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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)

Jen Marlowe
About Jen Marlowe