Two Americans Who Attended the KONY 2012 Screening in Gulu Tell It Like It Was

How could anyone think an American-made film about the atrocities of Joseph Kony and the LRA would go over well in a place that was ravaged by the group?

At this point it’s old news that the much-maligned philanthropy organization Invisible Children facilitated a screening of their notorious film KONY 2012 in northern Uganda last month, specifically in the rural town of Gulu. Showing a film made for Western teenagers about the atrocities of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army to the people who experienced those atrocities firsthand seems like a terrible idea, and sure enough, the thousands of Acholi in attendance hated it. According to some reports, by the time screening ended the audience was throwing stones and curses at the local IC leaders who had set up the event. Soon the cops were firing teargas and bullets into the crowd, and the riot left many injured and one dead.

The audience’s reaction should have been expected, which underscores just how clueless IC was in the first place. You’re asking a community to gather together to watch a movie in which the explanation of its past, in all its complexity and horror, is equated to the understanding of a white American filmmaker’s three-year-old son? Come on now, guys.

Unable to find much in the way of personal reactions from those who attended, I recently learned that a couple of my friends—American students doing research in the area who we’ll just refer to as Erika and Abby—made the trek to Gulu for the screening.

Their perspective is that of a pair of Americans, of course, and they didn’t witness the violence that was reported, but given the White House’s apparent embrace of IC, I think it’s worthwhile to point out that some Americans on the ground in the region cringe at the kind of ham-fisted good-versus-evil narrative IC is determined to tell.

VICE: What was it like outside the screening, when you arrived?
Erika: It was held in a small soccer stadium in Gulu. To get in, we had to weave through a massive crowd standing in anticipation of the event. I read a few articles about how many attended—some said 6,000, others said 10,000. Either way, it was an incredible turnout of people waiting to see what the rest of the world thought of them.

Some have taken issue with how it was promoted.
Erika: The “event” was advertised on the local radio as not just a film screening, but rather a “production” with musicians, whiteface comedy, and a supposed “movie.” There was no accurate depiction of what the film really was—no mention that it was about them.

But you knew what it was about, right? Had you seen KONY 2012 before?
Abby: Despite my isolated location in Africa, I did have internet access and saw the video during the initial wave facilitated by Facebook. My first reaction was less than positive, but watching that same video in the context of Gulu, surrounded by thousands of people who had lived through this, painted a very different image for me.

I watched as the words of Jason Russell and his son were translated, as if they had any constructive or enlightening commentary to add, while the comments of the white politicians remained in English. I felt the colonialist undertones were exponentially more jarring at that moment, as if a white college student who has the power to post some bumper stickers and write to my white congressman, can fix their problems. I felt presumptuous and, more than anything, embarrassed.

Erika: I was shocked to see the disconnect between the way Gulu was depicted in the film and the reality of modern-day Gulu, years after the war. Other than the film being only partially translated, it was also cut short. The differences between what I saw on YouTube and what I saw in Gulu pose important and difficult questions for IC’s execution of advocacy and its role as an NGO in the community.

In the reports I’ve read, it seems like the audience was initially open-minded but grew more and more upset as the event went on. Is this what you witnessed?
Abby: The reaction was hard to gage initially. I think people were generally more confused than anything, and perhaps even a bit annoyed that the movie they had been promised was no Hunger Games. I glanced at their faces as they watched a three-year-old grapple with the Kony-is-a-bad-guy distinction on the screen, trying, I assume, to understand what any of this had to do with them at all. More than anything, the reactions reflected to me the vast divide between the people at IC, Westerners like myself, and the locals. Much of the debate seems to have been centered on whether the video portrays an accurate depiction and its necessity. But people had more of a problem understanding the point the KONY 2012 campaign wanted to make in the first place. To recount some reactions which I heard second-hand, it seems that people were more than anything disappointed in the fact that no mention was given to the extensive amount of progress they had made in the process of reconstruction, and the reminder of precisely the trauma they wanted to move on from was less than helpful.

What do you think about the response from the US, specifically the White House, to the attention garnered by Invisible Children’s campaigns?
Erika: It would be a lie to say that US troops are not in Uganda, but it would be presumptuous to argue that US intervention was because of IC’s pressure. This is certainly not to say IC’s campaign for Americans did not create a new political focus on Kony and the threat of the LRA, because it did. The number of views alone proves something. But to oversimplify: The conflict in the north [of Uganda], the aftermath, and the current state of Uganda in IC’s advocacy work leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings.

Catch up on Kony:

Should I Donate Money to Kony 2012 or Not?

Beating the Kony Baloney

Kony 2012: An Apology