living areas.

It might also be useful to draw on comparisons to previous periods of policing of borders, and historical patterns of fear and oppression. The one I know most about is when Irish, Italians, Catholics and others were feared in the USA in the 1800’s and 1900’s (and also not considered “white”). The modern day counterpart is the US would be Mexicans/Latinxs.

I also think it could be interesting to hear from the film makers regarding their thoughts and experiences. Though I am not sure exactly how this would fit in, I do think it could be done in ways that don’t distract from or crowd out the story that is being shown.

One point that was very interesting was this constant use of human rights rhetoric by various people in the film.

Is the system illegitimate because it does not grant us rights or because it cannot?

Are “rights” even the best way to think about things? What about in terms of needs and ability to meet them? Doesn’t the fact that these governments are breaking their own laws show how meaningless those laws are?

Laws exist to control other people and resources. Those with power set and control the laws. Any law that becomes a threat or nuisance to them will soon be thrown out. Any reform can be taken away just as easily—no, far more easily—than it is accepted.

I do think this stuff about rights is a bit more than just semantics and shows some underlying foundations in how we conceptualize the world. We think about States as being necessary to secure our livelihood, well being, and “rights” even going so far as to conflate them with [all] “society” itself (Clastres 1987). These words, categories and meanings shape the ways in which we think, feel and perceive.

At one point a policeman says “Morocco is a sovereign country.” What does this mean? What is the reality? This is a very interesting word: it indicates a kind of “authority” but just whose authority is it exactly? I wonder if the actions of the guardia, government and seemingly indifferent golfers and rich[er] people really represent the views and wishes of everyone in Spain and the EU?

Instead of buying into this rhetoric about “sovereignty” and “rights” and “the will of the people” we should see these for the smokescreens that they are used as to deflect attention from who really holds power, controls resources and makes decisions about our lives and world. We should think in terms of human needs and desires, and our actual ability to meet them so as to get directly to the point.

Finally, there are some questions I think this film can hone in on to magnify its impact:

Why do we have borders?

It seems like such a simple question, but do we ever really ask it without assuming the answers are obvious?

In whose interests are borders really manufactured and policed?

Are we really separate from everyone else? Do we have different interests? And is that why we have borders? Or… are borders what cause us to believe we are separate and have different interests than the rest of the people–and living beings–on this planet?

Perhaps it’s the borders themselves which are problematic, and indicative of much deeper flaws in our society, thinking and ways of living. Like the border between those who can make decisions and everyone else. The borders between those who have money and those who do not. Those who “own” things which they do not themselves use, and everyone else who must then sell themselves bit by bit for access to a means of getting what they need to live and enjoy life.

An interesting point is raised about how discourse about the Sub Saharan Africans’ precarious positions on the Moroccan Border is absent from the media, unlike the plight of Syrian Refugees. I imagine the attention given to the Syrian crises over the Sub-Saharan African migration reflects American and European political and economic agendas. The middle east is an oil rich area with many regimes that are potential enemies to western States and multinational corporations. Drawing attention to the region can also be used in part to justify further intervention and control over the region. The lack of coverage to Moroccan & EU borders not only hides problems and defects inherent to the system and protects governments’ reputations, but demonstrates how these and other areas which lack resources desirable to these entities are ignored, regardless of the suffering that results. (Why USA didn’t go into Rwanda during genocide, as admitted by Bill Clinton, for example).

Who and how are people resisting borders and oppression? What is being done? What can we do?

There are people resisting, calling and acting for “no borders” [2, 3] who recommend donating not only supplies like food and clothing to people who need them, but also film equipment so that people forced into these desperate situations can tell their stories and document what is happening [4]. Some also engage in more directly confrontational tactics to aid migrants and break down borders.

Here you can see some images that people took of the remains of their camp after a raid

This is another video from an October 2015 raid with some dialogue. The person filming describes what used to exist there and what it was like to experience the police raid.

References

Clastres, P. (1987). Society against the state: Essays in political anthropology. New York: Zone Books.
[2] http://noborders.org.uk/aboutnoborders
[3] http://noborders.org.uk/news/no-borders-manifesto
[4] https://beatingborders.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/we-need-support/#more-1329

“The Mapping Journey Project” by Bouchra Khalili

tumblr_no4w98fnde1utnggjo1_400Artist Bouchra Khalili was born in Casablanca and studied Film at Sorbonne Nouvelle and Visual Arts at the Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy but now lives and works in Berlin. She works with various mediums such as film, video, photography and print, exploring language and subjectivity but most importantly geographical explorations.

Her artwork “Mapping Journeys” Video Art Installation is what could be described as a mixed-media installation that combines eight videos and a printed map. Yet, as simple as that might sound, the project has much deeper meaning behind it and falls under social practice art. Interestingly enought, the project also challenges the audience to go against the normativity of cartography and really look into the hidden geographies.

1415620383-bouchra_khalili_the_mapping_journey_project_exhibition_view_1While allowing individuals to tell the stories of their crossings, in their own voice, Khalili uses art as a means for social activism for increasing awareness of the migrant crisis. She offers the audience a different perspective on the notions of space, borders, mobility and the greater political ideologies that play part in this constant power struggle.These people’s journeys show how lives today cannot be defined but cartographic contours also known as boarders. By using the experiences of the storytellers as a starting point and not seeing them as exceptions, Khalili challenges the audience to look at maps differently and reflect on the reality of migration and global movement.

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“Imba” Means Conflicting Feelings

After viewing “Imba Means Sing”, I was left with mixed feelings; I consciously know that enabling African children to get an education is a good thing, but while watching the film, it was hard to shake the feeling that something about this path to education was wrong. During several parts of the film, I felt distinctly uncomfortable but I found difficulty trying to attribute my discomfort to one specific thing, especially when the organization being filmed is supposed to be a beneficial one. I thought that my feelings would be refined and clarified after the the subsequent interaction with the producer, Erin Bernhardt, but I left feeling even more confounded by the duality of emotion the film evoked from me.

The African Children’s Choir is doing work that is positively impacting the lives of the participants. The legacy of the Choir is one of prestige, and obviously the alumni valued the program, because they continue to return in order to contribute it.

And though that legacy is one that should not be overlooked, it is difficult for me to ignore some of the details of the film that were quite strange.

The experience of these African children is directly bound to American churches. Pretty significant parts of the film showed the children performing (in stereotypically “African” costumes) for a largely white congregation. The juxtaposition of the simple churches the children attended in Africa against the massive churches they performed in were shocking. These children lived with members of the church during the days they stayed in the town; even this interaction seemed like a novelty for the people housing the African children. The members of the congregation seemed to know very little about the cultures where these kids came from. They dressed them up in play-clothes and played with Barbies. I know that those activities gave the children joy, but there was something so absurd about young girls using African children as a means of dress up. Maybe it was the sense of exploitation?

That was a sense I felt from a large part of the film. The children were repeatedly told not to “disappoint” anyone; there was an immense pressure upon the children to deliver the performance these Americans wanted to see. This idea giving the people what they want was directly tied to the costumes they wore. The costumes looked almost tribal in nature, and very much subscribed to the western perception of “Africa”. The children never wore anything of a similar nature whilst in their home environments in the actual continent. The children were always asked to smile as big as they possibly could, and enunciating their english well was of importance. It’s as if the performance was aimed at presenting the exotic appeal of the African continent while attempting to separate the poverty and danger that accompanies living there.

In a way, I know that the children’s physical presence elicits more money from congregations. However, it’s difficult for me to understand why these children specifically have to dance. I wonder if its more of a formality; if the american public, specifically people in protestant christian churches, expect people to have to work for charity.

My most important question about “Imba Means Sing” is tied to the bigger picture, and the relative ignorance of that picture by the majority of Americans supporting these students. If children in Africa cannot afford an education, is there not a bigger issue? If these kids have to sing and dance like puppets in front of white people to be considered worthy of schooling, isn’t there clearly a systematic problem? While the African Children’s Choir is attempting to solve an issue, it seems as if the solution needs more than 20 kids who have to sing.

The bigger question is, how do we deal with systematic issues that require solutions that may not show progress in the short term? What is the way in which the US, as a nation of privileged people, should get involved in solving these problems? Are programs like the African’s Children Choir distracting people from getting educated about much bigger issues? Or is it better to have something like the ACC to solve problems in the short term? Can long term and short term solutions like these coexist?

Imba Means Sing Reaction

The images of the village in Uganda compared to the homes in the United States are interspersed throughout the film to undoubtedly show the stark contrast between wealth in the two countries. This technique of going back and forth between images of Uganda and images of the United States creates feelings and sentiments like “how lucky these children are to experience this opportunity” and “what a great cause.” While these sentiments are valid, they are only half the story.

Imba Means Sing did a great job of emphasizing the benefits of the African Children’s Choir in that it gives African kids an opportunity to come to the United States and pursue an education. However, this documentary felt more like an advertisement for the African Children’s Choir rather than a complete narrative of this organization. After meeting Bernhardt, I realize that this documentary was made because she loves the organization who she volunteered for and wanted to show audiences in America (specifically younger audiences) about the organization as well. While all documentaries have some sort of narrative or side taken by the filmakers, I felt as though Imba Means Sing only addressed the American view of the benefits of the African’s Children Choir.

I would imagine that not everyone in Africa supports this organization because not all of the kids in the village are given this opportunity, which can lead to potential problems in status and power, and it creates a community dependence on the United States to sponsor their children. While the benefits, such as giving impoverished children an education, teaching American youth about African song and dance, and allowing African children the chance to pursue their dreams, of the African Children’s Choir as seen by the Americans are evident in the film, I would have also liked to see how the community in Uganda perceives this organization. The intended audience for the film is clearly Americans; however, I think it would have benefitted from addressing potential problems of this non-profit such as community restructuring in villages in Africa who have many of their kids on this program. I wonder that if this other side to the picture was presented, they could offer suggestions for how to make the successes more sustainable for the communities in Africa and not just the individuals.

A Reaction to Imba

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.