Ah… Spring and storytelling are in the air. Kony 2012 (now the most viewed non-profit video of all time) has brought the strategies and ethos of social storytelling into the national conversation. Everyone from Nicholas Kristof to Ryan Seacrest has had their say about whether this is a game-changing piece of social storytelling or white-savior flavored poverty porn. And of course we’ve had a few thoughts of our own…
For people who do this work every day, this is a deeply complicated situation.
First off, Kony 2012 is a superb example of a video that speaks the language of the moment. It’s slick, it’s dramatic, it mixes video with graphics, with social media. But most importantly, it’s work that acknowledges the reality of the online environment in which it lives. Many of us who fight on these causes wish we didn’t have to simplify issues, cut to peppy music or use cute blond haired little boys to help viewers engage. But we do. Kony 2012 should be commended for playing by the rules that this new landscape has set. As traditional documentary and journalistic methods prove less and less effective at engaging the facebooked world, we all need to be willing to let go of our old ways of “proper” presentation and be fiercely creative in our pursuit of new ways to break through.
But I was also struck by something I heard in the fallout from a recent scandal surrounding the NPR show This American Life. A contributor to the show was caught fabricating a very powerful story about Chinese workers who make Apple products. After being caught red-handed, Mike Daisey, the offending reporter said ” I’m not going to say I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard.” And that…. is the flip-side. Almost all the criticisms of Kony 2012 boil down to “shortcuts” in the service of what appears to be a real passion to be heard. Sure, it’s important to make video that has an impact, but these shortcuts have real implications. Many respected experts on the conflict argue that the need for mass pressure on Kony may be outdated & counter-productive and many people in Northern Uganda, feel that the merchandise (posters, bracelets etc.) trivializes their suffering.
In the end, the non-profit video-maker’s identity crisis leaves us wandering between Edward R. Murrow and Don Draper. We work with issues and people that demand authenticity, truthfulness and respect. We also work with a public whose attention demands every advertising trick in the book. I can’t say that I can always discern where truth-telling begins and advertising ends.
And yet, this week we had an experience that provided unexpected perspective and clarity. We had the truly great honor of interviewing Arn Chorn Pond a brilliant musician and former child soldier in the Khmer Rouge. As Arn let us into to his deeply painful and extraordinarily powerful story, this gentle, brave man reminded us that these stories belong to real human beings. We have the tools and the power and the access… but these stories are at best on loan. In the end, it is to people like Arn we must answer, not to bloggers or fellow activists or Ryan Seacrest. This is difficult work with dim boundaries, but that doesn’t excuse us for taking “shortcuts” in our passion to spread the word.
The appearance of Kony 2012 is an invitation for us all to tell smart, honest stories. It is an invitation to turn to Arn and his fellow child soldiers with open eyes and hearts and begin the difficult, patient work that awaits.