Kony2012, Mike Daisey and the Politics of Art, Truth and Complexity


Posted on April 2nd, 2012 by Jen Marlowe

I have a half-dozen or so of my short films on youtube and vimeo. The most “popular,” uploaded ten months ago, has been viewed 90,593 times.

The Kony2012 film, released last month, has over 84 million hits.

I spent much of the month venting in fury about the Kony2012 film/campaign and the Invisible Children organization that produced it. It oversimplified the very complex reality in Eastern and Central Africa. It offered misleading and highly sensationalized information. It proscribed militaristic policies that could potentially put thousands of civilians at severe risk. A white, male American was foregrounded as the story’s hero (along with his pre-school aged son) while the very real, very important work of reconstruction and peace-building that Ugandans themselves have been doing for years was entirely ignored. It suggested that Americans sharing videos on Facebook and purchasing bracelets was all it took to catch an indicted war criminal—and by doing so, they would also become heroes. It was self-serving and narcissistic.

But I realized quickly that my anger at Kony2012 and Invisible Children ran deeper than those critiques. As a human rights activist that primarily uses the tools of writing and filmmaking, I was taking Kony2012 very personally.

As I grappled to understand why, I began to follow another story on NPR. Mike Daisey, whose one-man show exposes abuses in the Chinese factory that manufactures Apple products, had been featured on “This American Life.” Daisey was now in the hot-seat. It had been discovered that he fabricated key parts of the monologue he had claimed to be truthful and, furthermore, dug himself deeper into those lies on “This American Life.”

As with Kony2012, I found myself deeply, and personally, furious at Mike Daisey.

And I began to realize why.

The goal of my work is to provide a platform for people’s stories and voices.  (I do not, incidentally, give “voice to the voiceless.” No one else’s voice is mine to give. I do, hopefully, amplify marginalized voices and create space for them to be heard.) I hope I am (an admittedly tiny) part of an effort to push our society towards a deeper, more honest, more thoughtful long-term engagement with a myriad of interconnected social justice issues, in all their nuance and complexity. I hope my work reflects solidarity and partnership with the communities and individuals who have invited me into their lives and trusted me with their stories.

In one fell swoop (is how it felt, at least), Invisible Children undermined years of slow, laborious work building critical, thoughtful engagement. Mike Daisey’s decision to position a fictionalized account as “truth” created suspicion about all of us who use art in nonfiction platforms to expose human suffering.

But, just maybe, some of my reaction stemmed from the fact that I struggle on a daily basis with some of the same questions that I assume Invisible Children and Mike Daisey grappled with. How much nuance and complexity can an audience/reader digest? How many layers of context can one short film, or one article be expected to provide? When, and to what extent, are your own encounters and experiences with the people whose lives you are documenting a part of the story? How much creative license can there be in nonfiction storytelling before it becomes something other than “truthful”—and at what point does an artist need to let a reader/audience know if liberties with “this is exactly how it actually happened” are taken? For example—was it dishonest that my documentary film Rebuilding Hope: Sudan’s Lost Boys Return Home showed a visit to Kakuma Refugee Camp at the start of the film, though the actual visit to the camp was at the end of our trip? Is it unscrupulous that Sami did not relate to me word for word the dialogue that is peppered throughout our co-authored memoir of his life (The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker)—even though we included an authors’ disclaimer that dialogue and details were reconstructed?

One central question all of us who use art to expose human rights issues share is: how can our work be as effective as possible? And, for me, that begs a further question: Knowing that effectiveness includes reach, must there be a trade-off of integrity and honesty? After all, there is a big gap between 90,000 views and 84 million.

However Mike Daisey and Invisible Children would answer those questions, I believe they made very damaging—and dangerous—choices in their work. But I would not be honest if I did not admit that the questions I wrestle with every day lie along the same spectrum. I hope I come out on the other end of the spectrum—the end bending towards honesty, complexity and integrity, even at the expense of widespread appeal.

But, perhaps, that’s merely a matter of degree.

(Jen Marlowe’s website is www.donkeysaddle.org. You can follow her on Twitter at @donkeysaddleorg or on Facebook via donkeysaddle projects)

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9 Responses to “Kony2012, Mike Daisey and the Politics of Art, Truth and Complexity”

  1. Lainey says:

    Thank you for your honesty Jen. It takes a big person (in mind and heart) to be so self aware. I used to think, “hey, if its gets people’s attention, than why not?” You know, the work smarter, not harder philosophy. However, the more I really “do the work” I see that a “big movement or story” has minimal impact. It moves loudly, yet has minimal staying power: People of luxury (most of us) can’t stomach that much sorrow for too long. So, let others do it their way and you do it yours. There is only so much you can control. I have learned that real change comes quietly and far too slow. If we–those who want justice and change– just hold hands and let us each be unique, we will get there. Keep beating your drum and let others beat theirs. You might be beating longer, but than again, you might just be alongside one another. Kindness.

  2. So thoughtful, personal, & challenging on both an intellectual & moral level. Thanks, Jen.

  3. Leah Lax says:

    Jen—I think it’s possible that you articulated for a lot of people part of what was so discomfiting about the Mike Daisy interview on NPR. After all, Daisy struggled to hold to his right of artistic license, and to the way that non-journalistic reporting (and even fiction for that matter) can convey a larger truth. Isn’t that what you’re doing by seeking out individual stories, and letting them speak for themselves? Out of that collection comes something singular, something larger. That’s a writer. That’s what we do. Daisy’s crime wasn’t as black and white as Ira Glass asserted. He did what any writer does, but there’s an invisible line, of integrity and of respect for your subjects that mustn’t be crossed, and he crossed it.

  4. Peter Sawyer says:

    Hi Jen,

    Thanks for writing this. I’m quite sure you’ve thought about this in greater depth than I have, but two questions/ideas to put out there.

    1. Do you think the net effect of the video has been positive? My instinct is yes. So many people are talking about the LRA–and they are talking about whether the video is accurate or not. I suppose the downside could be that some agreement or momentum towards solving the problem already underway was disrupted. Is that the case?

    2. I don’t think there is trade-off between integrity and reach. Admittedly, I watched the video all the way through just once, but I thought that the main appeal was the idea that we are all on the Earth together and are connected. The story of Kony was incidental to that, a possible focus for this connectedness. It was a shame that some of the statements were misleading, because they could have been more accurate without affecting the popularity of the film.

    Peter

  5. Vizion says:

    You have my full support!

  6. Tita says:

    I went to a reading of a play written during Tahrir Square about it by playwright Ibrahim el Husseini. He has poetic elements. His characters are composites. And he brings out some deep human truths of the uprising through dramatic art. If he had just spliced quotes from interviews of people in the uprising, he would have produced a documentary drama. Instead he produced deep art – for example, a cemetery worker collecting pieces of people and giving us a moment of their hopes. If we have only two hours or less to heighten awareness and a sense of connection with people in a challenging situation, we need to cut, consolidate, add transitions – when do the omissions become distortions or unfair to the people interviewed and not included? When do an artist’s changes in actual events and merging of selected quotes from many people into one fuller composite character become lies?… and when do the changes become dramatic tools to communicate the human truths underneath the observed events and recorded comments?

    Maybe it’s simple a matter of clarifying the line by saying “based on”… When we are dealing with the anguish of human beings in hundreds of horrific but different conditions around the world, how do we catch the attention of well-meaning activists who cannot attend to every issue and tragedy?

    I think rather than get angry (even if justified) at the over-simplifiers, the truth-shapers, and the improvisers, we might just build on the interest they generate to communicate the truth and nuances, expand the reach to more and more people who can affect decisions… or at least sign petitions, write letters, and fill the streets. Think Aikido.

  7. Joanie Fritz Zosike says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Jen. Very interesting points you’re making. It’s such a delicate line to tread when a play or piece of film or writing “speaks for” someone else’s situation. Often it comes across, or even worse, IS patronizing and paternalistic. Much to chew over in your words and careful criticism.

  8. […] Activist Jen Marlowe‘s post for the Hedgebrook blog details her thoughts on the Kony2012 video, Mike Daisey’s recent fall from grace, and the issue of integrity in activism: http://blog.hedgebrook.org/2012/04/kony2012-mike-daisey-and-the-politics-of-art-truth-and-complexity… […]

  9. Pat Jaculina says:

    Hello.This article was really motivating, especially because I was looking for thoughts on this issue last Saturday.

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