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“I’ve Got This Camera”: Reflections on Activism and Unease

3 May 2010 No Comment

I recently walked out of a screening of the documentary Rebuilding Hope and rashly declared that I was moving to Sudan. The film had reinforced my awareness of the disparity between my comfortable existence in the United States and the injustices in Sudan and, in that moment, the only thing I could think was: I need to do something.

Rebuilding Hope

The morning after watching Rebuilding Hope I had the opportunity to talk with the film’s director, Jen Marlowe. By then I was less determined to move to Sudan (after all, I have nothing miraculous to offer this war-torn nation) and instead ready to confront the uncomfortable emotions the film had unearthed in me.

Rebuilding Hope follows three Sudanese “Lost Boys” – Gabriel Bol, Koor, and Garang – as they journey from the US to Sudan to find their surviving family members after fleeing 20 years ago. The longing in their voices and sadness in their eyes as each of them talked about their families resonated in me. The sense of inadequacy these three young men struggled with as they tried to help rebuild their communities moved me to tears. Koor journeyed to his village with a truckload of donated medical supplies, a newly acquired nursing degree, and unwavering determination to improve a clinic that had no water or electricity and provided the only healthcare within a five- day walk. The medical supplies and his nursing capabilities fell short in the face of the measles, meningitis, and hunger that were ravaging his community. I, however, have no doubt that his determination will eventually win out. (Learn more about his ongoing efforts here.)

The film is a moving portrayal of the strength, sadness, and humor that resides in individuals and communities impacted by war in Southern Sudan, and as Jen explained, “I hope people leave the film feeling uncomfortable. And that a few of them will then question why they were feeling uncomfortable and question what they want to do about that.”

Photo credit: David Morse

Jen’s own life and career exemplify what it looks like when one person chooses to question what is happening in the world and act to change it. Before her work in South Sudan on Rebuilding Hope, Jen traveled to Northern Darfur and Eastern Chad to make the documentary film Darfur Diaries: Message from Home and write the accompanying book Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. She also spent several years in Jerusalem implementing conflict transformation programs for Israeli and Palestinian youth.

The path to peace and justice is different in each of these locations, however for Jen one thing is the same. “I think all of it is about investing in people and relationships. Because when you are talking human rights, social justice – whatever kind of lofty terms you want to use – what it comes down to is human beings.”

Whether Jen is talking about her early work in children’s theatre in Seattle, the video dialogue projects she facilitated in Israel and Palestine, or the book she is currently working on with the sister of Troy Davis, who has spent nearly 20 years on death row in the state of Georgia despite strong evidence of innocence, her compassion and commitment to individual human dignity radiates. As does an uncompromising insistence that we challenge the larger structures that reinforce injustice.

“We have to simultaneously work on the power structures in the world that allow these injustices. There are people in the world who are benefiting from what is happening. I am talking in the bigger global sense but I definitely feel that we have to work on all of that together.  And I hope that what I do is a piece of that.”

Gabriel Bol started an NGO, Hope for Ariang, to bring primary education to his village.

As inspired as I am by Jen’s impassioned commitment to justice, I also find her heartfelt reflection on the complex issues, difficult questions, and challenging emotions refreshing. There are no easy answers, but Jen doesn’t let this absolve her from the need to act. She shared with me, “I realize that people are looking to me as someone who is going to be able to provide some kind of concrete, material assistance and in a situation where there is the lack of the most basic needs and large-scale atrocities, whether in Sudan or in Gaza, and all I can say is ‘I’ve got this camera…’ I often feel extremely inadequate … I think of myself as a human rights activist and film and writing are the tools I have been using.”

A few weeks ago my colleague at Peace X Peace, Molly, wrote about how water is one of the critical underlying issues affecting Sudan and, as she so articulately put it, “saving water and natural resources in one location can mean saving lives in another.” My encounter with Jen and her film Rebuilding Hope has motivated me to reflect more seriously on changes I can make in my own life here in the US. Taking shorter showers is the least any of us can do for Gabriel Bol, Koor, Garang, and their families and communities in Southern Sudan.

Read more from my conversation with Jen. You’ll be inspired …

Why is this the situation in South Sudan?

How do you counter the sense of inadequacy you feel when filming in places like Southern Sudan?

It’s hard… but I also recognize that even if I came with cartons and cartons of medical supplies and food and clothing it still is not going to be adequate because underlying all these problems are problems of structural injustice. It feels really good when I’ve been able to come back and people have seen that a school is starting to be built … because I think a lot of times they experience journalists coming in with empty promises and then they never see that person again. It is important to me not to engage in ‘hit and run activism.’ In making this film, people in the community agreed to expose themselves and I have a responsibility to them. The progress might be slow but it’s a sustained, long-term commitment. I think that means something to people. I think when people realize that they and their struggles are truly important to you, then there is a lot more forgiveness for the fact that I’m not able to come and make everything better right then. But it is definitely difficult. The sense of inadequacy is definitely something I struggle with.

What do you hope people will walk away from Rebuilding Hope with?

Hmm… I always have a hard time boiling things down into the nutshell … A lot of different things. Specifically with this project we obviously hope that people will see the film and want to get involved in supporting these three young men and their projects. That is one of the concrete goals. But it is also a lot bigger than that. One of the most important things for me is if  people leave and they are asking themselves about their role in the world. Both in terms of ‘how can I get involved’ but also some of the larger questions of ‘How and why is this the situation in South Sudan? And what is my role in that? What is my responsibility?’

I don’t want to lead towards spoon-fed activism where I tell people ‘Here is exactly what to ask yourself and here is exactly what to do and here is the petition to sign.’ I think the risk with that is that fewer people will engage in deeper reflection. When you make it easy more people will follow the path but at the same time it leads to people absolving themselves rather than fully engaging in the much more difficult questions.

Rebuilding Hope

Many people assert that the media portrayal of both Sudan and Israel-Palestine is biased. Do you think the media has a responsibility to better educate the public?

If we keep going in this direction I’ll talk about my advocacy for worldwide revolution (laughs) … We talk about how we have a free press in this country but we don’t. We have a corporate media in the United States. And I believe that means that corporations are controlling the messages we get and how those messages are framed. And I believe that quite intentionally there are efforts to keep us numb. I don’t think it is accidental. And I think part of the reason is this: In whose corporate interest would it be if there were millions of outraged citizens really shaking things up? They would like us to go to the mall and shop. Our media, in large part, is about wanting to keep people passive and trying to keep people good consumers.  We need to change the system where information is a business.

And when actual major world issues are covered they never show multi-dimensional human stories. If anything, people are usually relegated to sound bites in their own stories. Yes, Darfur did begin to get covered after a lot of advocacy, but the people of Darfur were still very marginalized in that coverage. Maybe you would have the 20-second sound bite of a woman in a refugee camp in the midst of a 10-minute piece that was all focused on people from the UN, international experts, talking head analysts. So when people get covered, they are covered as Victims with a capital V, as if that is their whole identity. That is a different form of dehumanization. You see the streaming column of suffering refugees and you’re not identifying with those people as individual humans with dignity.

In both Darfur Diaries and Rebuilding Hope it was really important to us to show moments of humor, to show people laughing, to show people celebrating. Those are the moments when you think, “that woman reminds me of my grandmother” or “that could be my little brother.” Those are the moments when people are fully three-dimensional human beings and not just poor helpless victims eliciting our sympathy and our pity.

Do you ever reach the point when you feel like you don’t have the resources internally to keep doing this kind of work?

I’ve come close to that point a few times. I’ve always bounced back, but I’ve definitely reached the edge of that a few times. When my Palestinian friend Sami spent 10 years in prison, he read for those 10 years.  There are periods of time when I think: I am going to get through these projects that I have on my plate and then I need to figure out a way to isolate myself for two or three years—and bring Sami’s reading list with me!!  The only way I am going to stop human rights activism is if someone forces me to.

* * *

What are you willing to do?

There are plenty of ways we can all make change. Let’s think of them!

If you’re a theatre artist or activist anywhere in the world, Jen’s got a project for you. This October marks the 10-year anniversary of what Palestinians inside Israel refer to as “Black October,” when 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli security forces. One of those killed was a 17-year-old boy named Asel Asleh. Asel had been a participant in Seeds of Peace, and had spent the last three years of his life dedicated to peaceful dialogue and reconciliation. He was wearing his Seeds of Peace t-shirt at the time of his killing and was buried in it. Jen has written a play, There Is a Field, about Asel’s life and his death, through the perspective of his older sister Nardin. Throughout the month of October, she is inviting theatre companies, theatre artists, and activists worldwide to take on the script as a platform for awareness and discussion. What do you think – will you host a living room reading of There Is a Field?

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