- Projecting Hope and Making Reel Change in Africa
Much of what stands in the way of human rights advocacy and the achievement of social change is apathy, lack of awareness, and loss of hope. This is particularly problematic in the context of the African continent where the mainstream media has perpetrated and reinforced negative stereotypes. According to the research of Brian Endless and Peter Schraeder on the New York Times portrayal of Africa, the media has a tendency to focus on the bad, the shocking, and the dramatic.
A common conclusion of this literature is that Americans maintain what can be called a National Geographic image of their African counterparts. The mention of Africa typically conjures up stereotypical images of lush jungles and wild animals, poverty and famine, corruption and "tribal" warfare, and deadly diseases, such as the Ebola and AIDS viruses. These stereotypical images are further reinforced by the nature of media reporting, which, when it does focus on Africa, usually concentrates on the sensationalist and often negative aspects of the continent.1 [End Page 827]
Africa is unjustly defined and framed as primitive, backward, and a lost cause. By constantly portraying and characterizing Africa as a distant place plagued by chaos, poverty, disease and war, Africa's successes and stories of hope are over-shadowed and forgotten. What is left is a disjointed, pessimistic, inadequate, and sporadic coverage that leaves the public feeling numb. Fortunately, that doesn't have to be the case.
There are a growing number of institutions, filmmakers, and activists who are beginning to recognize the potential of film for promoting human rights and instigating social change.2 According to Dr. Reinaldo Spech, Co-Director of the African Diaspora Film Festival and President of ArtMattan Productions, "films are agents of change as they inform people which is an important component of reflection and understanding."3 Film has the ability to put a human face and a human experience to the statistics, creating a connection and framework for empathy that is conducive to mobilization. Ted Braun, Director of the film Darfur Now, echoed this sentiment in a recent Newsweek interview.
Cinema reaches the most people and has the most lasting effect when it engages people in the humanity of others, allowing them to share in their dreams and hopes. . . . Documentaries have for almost their entire tradition been used as part of activist agendas and agents of social change. While I wanted to help provoke a change in the world's attention to the Darfur situation, my agenda as a filmmaker was to invite my audiences to understand and experience my subjects as human beings first. Once I decided I was outraged by indifference and wanted to make an audience share that and respond to it, my principal purpose was humanist.4
In addition, film has the ability to carry seemingly distant human rights issues close to home and to emphasize that all actors within the global community play a role in the protection of human rights. By sensitively raising the awareness of the international community to human rights problems facing much of Africa, films can help destigmatize the image of the region. Film's ability to galvanize support from a variety of actors and to put external pressure on countries to adopt positive reforms implies that this medium will be an increasingly important human rights advocacy tool.
II. The Potential of Film as a Vehicle for Social Change
A. Changing Times, Changing Methods
Film has become an important tool for social justice and human rights campaigns because of the nature of film itself; it is compelling, it gives the appearance of immediacy and authenticity and it elicits an emotive response that spurs action. But all of this would be inconsequential were it not for two recent developments: the ease of making a film and the multiple platforms for mass distribution. [End Page 828]
Human rights abuses and social injustices have always existed, what has not always existed is the technology that makes disseminating information on these abuses particularly effective and easy. Today, "we are standing at a frontier that promises a world where positive social change is increasingly possible as technology...