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March 31, 2008
RATING: 2/10
The basic intention behind the documentary Invisible Children is all but invisible. The film is a saccharine-coated appeal for compassion meant to gain support and visibility for the child warriors of the Lord's Resistance Army, the right-wing Christian guerrilla force involved in a decades-long insurgency in Uganda, and the youth population affected by the war in the country's northern Acholiland. As righteous as all this might sound and no matter how worthy a subject for a documentary this might be, the technical execution of the film, paired with the trouble caused by the casual American tone and moments of meaningless and pathetic montage, monumentally takes away from the already forced initiative Invisible Children attempts to bring to attention. This, however, might even be an understatement of the film's distractingly twisted take on documentary filmmaking. When all of its shortcomings are added up, we are left with what can only be described as an irresponsible manipulation of sound and image that is not only detrimental to the weighty and serious subject, but which also takes advantage of the situation to echo a dangerous colonial sentiment which should have been abolished years ago.

Invisible Children fails in large part because of its domineering overstatement and unrelenting use of tired and cheesy appeals to pathos. Like those late night infomercials hosted by former television personalities fallen on hard times, the images of Invisible Children speak for themselves, but the approach taken in framing them seems grotesque and pornographic, a manipulative and conniving assurance of the authors' self-serving but "progressive" quest to save the world. Maybe this is the new American Dream: "Help" and make a name for yourself in the process. Furthermore, the colonial distance and complete lack of genuine empathy displayed throughout the film act simultaneously to destroy any credibility the authors (Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole) might have had; documenting their own American ignorance of world affairs only serves to hog attention from, and make light of, the reality faced by the subjects on a day-to-day basis. The film's website has a synopsis that focuses on what is essentially the amateur nature of the documentary and frames its light tone and pop-culture style while also explaining the structure and target audience of the film:


This little blurb is insightful and frustrating, self-detrimental and self-conceited - all in the very same breath. Between the lines it also captures the real goals behind the documentary. Written like some billboard for a Rock City carnival of birth defects, "Come, and discover the unseen," the clip aptly captures the film's detached, entertainment-obsessed and voyeuristic attitude. It is also a bit misrepresentative. There are some funny aspects of the film, or aspects that the filmmakers probably found funny, but the film is neither wonderful nor rock-and-roll (though crappy fits, I guess). How anyone with either a serious appreciation for the children of Africa or, at the very least, a serious approach to documentary filmmaking could think the subject called for a "rock-and-roll" depiction is hard to grasp, and the stylistic decision to market it as such shows just how hard it is to sell tragedy in an American youth culture that doesn't acknowledge much beyond the shopping mall.

All that aside, films are meant to be seen and of course must be marketed. But Invisible Children's strategies - the Myspace page associated with the film currently advertises, with an oddly festive, "Girls Gone Wild"-like appeal in a declarative font superimposed on a photo of smiling, presumably partying suburban white kids, "Spring Tour 08" (a concert circuit with Hot Topic hardcore favorites Thrice) - are hard to swallow. The film's promotional program uses the concept of spin-off products like bracelets, t-shirts, and novelty campaigns like Displace Me that, however respectably they may be postured, only serve to underscore the troubles of a country where even moralistic ideals and awareness must be marketed with a the stylization of a hot new fad. Like the ubiquitous yellow "LiveStrong" bracelets of a few years ago that have since virtually disappeared, the film's larger obligations seem to be less about an emphasis on a heightened awareness of the plight of Ugandan children and more about the hipness of being enlightened. One could hardly imagine Schindler's List stooping so low as to spawn any "List Me" promotions, and Spielberg's film wasn't even a documentary.


Invisible Children's introductory section plays like the beginning of a vain travelogue of three American youths out to see and save the world. Never suggesting they are anything but amateurs at documentary filmmaking, the three undertake the film (they say) in case they die. Great! So three kids from San Diego, rather than join the Peace Corps or enlist with some other NGO, set out on a vacation journey into the Heart of Darkness and are vain enough to think that, in the case of their deaths, the world will be a better place for having an encapsulated remembrance of their last days on Earth. In their conceit they go so far as to place a "reality"-style confessional at the front of the film.

Though we can only assume that either a) the filmmakers knew what they were doing the entire time and meant all along to cover the situation in Uganda or b) they just happened across this dire and under-publicized (on YouTube, anyway) situation in Uganda along their path to find bigger and better things than the obviously non-existent (or at least over-publicized) civil war in the Sudan, which presumably involves no children. Either way, the whole truth of how the filming came about - how they got funding (if not from their parents, maybe the 700 Club, which sells a "House Party Kit" for the film), and how in the world they fit a camera boom in their overhead compartments - is never revealed. As a result, it is hard to approach the narrative - the surfer/director's voice-over, the confessionals, or even the stories behind the different interviews conducted - with much sincerity.

Despite the juvenile nature of the choices made in the assembly of the sounds and images at their disposal, Invisible Children is shot fairly well for amateurs (though Russell was already a graduate of the University of Southern California's film school). Having worked on assembling documentaries myself, it is amazing to think that, this being their first feature-length project, the filmmakers knew just how much they would need for coverage and the variety of shots needed to fill in gaps during interviews. Not to mention batteries, storage media, and all the other equipment that goes along with even a film shot on digital video. Beginners luck!

Up front, the film shifts its focus from the confessional and self-reflexive nature of the intro to its ultimate subject, the kids. The directors' decision to put their own faces front and center is a creative gaffe that, had it been left out entirely, would have rendered the film at least a fraction more affecting. But as it is the filmmakers' need to include themselves, at the expense of footage of the "unseen" horrors in Acholiland, is part of a larger emphasis on the superfluous intervention of the three Americans that flows throughout Invisible Children. Outside of the initial framing of the situation, their voice-overs seem to offer little significant explanation as to what's going on in Uganda. For the most part the interviews are extremely telling, but are largely from viewpoints that support the filmmakers' comments and do little to build a thread that goes beyond "this is bad." We never see any former child soldiers and are never exposed to any arguments that give any weight to the intricacies of the situation. The use of child soldiers is deplorable, and by no means limited to Uganda, but like everything in Africa the initial creation and decades-long existence of the Lord's Resistance Army is a deep-rooted and complex issue. The more gratuitous sections of the film feature those who should have stayed behind the camera, opportunists whose only interests in African issues seem to be of a destructive or conquering persuasion. The self-serving nature of these sections, along with the narcissistic confessionals, don't add up to much, but Invisible Children's most frustrating manipulation was to come later in the film with the attempt to create meaning through montage.

USC's film school obviously places an emphasis on rhythmic editing techniques, which Invisible Children pulls off well. Images of the faces and environments of Uganda are thrown together with a strange mix of "native" and traditional Western cinematic music, and the pacing seems to work. Each shot is timed perfectly with the tone of the music to elicit an emotional response in the viewer, but the messages are mixed. A heavy drumbeat suggests "Africa," but the music itself is Western and only furthers the colonial sentiment echoed in the voice-over. Swells of music build to increasing emotional heights as the lens brings into focus the strength and struggle of a forgotten people... but the whole thing is rendered in a way that is cinematic kitsch. The overextended montages, though exemplifying film school instruction on understanding the manipulation of pathos, are as empty and meaningless as the kids the film is being marketed to. Free of any form of juxtaposition, we are given image after image of the exact same thing: children in need. Like an endless reel of oil-coated seals dying on a formerly pristine beach without so much as a shot of a capsized tanker or a gas-guzzling SUV for perspective, Invisible Children's formulaic editing yields a film that is ultimately no more telling or eye-opening than the individual interviews within it. The lack of genuine weight behind the images, paired with the lack of comparative or meaningful editing techniques, leaves me wondering if the filmmakers actually believe this is all it takes to move people to action. Emotional warfare might convince Americans to destroy another country, but it is a tactic notoriously ineffective in moving them in the opposite direction. It is obvious that startling images - of a dead fetus, or starving children, or pigs too fat to stand, or massacred villages - are meant to bring their viewers to a certain understanding of an issue that is somehow more meaningful and personal than it was without the image, but the direct evocation of such emotions without some form of rational and substantial backing argument is convenient, easy, and downright empty and manipulative. In the case of Invisible Children, the car-crash voyeurism seems completely unreasonable, and smacks of excuse me while I pop in for a bit, film your terrible life, and then go home to hawk merchandise on tour with some emo bands opportunism.

Despite its efforts to be participatory or documentarian, Invisible Children is neither. If anything it is detached - observational if you want to say it nicely - and has an extremely alienating effect in its lack of genuine empathy. The film, and its promotional aftermath, highlight the seemingly impenetrable fog surrounding American youth and a larger culture that can not and does not connect to the heart of a real tragedy (though it does manage get some faces of people who do). The superficial optimism and tasteless humour serve to render what could have been a salvageable statement and powerful document into a very condescending and monotonous film that operates under the guise of "the truth," but as a whole is almost as alienating as the juvenile and amateur use of montage.

The most troubling thing about the film, and the reason it hasn't reached beyond Myspace as a documentary, is that whatever true weight it has comes from its subconscious commentary on American society. Invisible Children has taken an issue that's easy to care about and conveniently packaged it so that it is even easier to care about. And after that it still needed a merchandising circus around it. There is no thought required for viewers, the film has little impact beyond the knee-jerk emotional reaction that any image of children in Africa can deliver, and at its core it highlights how admirable ideals in the hands of irresponsible youth can soon be soured. Our human sense of empathy, something that should be naturally ingrained, is so panderingly abused that whatever impact the film might have had is forced into an impermanent surface-based understanding of the tragedy. The film is easy to watch but even more easily forgotten, and the sad truths that "an MTV beat" and marketing trinkets are needed to elevate humanitarian crises above the din of iPods and Facebook are all that remain. No matter what the privileged white kid behind the camera says, for the child soldiers of Africa, it's not going to be okay.

SEE ALSO: www.invisiblechildren.com
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/invisiblechildren

--
Zack Hall
No biographical information is currently available.

See other articles by Zack Hall.

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