IVAN 2012

I think the universe has not so subtly reminded me that I am overdue for a blog post…

First off, I last blogged just as Right To Play, myself, and Ruth Hoffman were putting together plans and fundraising for the Legacy of Hope Uganda Canada Baseball event.  This event went off amazingly well.  I can safely say that it was a rewarding experience for both sides and good things will continue to ripple through Uganda baseball for a long time to come.  Steve Wulf at ESPN was along with us for the trip and wrote 3 tremendous articles about the experience that I’ll link to here. espn article 1  espn article 2 and espn article 3 

I have to give special credit to Jimmy Rollins and Derrek Lee who were and are incredible. Since the writing of those espn articles, they have both stayed involved with well thought out ideas and initiatives that will help Uganda baseball tremendously.  Derrek has generously donated batting cages to get to Uganda which will be incredible and really allow a ton of players to reach the next level of their skill and dreams. That is our next task to handle. And Jimmy is committed to sending over more equipment when needed, on top of his substantial donation through Right To Play. Amazing…

Oh and of course the game was played… we didn’t really care as storytellers who won or lost.  The fact that the game was actually happening, and better yet happening in Uganda was our story.  But, of course, it was a game that not even Hollywood would script.  You can read Steve’s article about it if you’d like (spoiler alert Uganda won).  

As far as the film goes, we have our ending.  It is incredible and we have a cut that we are so proud of.  I’ll let you all know how our conversations with distribution outlets go, but you can all be sure that this film will make a really nice splash later this year.

I hear there is another video about Uganda out there getting a few hits on youtube… :) Here are my thoughts about KONY 2012, I will try to relate them to instances in my experience in filming Opposite Field as much as I can.  There are a lot of facets to this story and it is sort of a moving target, changing by the second.  But here I go…

— EDIT (UPDATE) - I made this post before Jason Russell’s well known incident on the streets of San Diego. Though this post clearly points out our differences in approach and thinking, I hope he can deal with whatever issues he needs to for his personal well being and the health of his family. —-

I am very familiar with Invisibile Children. I’ve been involved/interested in their work since their early days in 2004 when they were first barnstorming college campuses and community centers with a rough cut of a film which was shedding light on the largely underreported issue of the night commute and war in Northern Uganda.  They were 3 naive college kids who fell into this position, and you could tell.  But they are very talented designers and filmmakers and were finding a very energetic young audience, and a nice chunk of corporate money.  Their intentions were pure enough, to publicize the night commute and activity of the LRA to try to bring it to an end. Their slogan was “end a war”. It presented a somewhat urgent issue. They were smart. And it wasn’t hard to appreciate what they were doing.  They reminded me of the first time I went to Africa when I was 15. You can go back and read my first blog post about it here if you’d like. I would have reacted similarly if I had stumbled into the night commute children on that trip.

But Invisible Children soon became problematic. I stayed up to date with their work as they rolled out well planned publicity stunts to raise awareness over the next several years. But there was one big problem, their slogan was still the same… and the situation in Uganda was not. Joseph Kony and the LRA were flushed out of Northern Uganda in 2004-2006 when Uganda sent its defense force to do the job as a result of internal pressures and some international urging. Invisibile Children may have even played a part in that pressure. But by 2007, although numbers are always hazy, the frequency of child abductions had significantly declined and Northern Uganda was no longer under siege… but Invisibile Children didn’t tell anyone.  I started to sense that they needed a certain narrative about Uganda to exist in order to keep their audience, or so they thought. I stopped supporting them after a phone conversation a few years later involving Uganda baseball when their tone was unchanged about ending the war in Northern Uganda while Joseph Kony was off to terrorizing kids in Congo.

I never dreamed that years later they would put out a video like this. 

Now, of course, it is quite complicated. Their video or message is not evil, maybe not even bad. It is certainly well made. It briefly mentions Kony moving out of Uganda years ago, but still for some reasons continues to focus on Uganda. And it had the same footage of a night commute school jammed with kids that I saw them play on that college campus (cooper union) in 2004. But as everyone is noting, Joseph Kony is a bad man, and if he is even still alive (doubtful), he should be brought to justice. Fine. True. So, what’s wrong with the video? Well, a lot. And I’m even going to ignore the shady financials of IC and the funneling of money to the Ugandan Military which of course deserves scrutiny. I’m also going to leave alone the fact that Invisible Children claimed responsibility for pressuring the US Government into sending 100 troops to Uganda a few months ago while leaving out the information about a large oil deposit being found in the area just prior. And I’ll even leave out the flimsy rationale that there was even a point to making the video in the first place. This is a line they use in the voiceover “He’s changed his tactics, and International support could be removed at any time.” Umm… what? Did anyone suggest that the 100 unarmed US troops would be removed from Uganda? And by “changed his tactics” did you mean “possibly die?” Invisible Children looks like they fictionalized some kind of danger so we have to call our congressmen to keep troops there, thus they needed to make this video urgently. It’s not like those 100 US troops or anyone in the Ugandan Army who is actually trying to hunt Joseph Kony didn’t know his name and needed him to be more famous. I don’t think they needed this viral video “wanted poster” for the local Congolese bartender to call the cops when he comes in wearing a Groucho Marx mask. And I’ll even let it slide that this very practice of “making Kony famous” might be extremely dangerous and stoke Kony and his followers into going back on the offensive and attacking villages.  Kony was born out of a power grab for the country 26 years ago after Amin was ousted and he craved the spotlight over people like current president (dictator) Museveni. He would love nothing more than to be a thorn in the side of Museveni again and push him off of the front page. Job well done Invisible Children. Kony’s followers are not rational people… and they were already being pursued. But fine, I’ll let all of that slide for the purposes of this post. After all, Invisible Children claims to want to raise awareness, so maybe they were just 10 years too late with this one … and killing Kony is still a good thing. I’m giving them every single benefit of the doubt that their end goal is to kill/capture/find Kony and that they think this is the best way to do it. That is clear. But here is the problem.

I suspect that the large percentage of the 70 million or so people who have seen this video and liked it, shared it, or donated because of it were doing so because they wanted to accomplish a certain thing. They wanted to improve the lives and prospects of African children. That’s awesome. That is one of the great things that I have seen this week. If Invisible Children is telling them that killing Kony does that, well that’s true for a tiny percentage of African kids who live in northeast Congo. Or maybe not even for them since Kony may well be dead or powerless. But Kony has followers, it is the same faulty thought process that killing Osama Bin Laden would end terrorism. But yes, killing Kony (and Bin Laden) are good things.

But if people want to improve the lives and prospects of Sub-Saharan African children, they need to understand the things that are threatening them and holding them back. The constant physical dangers to Sub-Saharan Africans are diseases, small house fires, traffic accidents, drownings, etc… Joseph Kony or other madmen in the forrest is way way way way way down on that list if he is even on it.  And the prospects in life for work and happiness for African children are also certainly limited. If you feel like looking at a lot of numbers, here are the top 50 leading causes of death in Uganda, a country with a life expectancy still down in the 50-57 year old range (the figure is skewed by Malaria deaths which make up the vast majority of deaths of children under 5).

Coach George is a major character in our film. He suffered a tragedy in his life which largely inspired his dedication to baseball. It had nothing to do with the LRA or Kony. 11 of his teammates died in a traffic accident in 2004 on the way to a funeral after another teammate had fallen sick and died. If one looks at the causes of this accident or the teammate who fell ill and died or other similar dangers to Africans and in particular African kids, one can get overwhelmed. This whole tragedy can be dissected: that truck full of George’s friends crashed because the roads were bad, the construction crew fixing the road didn’t know how to control traffic, the car was not equipped with proper safety, the drivers were not educated on safe driving, his friend’s illness was not diagnosed because the doctors were not trained well, the hospitals lacked the medicines to treat him effectively, he didn’t have access to fresh water to fight the infection etc… This is just one example, but all of the factors seem to point to a systemic failure driven by a corrupt government and systems of corruption that slow and disrupt the trends of development as the communities begin to grow further away from their Colonial pasts. Academics lump this “stuff” into the conditions that make up a “failed state”. I am a big fan of the Failed State Index which Foreign Policy Magazine publishes every year. Check it out here. All of these problems seem daunting, complicated, and… big. Well, that is because they are. But, there are some answers if you want to do some work to nudge things in the direction of improvement.

KONY 2012 has gone viral in large part because it offers a call to action, and a quite easy one at that. All you have to do is share it and make this name famous? Well, that’s easy, and people can do that, and that’s great.

So, people may read this or other critiques of KONY 2012 and agree but get frustrated that it offers no answers or other courses of actions. But I’m here to tell you there are some answers. And they are not easy. And a five year old might even be able to understand some of them.

I’ve outlined a complex collection of obstacles and issues facing African kids which points to failed systems of family, school, government, and society which all add up to an unsafe condition with too few opportunities for happiness. If our goal, by doing something like sharing a facebook post, is to improve those things, then we have to think about ways to break the cycles of behavior that perpetuate those failing systems. It’s not easy to find ways to do that, or even imagine them. I’ve blogged about that being a ‘process’, and probably a lifelong process. But I have found an answer in supporting programs that reach kids and offer them something so that they grow up to be “better people” than their parents. I don’t even necesarily care if these are outside programs or homegrown, the baseball one happens to be a mixed bag, maybe that’s even better in some respects. And the programs can be as simple as improving schools in Africa to act as the youth changing structures, or building healthy community centers to promote the youth, or encouraging strong marriages free from spousal or child abuse, or of course, rooting for a bunch of kids who love baseball and want to be great at it.  

I think an important common theme in all of the programs which seem to work is that they empower African youth and tell them they can be as good or even better than anyone at the thing they are trying to do.  Ivan dreams of playing for the Yankees. And I believe in him. And he believes in himself, and that is powerful enough. But even if he never does play for the Yankees, I have a strong belief that his experience in baseball will make him a better person. And a nice thing is that I don’t have to just “believe” that anymore. People are studying these notions, and it is not surprising that sports programs are incredibly effective leadership and character building experiences that alter life trajectories. Tom Gillespe, an MLB coach who visited Uganda to assist a clinic once told me this, “A game won’t change the world, but a game will change individual lives. And those lives will change the world.”

Seek out these programs and support them if you hope to help the situation in Africa. We can not do this for them. We can only find ways to encourage what they are capable of. Right to Play is one of the best ones I’ve seen in action. But there are others.

Many people have criticized the ‘White Messiah Complex’ as being problematic and very prevalent in KONY 2012. This is true. No country has ever, or will ever, develop because of foreign aid. And worse yet, foreign aid seems to promote corruption in local governments. When outside aid begins to replace social services and roles which local governments should be providing, it is no surprise that those governments become self serving and corrupt while depending on the white guilt driven, often times religiously motivated, aid to flow in and fill in the gaps that they leave wide open.

I will say this, this is a very difficult problem. We can be as smart and as academic as we wish to be here on tumblr, but it is difficult when a starving child walks up to your window asking for coins when you are in the back of a taxi in Kampala. It is an incredibly difficult and complicated world. It takes some work. But I have been encouraged by the conversations I’ve been having over the last few days on this topic.  Invisible Children keeps saying that they are trying to make simple videos so they go viral. If that sounds insulting to your intelligence, it’s because it is.  But it may be more than insulting, as many Ugandans have noted, it is irresponsible and most likely damaging.

And here is the main thing that concerns me about Invisibile Children’s video. I don’t think they are dumb or naive to all of these issues. If we give them the benefit of the doubt in that regard, then they are just oddly obsessed with killing a guy who very well may already be dead because they have a personal vendetta against him for doing such terrible things 10 years ago… if they dont get that benefit, then they sure look like they enjoy the money and fame they get by perpetuating a narrative about Uganda which they know is not accurate, nor indicative of the experience of the overwhelming majority of Ugandans and Africans, or even worse, damages the psychological rehabilitation process of Ugandans as evidenced by the Ugandans’ angry reaction at the creation of the video.

Though, there is something I love about their video which I often talk about. The first 5 minutes very effectively describes this new “facebook world” we live in, in which we are connected in a way like never before. This is a good thing mostly, but it’s also a dangerous thing which the other 25 minutes of the video unfortunately illustrates perfectly. We are inundated with bits of information all day on our twitter feeds, and our facebook feeds, and our favorite blogs, and maybe even on the still relevant television set. But they are just that, bits of information. They are not full stories or researched subjects. And believe me filmmakers of Invisible Children, I understand the need to simplify and condense information to make it accessible and watchable. We’re in the same business as you. I shot a film over 3 years and have a 95 minute edit. But I take that job seriously. And when an audience sits down to watch my work, they trust that I have condensed the information and packaged it in a way that is responsible and allows them leave with an effective course of action. With KONY 2012, I believe you failed your responsibility as filmmakers to do this. People are sharing and liking that video and even sending you a lot of money because they think they are improving the lives of children in Africa… You guys are not unintelligent, and you know they really aren’t… and you are also smart enough to know they might be hindering Africa.

But this ‘facebook world’ we live in is another kind of opportunity. It is an opportunity to be more honest, to not hide behind convienent narratives of complicated places. I think Invisibile Children is finding that out themselves as Ugandans react and news agencies rush to vet their information. 

When Uganda baseball made front page news during their visa situation, a full 2 page article appeared in the New York Times. It featured a young player named Abooki who lived in Nsambya Ghetto. The article was pretty great and very positive about what baseball is doing for these kids. Here is that article. But it had one funny line. This one: “He has one set of clothes: jeans shorts, a blue T-shirt and a black baseball cap that he never parts with.” This is not true. It came from a writer’s brain. Abooki laughed and asked me why it was there. I tried to explain some of this to him.  I tried to convey some of the reasons that it is somehow easier for Americans to paint a certain picture of poverty in Africa to legitimize their historical guilt. Abooki is 11 so he sort of got it. But I thought the line was entirely unnecesary. Abooki has several t-shirts, even a really cool star wars pajama set. He may not have an iPad or tuxedo but what is wrong with the truth?

It’s a common reaction to walk through a ghetto for the first time and say “They are poor, but they are happy.” This is true… sometimes. Sometimes they are “poor and angry”, “poor and frustrated”, “poor and selfish”, “poor and selfless”, “poor and smart”, “poor and dumb”, “poor and ……” How you fill in that blank is up to you, and it depends on who you happen to meet. But would you “like” or “understand” that person any less if they were poor and something other than happy? The beginning of KONY 2012 is right, and it’s amazing, it is time to connect and be honest. I wish they would have stopped there…

Here are some updates about Uganda Baseball.

Nsambya Ghetto:

Nsambya Ghetto is being bulldozed. This is the home to coach George and several younger Ugandan ball players. This is a really big deal and very scary for a lot of them. They have been told they have 3 months to vacate. I am not sure what the land is going to be used for. The government has been talking about doing this for a long time so it’s not a total shock. They are giving families money to relocate. But I am not sure how much and I am not sure it will be spent wisely by everyone. Either way, this is a complicated issue… surprised? Nsambya Ghetto and places like it should be bulldozed, but relocation plans and betterment plans are often lacking. We’ll see how it goes for the kids in Nsambya. But baseball is more important to them than ever right now to provide a structure and sense of family and home that will soon be uprooted. It could ultimately be a good thing if some of the baseball talent is spread through the city and more teams begin to sprout up. But for now, let’s just see where the chips fall. It is the end of an era. Sharing Youth Center is not being removed, by the way, and will hopefully continue to be an important meeting place for ballplayers in the area. Renovation is already underway on the future site of the baseball field as a result of the Right To Play event. Many boys will probably relocate to an area behind it which I hear will be untouched.

Domincan Republic:

I’m not going to spill any major beans here. But we are talking with a very exciting group who operates a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and is interested in getting some of the young talent from Uganda (maybe 4 or 5 players) to begin playing there. This would effectively start their baseball careers with the hopes of being offered a minor league contract within the next few years. It took a lot of convincing for me to go down this path, but after Jimmy Rollins and Derrek Lee saw how good the kids were and assured me that they would get a serious chance to “make it”, I decided to explore the opportunity. It is still very much in the planning stages, but Uganda baseball may be inching closer towards its “Roberto Clemente Moment”.  And if that moment comes, I think the benefits are enormous for the country and will bring thousands more kids to the game with the same dreams and aspirations which I have outlined in this post as being so important in a place like Uganda.

Film Distribution:

Hold tight on this one. Later this year the film is going to get out there in a big way. I can’t wait for you all to see it. 

I’ll end with a poignant reaction to KONY 2012 by TMS Ruge, the Ugandan-born co-founder of Project Diaspora, “It is a slap in the face to so many of us who want to rise from the ashes of our tumultuous past and the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development memes.”

I am so proud that Opposite Field includes some of the very kids who rose from those ashes which Invisibile Children seems to want to reignite and found a goal and identity which they are proud of in a game called baseball. And they are really good at it. And I can’t wait to MAKE THEM FAMOUS.

Jay Shapiro - Director ‘Opposite Field