Monday, August 13, 2007

a queasy question

Attended a free screening of "Invisible Children" tonight at the local library, & while the subject matter is indisputably important--the youth of the title are Sudanese who have known nothing but war--the film is uneven & ragged. It begins in the now-familiar style of MTV's "Real World," with three white college students taking turns sitting in a small room close to the camera, posing & answering questions about the impending journey to Africa & their intentions of making a movie about it. When one of them earnestly informs viewers that television & movies are basically where we all get our knowledge, & another asks more than once, "Is this thing [the camera] on? The red light is blinking," it's unclear whether we're watching a spoof. The young filmmakers do not pretend to be experts in making documentaries & admit that they pretty much have no idea what to expect in Sudan, & perhaps their "everyman" quality appeals to a certain segment of the populace. There are some random frat-boy antics at the start of the trip--setting fire to a termite mound & killing a "giant" snake--& then an unintentionally hilarious exchange when one of the filmmakers, now with beard & backwards baseball cap, tries for serious journalism by approaching a military officer about an attack on the truck ahead of them. "What do you mean, shot?" he asks. The uniformed man dryly replies, "They used a gun to shoot them."

The official website ( is a trove of disconcertingly jokey writing (on the snake incident: "Double up on the panties, cause your gonna laugh one of them off"), pop-religious sentiment ("We know God is with us and continues to hook us up and provide us with some incredible stories"), & a bizarre synopsis of the people of Sudan ("They have no education, no concept of the outside world, and yes they still think the world is flat. The crazy thing is: If they did know that the world was round, it wouldn\'t really change how they live. If you think of \"Encino Man\" plus \"The Flintstones\" minus the technological breakthrough, otherwise known as \"The Wheel\", plus \"Half Baked\" you will get a clearer picture as to how these people live, and have been living for thousands of years. We concluded, it must be too hot to even think of making a wheel.") Yikes.

While the three Americans visit a number of refugee camps early on, it is when they encounter formerly abducted child soldiers that the voiceover states, "We had found our story." This is immediately punctuated by an overly long montage of rapid-fire scenes, set to a frantic beat--a directorial decision due to having grown up on a steady diet of music videos, it seems. At last we are given portraits of boys who have left their villages, which are vulnerable to rebel attack, for bigger towns, as well as some who have escaped conscription despite the odds. They form a family unit--studying together & staking out a dank underground corridor as sleeping quarters--although how they find food is not explained. Unfortunately, the interview process is downright insensitive: after one boy tells of his murdered brother, one of the white men asks if he'd like to go to the U.S. someday, then follows that with "What's your favorite music?"

An effort like "Invisible Children" raises the queasy question of how one approaches the well-intentioned but badly made documentary. Is it worthwhile or even ethical to put it under the critical microscope? If the film is this particular group of Sudanese boys' only chance to be heard, does it matter terribly if the medium is flawed?


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